Online News Service Is eBay Founder's Next Bid

As newspapers suffer from hard times, local news in Honolulu has gotten a boost from eBay founder and Hawaii resident Pierre Omidyar. He is using a part of his personal fortune to start Civil Beat, a subscription online news service. Omidyar is betting that people will pay $19.99 a month to read news and participate in conversations online.

The newspaper industry is not doing very well in general, and it appears Honolulu is about to become a one-newspaper town. The Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser will likely merge in the coming months. But residents now have another option for local news: the online news website Civil Beat.

Half a dozen reporters – some clutching their morning coffee – gather around Editor John Temple for their daily news meeting: "This week, just to be clear, I mean, articles and beat updates and then Twitter are our focus, not topic pages, and we'll work on that. So I think we should jump into beat updates."

Topic pages. Twitter. This isn't classic newspaper lingo. Then again, this is a newsroom starting in 2010. Civil Beat went live Wednesday and will officially launch May 4.

Temple has a long track record in print journalism, most recently at the Rocky Mountain News. But he also has extensive online experience.

"We're going to be sharing with the public what we're working on as we're working on it and the experience of working on it," Temple says.

Reporters will essentially keep blogs and send tweets as they pursue stories. They'll write regular news articles, but they'll also host online discussions of the beats they cover.

They'll also maintain topic pages, which will act as a living story -- continually updated. If you're interested in Honolulu's passenger rail project, for example, there's a page for that.

News veteran Katherine Nichols recently came on board from the Star-Bulletin, whose financial future is in jeopardy.

"I've been writing professionally here for 16 years," Nichols says. "I've been at just about every publication, and I've done TV, too, so I have a pretty wide range of experience. And yes, this is different, but that's the thrilling part for us."

Civil Beat is the brain child of billionaire eBay founder and Hawaii resident Pierre Omidyar. He says social networking is the backbone of his new venture.

"The website itself doesn't have any super fantastic technology that's revolutionary, that's going to do any crazy things that people haven't seen before," Omidyar says. "It's really about engaging with citizens, engaging with our friends and neighbors here in the community in a different way."

Omidyar won't say how much of his fortune he has sunk into Civil Beat, but he's betting Hawaii residents will pay $19.99 a month for the right to read news and participate in online conversations.

News websites aren't new, but most operations have yet to prove they can turn a profit.

Rick Edmonds, an analyst at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based training center for professional journalists, says larger operations like Civil Beat have struggled.

"On the other hand," Edmonds says, "having a committed patron with deep pockets, and potentially involving some of your audience as members, at least shows some potential."

Omidyar says,"If it's valuable, they'll pay, and if it's not valuable, they won't pay and we'll learn from the fact that they're not paying."

He says that's one of the most important lessons he learned from eBay, which turned a profit well before other dot-com phenoms.

Civil Beat is "a much simpler business model," Omidyar says. "All these other things, where you bring in advertisers or you incur a lot of debt, that's just far too complicated. I don't really understand that."

Omidyar says that for journalism to be successful, the basic business model needs to be profitable.

Despite spending countless hours of his own time writing code for the website, Omidyar says he won't let Civil Beat become a money pit. Copyright 2010 Hawaii Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.hawaiipublicradio.org/.

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