‘They really set the bar’: How a shift in revenue model transformed Honolulu Civil Beat’s entire culture and approach
Written by: Katie Hawkins-Gaar
On any given week, in addition to reporting, editing, and investigating stories, the staff of Honolulu Civil Beat finds a variety of ways to connect with readers.
Take, for example, a 10-days stretch at the end of March and beginning of April 2022. On Wednesday, March 30, a group of readers gathered at a community bookstore in Honolulu to discuss a book of poetry and prose about living in contemporary Hawaii. The discussion, which was followed by a half hour of writing and sharing, was led by Honolulu Civil Beat’s digital producer, Kuʻu Kauanoe.
The following Monday, former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle joined Civil Beat’s politics and opinion editor, Chad Blair, for a virtual discussion about the Women’s Prison Project, a 31-member coalition pushing for a complete overhaul of Hawaii’s women’s prison system. Audience members were invited to chime in with questions and comments.
And on Friday, April 8, Maui residents had two opportunities to meet Honolulu Civil Beat reporters. That morning, over complimentary coffee and pastries, Maui reporter Marina Riker, along with other Civil Beat editors and staff, met with readers to hear what issues they’d like to see Civil Beat reporting about. Later that evening, Riker and her colleagues met with a different set of readers at pau hana, or happy hour, to enjoy complimentary pupu and conversation.
Hosting events and meeting readers is core to the work that Honolulu Civil Beat does. But the nonprofit news organization didn’t always operate this way. In May 2010, entrepreneurs Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching launched Civil Beat as a digital platform with a subscription paywall. In June 2016, in an effort to reach more people in Hawaii, Civil Beat removed its paywall and transitioned to 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
It was the start of a major cultural shift for the organization.
‘We’re not reaching enough people’
Like many local digital news startups, Civil Beat was created after co-founders Omidiyar and Ching identified gaps in news coverage and public information in Hawaii. “They wanted to make a difference,” said Ben Nishimoto, now Civil Beat’s vice president of operations and philanthropy.
From the start, Civil Beat produced standout watchdog and explanatory journalism. Unfortunately, their work, which was behind a metered paywall, wasn’t reaching as many readers as the founders hoped.
Nishimoto, who joined Civil Beat in 2016, said that during the news outlet’s first five years—from 2010 to 2015—”we didn’t have a large audience.” He explained that, “even though our journalism was up to par and making a difference, the for-profit paywall restricted our content.”
Plus, Nishimoto added, “we had a very transactional relationship with our readers. It wasn’t authentic.”
By 2015, Civil Beat’s leadership decided to look for a different approach. That’s when they called Mary Walter-Brown. As publisher and COO of Voice of San Diego—the first digital local nonprofit news organization in the U.S.—Walter-Brown was used to getting calls from peers in the industry to learn more about how Voice of San Diego’s membership model worked.
“It wasn’t just, ‘We’re not making enough money from our paywall.’ It was, ‘We’re not educating and reaching enough people because of our paywall.’ I thought their motivations were in the right place.”
Mary Walter-Brown, News Revenue Hub Founder and CEO
“When I fielded that call from Honolulu Civil Beat, they were really starting to consider how they could shift from a metered paywall to a more open and accessible business model for their journalism,” Walter-Brown recalled.
“They saw the impact they were making with their journalism locally and they just weren’t satisfied with the number of people who had access to it,” she added.
“I really felt like that was the right way to come to that conclusion,” Walter-Brown continued. “It wasn’t just, ‘We’re not making enough money from our paywall.’ It was, ‘We’re not educating and reaching enough people because of our paywall.’ I thought their motivations were in the right place.”
Civil Beat joins the Hub
In June 2016, Nishimoto joined Civil Beat as director of philanthropy. Plans were already underway to transition from a for-profit paywall to a nonprofit reader-supported newsroom.
A few months later, in November 2016, Walter-Brown left Voice of San Diego to create the News Revenue Hub, to help newsrooms build membership programs and produce reliable reader revenue.
Honolulu Civil Beat was among the Hub’s first clients—and Nishimoto was happy to be on board. “Right from the beginning, I was really impressed with News Revenue Hub’s tech stack,” he said, noting the Hub’s integration of Stripe, Salesforce, and Mailchimp.
“I really saw the potential to have that [technology] in place and scale our audience without necessarily having to scale staff, at least in the first couple of years,” he said.
Nishimoto added that Hub staff members “were great resources not just on the tech side, but the strategic side of things as well—to help us conceptualize how to generate revenue from building reader trust and how to do it the right way, at the right steps.”
