From the day that Pierre Omidyar announced plans for a digital news organization in Honolulu, I have been intrigued by the project. Here was one of the most successful digital entrepreneurs, venturing into the local news field, where print-focused businesses were mostly failing dismally.
But it wasn’t just any digital entrepreneur. Omidyar was the founder of eBay. When I explained the direct sales aspect of my Complete Community Connection business model, I cited eBay as an example of the businesses that pioneered direct digital sales, while the newspaper business was stuck in its advertising model. I made the same point in discussing newspapers’ “original sin” of the Internet age and in discussing the future of freedom of the press. I thought Omidyar had as good a chance to figure out the business model for local news as anyone. I applied to be editor of his new project, then called Peer News. (I ended up at TBD and John Temple became Omidyar’s editor. But I continued watching closely, and when John made his first hires of “reporter hosts,” I changed the titles for the community managers we were planning and called them community hosts instead.)
When Civil Beat (it changed names when it launched) debuted earlier this year, I was stunned and disappointed to see that it had a paywall. To get access to the full content, members have to pay $19.99 a month. I believe strongly (and have written perhaps too many times) that news organizations that charge for most of their online content are foolish. The prosperous future for digital local news, I believe, lies in assembling a large audience through content that is free or mostly free, and helping businesses connect with that audience in more meaningful ways than traditional advertising — with targeted ads and with opportunities to buy products, services, gift certificates and discounts directly from local businesses. I see the local news organization providing a digital marketplace for local businesses. Who better to develop that model, I thought, than the guy who owns PayPal? I was amazed to see Omidyar was using PayPal only to charge for content.
But, however arrogant and inflexible I might sometimes appear, I had to admit that Omidyar might be a bit smarter than me about digital business. Or even a lot smarter. He didn’t make his billions by misunderstanding the digital marketplace. I decided to watch, rather than blogging my dismay at the debut, though I did post at least one puzzled tweet.
But watching Civil Beat’s progress would require me to pay 20 bucks a month. And I don’t care that much about Honolulu news. Even so, I thought I should pay for a month or two sometime because we could learn some valuable lessons for TBD by watching their successes and mistakes in Honolulu. But I was busy enough in our own launch that I didn’t pay right away.
A couple weeks ago, another leading digital thinker, Jay Rosen, visited us at TBD. In a discussion with the community engagement staff, he noted that Omidyar was also offering two cheaper membership levels: $1.49 to get most of the content for a day or 99 cents a month to be a “discussion member,” with access only to summaries of articles, but full access to discussions, including the ability to comment. With just a 99-cent charge, Jay noted, Omidyar had solved the issue of verifying identification of people commenting in discussions at Civil Beat.
Civility (that name was chosen deliberately) of online discussions is one of the most vexing issues facing news organizations. We want the robust discussion of news and issues in the community. But the anonymity that has developed in online commenting brings out an ugly side of human nature, and many online discussions quickly descend into ugly name-calling. Newspapers that verify identity of writers of letters to the editor that appear in print allow anonymous comments on their web sites, and editors lament that they can’t spend the staff time to verify identification of online commenters. But if you have to use a credit card to pay 99 cents, PayPal verifies the identity.
As a result, Mark Potts noted to me a few weeks ago and on his blog, discussions on Civil Beat are amazingly (come on, you could see this coming) civil. Mark noted a discussion about same-sex civil-union legislation that was robust, with strong opinions on both sides, each with a full real name attached, but none of the ugliness on both sides that often characterizes anonymous discussion of the same issue in other forums.
I should add that Temple’s hosts are really hosts. Chad Blair, host of the civil-union discussion, comments regularly, addressing questions and remarks from other participants. Even in anonymous discussions, actual engagement by the journalist usually tends to elevate the level of discourse. Civil Beat has both engagement and identification going for it.
Well, on my ride to work this morning, I saw a tweet from Omidyar, saying that Civil Beat access was free today, celebrating its one-month anniversary.
So I took my first extended peek behind the paywall. My first impressions:
- So far, Civil Beat doesn’t appear to have any advertising. I couldn’t find any. I am amazed that a digital entrepreneur such as Omidyar would not be developing direct sales opportunities and creative ways for businesses to advertise. I wonder if that will come soon.
- I wonder if the site will have enough content to sustain membership (especially if membership fees are the only revenue stream). I didn’t see more than 10 new articles in a single day. Days with four to six articles are more common (four today on the free day). The staff has selected specific public issues to cover, but is not trying to cover the full range of community life (I didn’t see coverage of sports, entertainment, weather or crime, for instance).
- The quality of writing and depth of reporting appeared strong in the stories I read. This site is all about substance as well as civility.
- I love the topic pages, which provide great context for running coverage of important issues.
- The content is nearly all text. A few articles have photographs with them, but none of today’s four entries had video content or interactive databases or graphics, the kind of content that takes full advantage of digital technology to provide a rich user experience.
- While the discussions are outstanding, the site doesn’t do much beyond discussion to engage the community. However, the “beatups,” public events with staff and civic leaders addressing issues, sound like a great idea for meaningful community engagement.
- The staff appears to be using Twitter effectively, with strong promotion of a #becivil hashtag.
- Breaking news does not appear to be a priority, at least not beyond developments in those public issues. But I should add that I might get a different impression on a newsier day. However, the log of all content appears almost exclusively examination of issues and daily developments on those issues, rather than breaking news.
- The staff is small (and thus the operating costs may be low). Perhaps the narrow scope of issues covered and the membership revenue stream will match up well.
I’m sure that, like TBD, Civil Beat didn’t roll out all its plans immediately. Any news launch these days is a work in progress. Civil Beat will build on its successes and learn from its mistakes, just as we will. And they no doubt decided to launch before they could develop all their plans. I like what I see. Where I am puzzled or inclined to disagree, I am also intrigued and open to learn from their successes.
This is an important, innovative development in digital journalism. Take a look today, while it’s free.
FYI, I will invite Omidyar and Temple to comment here. I hope they do.