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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Honolulu Civil Beat makes online debut

BY Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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What: EBay founder launches local online news venture

Name: Honolulu Civil Beat

Website: www.civilbeat.com

Cost: $19.99 per month

When: Soft launch today; full start on May 4

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EBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar's new online news service goes live today with a new name, a subscription plan and about a dozen employees.

But beyond that, Honolulu Civil Beat bares little resemblance to a traditional news outlet.

Its sparsely furnished offices in Kaimukī which feature beanbag chairs and checkered floors has the look of a high-tech startup.

"We don't have any desktop computers. ... We have one printer, we don't have a fax machine and there's no (desk) telephones," said Civil Beat Editor John Temple, former president and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. "It's all wireless."

Unlike the traditional news format, Civil Beat www.civilbeat.com has no separate sections for news, editorials, sports, features and business.

Journalists are reporter-hosts armed with the latest in high-tech gadgetry. They not only write news stories but take part in lengthy discussions with subscribers on major issues such as money, education and land.

Advertising revenue isn't part of the business model, although that could change as the site grows.

Readers are invited to take part in online forums to voice their opinions, but unlike most newspaper websites, anonymous comments will not be allowed.

"We believe that people need to 'show their face' and be accountable for what they say," the company said in a news release.

The reporting will be directed in part by the website's members.

"Our reporter-hosts will engage in dialogue with members to find out what issues they are most interested in and relevant to them before researching and writing articles for the site," the company said.

Some of the content will be provided to readers for free. But other content, along with the ability to post comments, will be provided only to paying subscribers.

Membership will be $19.99 a month, except for a $4.99 one-month introductory offer to subscribers who sign up between today and May 4.

"Is the content and the reporter-hosts so enticing to you that you would pay the $20 a month to engage in this conversation? Newspapers have found that it's very difficult to get people to pay for anything online," said Gerald Kato, journalism professor at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa.

Honolulu Civil Beat will compete with several free local news websites, including honoluluadvertiser.com, starbulletin.com and hawaii reporter.com. Those sites offer readers content for free and sell advertising.

The Civil Beat's monthly subscription rate is higher than the Wall Street Journal's online subscription of $1.99 per week.

Temple and Omidyar are betting that subscribers will be willing to pay for the ability to interact online with reporters and other readers in a "civic square."

"Civil Beat hopes to reflect the heartbeat of the community and to be its pulse," the company said in its statement.

To avoid raising expectations too high for today's "soft launch" of the website, Temple noted that the content and the functionality will expand with time.

"We're launching something that's new, but it's not like we have to make everything (at once). It's not like we're trying to launch a battleship," he said. "It's like we're a bird that's coming out of its egg. We're going to start to fly, but that is going to happen over time."