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When City Paper editor Alexa Mills was on the Kojo NnamdiShow to talk about the sale of City Paper—a process that remains ongoing—and the future of news in the D.C. area, a listener called in to say that the Honolulu Civil Beat was a newspaper to look at.
Ever loyal to our readers, and ever eager for an excuse to publish a picture of a beach on our site, we got on the phone with Civil Beat editor Patti Epler.
Pierre Omidyar—the billionaire founder of eBay— founded the Honolulu Civil Beat in May of 2010. In 2013 he launched national investigative outlet The Intercept through his company First Look Media.
The Honolulu Civil Beat operated for six years under a for-profit model before transitioning into a nonprofit organization. “Civil Beat was [Omidyar’s] first foray into the news business,” says Epler. “They were convinced that they were able to find a business model that would make investigative journalism financially viable.”
That business model centered on subscriptions at $19.99 a month. “We got a few hundred subscribers, but nothing really earth shattering,” Epler says.
After a few years, the Civil Beat found that their for-profit model wasn’t bringing in the type of funds they were hoping for. “We’ve always been much more of a mission-operated operation as opposed to a retail-based paper,” Epler says, emphasizing that as a for-profit publication, they didn’t sell advertisements.
“Becoming a nonprofit underscores our mission to educate and engage the community on important issues,” Epler wrote in an editorial announcing the Civil Beat’s transition to a nonprofit. “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.”
As the Civil Beat team waited for the IRS to approve their nonprofit status, they found a fiscal sponsor in the Institute for Nonprofit News, a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit newsrooms across the country. Their paywall came down and all of their subscribers immediately became “founding members.”
Epler, who started working at the Civil Beat in 2011 and became editor in 2012, says they “hired a really great director of philanthropy” to launch the fundraising arm of the Civil Beat, and in their first year “exceeded all expectations, all projections for revenue.”
Of course, it helped that Omidyar continued to stay on with the publication as its publisher and serves on its board of directors (and still contributes to it financially).
Today, the Civil Beat has an annual budget of roughly $3 million and a staff of about 22 to 24 people. That tally includes both business and reporting staff. Their funding comes from a combination of member donations, various grants, and the charitable foundations of big institutions, like banks and developers, which Epler says “helps to fund a lot of stories.” Because the thought of banks and developers funding beats and stories might make readers cry “conflict of interest!” the Civil Beatmakes it clear on its website that the outlet has “fully adopted the set of guiding principles published by the American Press Institute recommending safeguards for ensuring ethical journalism funding and editorial independence.”
Epler adds that “the community has really rallied around the idea of a nonprofit publication.” In fact, the community support for the Civil Beat has been so strong, Epler says that their newsroom has been developing new ideas for how they can better serve their community.
“The other thing I’ve started stressing lately is that we need to be a better community partner,” she says. “If the community is going to support us, what else can we do to support them besides writing and publishing articles?”
This has resulted in a series of Shark Tank-like community forums tied to some of their investigative reporting. The events connect residents in the community who are inspired by the Civil Beat’s reporting. In addition, Epler says the Civil Beat‘s ongoing reporting on the high rate of tourist deaths in Hawaii led government and tourism officials to step up their efforts in warning tourists of the dangers at some public beaches, and that the Civil Beat‘s award-winning “Dying For Vacation” series caught the attention of a “national tech and telecom company that wants to develop an app that would link to the series and highlight common problems people may not be aware of when they arrive in the islands.” That’s the kind of community impact Epler says her newsroom aims to accomplish with their reporting efforts.
“The community has embraced us to the extent that we realized we should try and do more to give back,” she adds.