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It would only last a year, I figured. That’s how long the founders of Honolulu Civil Beat asked their first crop of reporter hires to commit to.
But a year turned into two, Civil Beat went from a for-profit based on subscriptions to a nonprofit based on donations, and now it’s 10 years and counting and CB is an integral part of the local media landscape.
How did that happen? And how did I make it?
Before I get to that, I should disclose that I intended to write this column in late March, which officially marked my start date — specifically, 032910, which is the way I and the five other reporters who started with me referred to it for reasons I cannot disclose.
The pandemic soon changed everything, however, and it didn’t seem right to write about a job I still have when so many others are losing theirs.
But a reunion this past Sunday over Zoom with more than a dozen current and former Civil Beat staff prompted me to record my thoughts while things are still fresh.
This is not a comprehensive telling; that would take too long. This is only through my lens; I would not presume to wear someone else’s. And I am not going to dish dirt; I would lose my job.
But I’d like to share a few experiences and observations from that very first year in business that — in the present day —seems a very long time ago.
May 4, 2010, is not the actual start date of Civil Beat.
A soft opening happened on April 20, when founding editor John Temple wrote a piece that said in part, “Civil Beat was founded on the idea that everyone has something to contribute, and that civil discourse is essential to a healthy democracy. So what better way to show that than to invite you in and start talking — before we begin delivering the news?”
That’s still true today. But May 4 was, as Civil Beat’s then president Randy Ching wrote in his own piece that day, the website’s “first edition” or hard opening.
It’s fitting, somehow, that May 4 also marks the celebration of the Star Wars franchise and the anniversaries of the Kent State shootings, the day Al Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion, the day Mahatma Gandhi was taken into British custody for having started India’s civil disobedience campaign, and the day Margaret Thatcher moved into No. 10 Downing Street.
Meanwhile, April 20 marks Adolf Hitler’s birthday, the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the start of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Columbine High School massacre, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the police code for “marijuana smoking in progress” (4/20).
Geeks. Crime. Peace. Politics. Fascism. Identity. Resistance. Guns. Environment. Pot. That is soooo Civil Beat.
On April 21 in our first year I wrote my first piece, and it was in the first person. I identified two key beats of interest to myself: the one-party dominance of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, and the growing problem of homelessness. How little has changed, eh?
Around that same month we also started allowing comments for articles, and for reporters and editors to respond to them. Indeed, the original title for reporters like myself was “reporter-host,” which I always joked meant that we were spawned from alien pods.
What the title suggested was that reporters would go beyond merely filing a story and remaining faceless behind a byline. Rather, we would interact directly and often with our readers. That continues, although thankfully we dropped the “host” tag.
It also meant that reporters and editors were more than just on the editorial side of the news site. They were often recruited to pitch the product itself.
Check out our first promotional video:
Lesson No. 1 from Year One: Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to try new things, or to give them up when they no longer work.
And have a little fun … even though you are working your ass off on an unproven internet startup for inadequate compensation.
In the early days few knew who or what Civil Beat was. When we made calls for interviews, reporters would repeatedly have to explain that we were a new online news site founded by our publisher, Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay (everybody knew what eBay was).
I sensed from some in the community the desire to see us fail. That was due in part because we came off as rather cocky — the new kid on the block who’s going to shake things up and set things right.
It did not help that many of the staff were from the mainland, which only added to more suspicion of our intentions.
And then two things happened to change that perception.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser became the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and erected a pay wall. Suddenly it was a one-newspaper town (and one owned by a Canadian, I might add, who later gobbled up several other Hawaii publications).
The other change came when we published our first database of public employee salaries. While some readers expressed distaste that we would make such information public — even though it was public information and public money — many, many more searched the database.
Like pornography and car accidents, people just have to look, it seems.
So, Lesson No. 2 from Year One: Expect the unexpected, and emphasize transparency in government — even if some people are going to think you are an asshole.
Within a short time that first year, reporters were filing public records requests at a record pace, upsetting bureaucracies that weren’t used to it but leading to story after story that broke a lot of important ground.
I did not know it at the time, but in 2010 Civil Beat was already becoming something far more important — and interesting — than I think even Pierre, Randy, John and founding assistant editor Sara Lin might have envisioned.
Today, the words I hear more than any other — when I encounter someone who recognizes that I work for Civil Beat — is “thank you” as in “thank you for the work that you do.”
The compliment is directed at the entire operation, not me. And it makes me appreciate that I am part of something bigger.
Which leads me to No. 3 Lesson from Year One: hire really, really good people, and pay them for it. A publication is only as good as the people who put it together.
If you think about the biggest issues confronting Hawaii over the past 10 years — Honolulu rail, Mauna Kea, the Kealohas, climate change, government accountability and cost of living, to name just six — these are areas where Civil Beat has excelled.
These days, from where I sit now — at Pierre’s old desk in our offices on Waialae Avenue — I am usually the only person in the office. Most everybody is working from home because of the coronavirus. Civil Beat has become a seven-day a week publication.
Once this crisis passes, we will find a way to formally celebrate our 10th anniversary … probably wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart. There will be libations, laughs and tears, I am sure.
And then we will get back to work.
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