Hawaii Media and Some Initial Thoughts on CivilBeat

Some very quick thoughts on CivilBeat and the state of media in Hawaii….

This morning Twitter is abuzz with new details about Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar’s new news site in Hawaii, CivilBeat. The AP has a good write up of project (http://bit.ly/aPhU1K), which outlines some of the unique ways Omidyar and John Temple (formerly of the Rocky Mountain News) plan to structure the site, engage community, and rethink journalism. There is some interesting ideas there, but the one that has gotten the most attention amongst journalism pundits (like me) is the news that the site will cost readers $19.99 a month.

As people assess what this means and how this may or may not work, it’s important to understand the unique news ecosystem that Omidar’s CivilBeat is moving into. Here are a few key issues at play in Hawaii.

Consolidation has drastically reduced the number of voices and viewpoints in the media in Hawaii:

Over the past year, local television broadcasters have been quietly pooling their resources, and in some cases, completely merging news staff and operations. Most recently, in Honolulu, the CBS, NBC and MyNetwork affiliates announced that they will combine the staff and newsrooms of three local television stations to create the “largest television news operations” in Hawaii. The consolidated operation will be controlled by one company – Raycom Media. Read More: http://bit.ly/3QJrmV and http://bit.ly/zg7Kj and http://bit.ly/6cM67Q

Further consolidation in the newspaper industry is on the horizon:

It looks as though the Honolulu Star-Bulletin will be merging with competitor The Honolulu Advertiser, which local media is reporting will lead to more layoffs and less local news. Read more: http://bit.ly/cToJgh and http://bit.ly/bFVg2l and http://bit.ly/9DC7Hc

Whose news:

My initial thought when I heard about the monthly subscription cost was not “will this work?” but rather “who is this supposed to serve?” How much of the local population will be priced out of such a subscription cost? Could there have been a sliding scale or a free and premium version of the site. With so much of Hawaii media in crisis all local citizens need the energy, passion and skills that Omidyar has compiled at CivilBeat, but not everyone will have access to them.

In the AP article and first posts on the CivilBeat site Omidyar and Temple put a lot of emphasis on building a community. In the article, Omidyar said “he’s hoping to encourage a ‘higher level of conversation.'” But a local journalism prof put it another way: “They want all these high-end people that would gravitate toward a newspaper, but want to filter out all the crazies. The filtering mechanism would be, you pay to play.”

The Knight Commission and other reports have pointed out the growing information divide in America. This project may find the right audience to make itself sustainable, but when I hear Omidyar say “Journalism plays a central role in the way democracy works, especially in this country. And our democracy doesn’t work when journalism doesn’t work.” I have to wonder if democracy can work when journalism only works for those who can pay 20 dollars a month.

These are just some very quick initial thoughts on this issue – I need to read more and talk to more of the folks involved, but these are some of the questions I will be asking. I would love to hear your thoughts…

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