Editor’s note: We’re celebrating Civil Beat’s first 10 years with a “Conversation and Coffee” online forum on Tuesday. Join Editor Patti Epler, former editor John Temple and longtime Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair for a discussion of the old days and the new. RSVP here.

I’ve seen news organizations die and I’ve seen news organizations being born.

Believe me when I tell you that the latter is a whole lot better experience than the former, even though it too is not without pain.

I came to Honolulu in January 2010 after the Colorado newspaper where I was the editor, president and publisher was shuttered in the teeth of the Great Recession. That paper, the Rocky Mountain News, was weeks away from its 150th anniversary.

I felt so lucky to have a second chance when I was given the opportunity to start something entirely new as the founding editor of Honolulu Civil Beat.

John Temple was the first editor of Honolulu Civil Beat. He’s shown here in the newsroom in September, 2011.

Civil Beat

Working with Pierre Omidyar and his co-founder, Randy Ching, we weren’t bound by the rules of the past. We were inventing something from scratch, something we hoped would help build a better future for Hawaii.

That meant we tried some things you may not even remember 10 years later.

Our reporters weren’t just reporters. We called them “reporter-hosts,” because we saw the site as a place for conversation. We saw our reporters as responsible for welcoming readers into what we called the civic square, for making them feel at home there, just as hosts do in other places. And we used the term because it indicated that being civil mattered. We wanted to demonstrate that at Civil Beat, readers’ voices counted.

Another major difference between Civil Beat and newspapers was that news articles weren’t going to be the core building block of our site. Instead, that was to be what we called topic pages. We identified major issues – such as one-party dominance and homelessness – and created living pages, similar to Wikipedia pages, to give readers context and background. Too often, we felt, readers of traditional publications were thrown into a story in mid-stream, making it too difficult to get their bearings. These topic pages were to be continually updated to make it easy for readers to stay current. They also, we hoped, meant that articles wouldn’t get bogged down with repetitive background information.

There were other things that set us apart. If you didn’t pay to subscribe, you were quite limited in what you could do on the site. This strategy was relatively new at the time. It was before The New York Times showed what was possible with digital subscriptions.

And we were a for-profit venture. Other news startups with a similar mission of serving their communities, such as the Voice of San Diego and Texas Tribune, were nonprofits.

Well, 10 years later, even though all of the original ideas I’ve listed have fallen by the wayside, I look on the site with pride. Maybe even because they’ve been dropped.

Today’s staff, led by my former deputy, Patti Epler, is operating with the same spirit we did 10 years ago. They’re still founders today.

That’s the way it should be. That’s the way we hoped it would be.

You start somewhere, where you think makes sense, and then you find your way.

In any new venture, you need to be able to let go of your ideas when experience shows you that there might be a better way.

They’ve done just that, while not letting go of Civil Beat’s original mission.

One way I know that is true is the bond they appear to have built with the community.

Ten years ago we were strangers to Hawaii. On every phone call, our reporter-hosts had to spend 10 minutes trying to explain what Civil Beat was before they could interview anyone. It was exhausting.

You start somewhere, where you think makes sense, and then you find your way.

Even our journalism colleagues in other news organizations had their reservations. Would we be in business after a year? And even if we were, would we be doing the kind of journalism they’d be willing to be associated with?

Today, a quick glance at the site’s “Our Supporters” page is a sign of how different things have become, how individuals, businesses and foundations have embraced Civil Beat.

On the wall of my study in my home in San Francisco I have a framed copy of our first home page.

Let’s just say it’s a whole lot more modest than the current home page. For the first edition, we had all of three stories. Their topics might seem familiar: Rail, Taxes and Homelessness.

The site today is so much more vibrant, but it still feels grounded in the same mission: to reflect the heartbeat of the community, to be its pulse.

I couldn’t feel prouder of what today’s founders have accomplished.

Sometimes, as the lyric goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

I think many in Denver might say that about the loss of the Rocky Mountain News.

That’s why I’m glad that Civil Beat is still busy being born.

Before you go . . .

Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.

The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.

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