Birthdays always get you thinking about the future.
Civil Beat just turned 6 years old. And we’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ve grown, and how we can continue to evolve in the next six years and beyond.
One thing we’ve learned: As journalists, we can make a difference. We’ve shown that thoughtful explanatory and investigative reporting often sparks more robust community debate on important policy issues. Our findings are regularly cited by key political and civic leaders. More and more, our work is showing up in reports and studies and even being written into legislation as the basis for reform efforts.
We want our impact to continue — and to grow. That means we need to expand our reach, so that more people in Hawaii can have access to the information they need to make good, informed choices on public policy and social issues.
And that means — drumroll, please — we’ve taken down our paywall. You no longer need a subscription to read every single story, past and present, on Civil Beat.
Along with that, we have transitioned to a nonprofit organization. Our application is pending with the IRS. And in the meantime, we have joined the Institute for Nonprofit News, a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit newsrooms across the U.S., including the Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, the Center for Public Integrity and many, many others.
We’re also switching to a membership model, very similar to that used by other public media outlets. INN is acting as our fiscal sponsor so that, effective immediately, all contributions to Civil Beat are tax deductible.
Obviously, we hope that those of you who are supporting us through a monthly subscription will continue on as founding members. You can continue your ongoing donations as sustaining members. (Read more about our new membership program here.)
Becoming a nonprofit underscores our mission to educate and engage the community on important issues. We’ve always followed a mission strategy, as opposed to the retail strategy used by most other news operations in Hawaii. We’ve never sold advertising.
In fact, as we’ve grown over the past six years. it has become obvious that our particular role in the current media landscape is to offer solutions-oriented, explanatory and investigative journalism. No other media outlet in Hawaii gives public policy issues the attention that we do.
Becoming a nonprofit underscores our mission to educate and engage the community on important issues.
We have always been, and we will remain, nonpartisan. Our editorial board will continue to take a stance on state and local issues; but we’ve never endorsed political candidates and that won’t change. We’ll continue to lead the discussion on issues Hawaii needs to debate.
We’re often told by readers and political leaders that Civil Beat has helped to raise the quality and standards of local journalism. We certainly agree with that, and we see it more and more. We are gratified to see other media outlets following Civil Beat’s lead on issues such as Hawaii’s high cost of living, police accountability, homelessness and housing, and ethics and public records concerns.
A few high points from our first six years:
• Civil Beat has been named the Best News Site in Hawaii by the Society of Professional Journalists every year since we launched in 2010. We have won a number of national and regional journalism awards along with dozens of local press club awards.
• In 2013, we investigated police misconduct in Hawaii and ultimately brought legal action that resulted in a court ruling requiring police to disclose disciplinary records. The police union appealed; we’re awaiting a decision from the Hawaii Supreme Court. Many of the police-reform efforts in the Legislature the last three years stem from this investigative work.
• Last year, we went to court again. We succeeded in obtaining the financial disclosure records of public officials who had been reluctant to release them, despite the Legislature’s unanimous approval of a law to require public disclosure. We also went a step further and built a special searchable database that is available to anyone who wants to check on potential conflicts of interest by officials who are making critical decisions.
• For the past three years, Civil Beat has reported extensively on Hawaii’s high cost of living and what might be done to bring it down. It’s an issue that reaches across all communities, all political leanings and all economic groups here, except, perhaps, the most wealthy.
• Last year we sent a reporter and photographer to Micronesia and then to several communities on the mainland for a series on how a poor economy, lack of health care, the after effects of nuclear testing and climate change are driving tens of thousands of Micronesians to leave their home islands for the U.S. We called it “The Untold Story of American Immigration” and it was — until we took it on as an issue.
• Many newsrooms in Hawaii, including ours, now provide significant coverage of homelessness, one of the hardest problems for any community to solve. But Civil Beat is the only Hawaii media outlet to offer a much deeper look at the homeless themselves, through the eyes of a unique encampment of homeless people in Waianae called The Harbor.
• From day one, Civil Beat has engaged and empowered people across Hawaii through our Community Voices section — an opportunity for all local residents to bring forward issues they feel are important. Unlike other media that publish op-eds, we’re not constrained by space; and we welcome new voices, not just the same old established commentators from a handful of business and civic organizations.
• Our live-event panel discussions — once known as “Beat Ups” — have grown into Civil Cafes that give people a chance to listen and ask questions of their political and community leaders up close. More recently, we’ve started Hawaii Storytellers, events that allow people to learn about their fellow islanders through the art of live storytelling.
Today, Civil Beat employs a staff of 14 full-time journalists — reporters, editors, photographers, multimedia and social media editors. In addition, we have a number of paid columnists, many of them longtime and well-known observers of life in our islands. Civil Beat also offers paid internships for young journalists studying at local universities (and we are about to expand our internship program, so stay tuned for news on that in a few weeks.)
We think we’ve done a lot with a little. And we want to continue to grow long into the future. Yes, we do have a major benefactor in our publisher, Pierre Omidyar; and it’s great that he got us started and will continue to support us.
But the strength of any nonprofit organization flows from the broad support of the community. We hope that more donors like you will embrace our mission — not because you have to in order to read our stories, but because you want to help us. So please join with us as a financial partner — small, medium or large — to help us evolve and grow well into the future.
You’ll also be seeing and hearing more about Civil Beat as part of a major marketing campaign we’re launching this week. That’s a first for us — in the past six years we’ve never advertised ourselves except through online and Facebook ads. Now we’re going a little more old-school with some fun and provocative ads, created by the Honolulu brand design agency Wall To Wall Studios, on television, in magazines and in more unexpected public places. If you’re ever at Ward Center, check out the bright red display on the mezzanine floor — a maze of spin you wind through to get to the truth in the middle.
We believe that news is a public asset and that journalism is part of what INN’s executive director, Sue Cross, calls “the civic framework.”
Nonprofit media often have more flexibility to serve the community than for-profit operations, she says, because they have more room to emphasize civic engagement over financial results.
Cross notes that in the nonprofit news world, people are much more willing to pivot in order to find new business models to pay for original, public-service journalism.
“It is experimental and iterative,” she says. “No one knows what mix is going to work.”
That certainly describes us.
Six years ago, we had no idea what would happen with our media startup. But startups are, by definition, places to experiment with new ideas. We’ve certainly done that, sometimes with success, sometimes not so much. We intend to keep trying.
We see this move to a free, nonprofit business model as another step in our evolution. It’s one that makes ultimate sense, given where we have come from and where we are going. Please join us.