Walter-Brown was impressed with how quickly and wholeheartedly the Civil Beat staff adapted to the idea of a reader-supported nonprofit model, which required making content available to everyone, as well as an external communications campaign and internal culture change.
The Hub recommended two big changes for Civil Beat: Creating a daily email product and hosting in-person events. Civil Beat took that advice, hired a newsletter writer, and enthusiastically created a daily newsletter.
“The Hub helped us along the way, and through email we’ve been able to cultivate readers to donors,” Nishimoto said. He added that their email list has grown from approximately 4,000 subscribers in 2017 to 42,000 readers today.
Civil Beat also started experimenting with in-person offerings. “Mary told us that, as national newsrooms scale their digital practices, it’s local nonprofit newsrooms that have a competitive advantage of being on the ground in their communities,” Nishimoto recalled. Civil Beat embraced that advantage by hosting a monthly meet-up with readers over coffee—something they still do today.
“We built up our in-person engagement strategy from there,” Nishimoto said. “We started doing more panel discussions. We launched a storytellers event initiative. We’ve done all these other exciting things to complement our digital presence.”
“It was an amazing experience to watch this organization shift internally and see how easy it was,” Walter-Brown said. “It was like putting on a new coat and that coat is so much more comfortable than the one you had on before—and you didn’t even realize it.”
A strategy that works
Honolulu Civil Beat transitioned to a nonprofit in June 2016– and it turned out that taking down the paywall paid off financially. From June to December of that year, total revenue exceeded projections by 82%. The following year, total revenue more than doubled.
Since then, there have been many other markers of success. Between 2018 and 2021, the number of Civil Beat members grew from just under 3,000 to nearly 7,500. In that same time span, average monthly unique visitors increased from 167,000 to 610,000. And the number of newsletter subscribers exploded from 24,000 in 2018 to 45,000 in 2021.
Civil Beat’s staff has grown over time, too. In 2018, there were 22 salaried employees. Today, the staff is at 28 employees, with two additional positions currently open.
“We’ve made substantial revenue progress since 2016, and we made a commitment to the staff that as our revenue grows, our operating budget will grow accordingly as well,” Nishimoto said. “We’ve been super transparent in terms of how much we’ve raised, but also the staff can see that we’ve been reinvesting that money in the newsroom, which is important.”
As Civil Beat has grown, so has the Hub. Not only has the Hub staff expanded, but the number of Hub member newsrooms has ballooned. When Civil Beat joined the Hub, it was one of five pilot news organizations. Today, it’s one of 70.
“The fact that there are so many member organizations now really creates this dynamic atmosphere in Slack where I’m learning a lot of things from other member organizations that freely share what works for them and what doesn’t,” said Nishimoto, adding that they also share their own beat practices.
“We’ve learned as much from [Civil Beat] as they learn from us, for sure,” said Walter-Brown. “And that’s the ideal kind of relationship that the News Revenue Hub was built for. We want to be able to learn and gain inspiration from other newsrooms and be able to share that with our peers.”
Strengthening the newsroom, serving the community
Nishimoto credits Civil Beat’s editor and general manager, Patti Epler, for creating an atmosphere that enabled the entire newsroom staff to get on board with the organization’s shift to a reader-supported model.
“Patti was really smart to not make a big deal of the transition on the editorial side,” he recalled. “She and the other editors felt very strongly that our content or mission should not change. What had to change was how we generated support for that content and how we articulated impacts right to our readers and donors.”
“Once we did make the transition, the reporters were really excited about getting to meet our readers in more organic settings,” Nishimoto continued. “There was absolutely no pushback on that—even to this day.”
Today, you’ll regularly find Civil Beat reporters and editors moderating panels or participating as subject-matter experts at events. According to Nishimoto, they embrace the opportunity “to get to know our readers better and put themselves out there.” In addition to building better relationships with the community, in-person events often lead to reporters finding sources for stories or becoming more trustworthy in the eyes of readers.
“I think there is something about the culture of Hawaii in general and the connection they have with their readers that made this such an organic transformation for Civil Beat,” said Walter-Brown. “They’ve been so game for everything that it requires, for that true relationship building.”
Walter-Brown said that when the Hub now meets with potential clients that want to start a membership program, she can’t help but think of Civil Beat.
“We’re very open about saying that this work requires real buy-in,” she said. “You have to be ready internally to shift your entire culture to being open and accessible, to invite people, literally and figuratively, into your newsroom and your news operations.”
“Civil Beat was very much up for that challenge,” Walter-Brown said. “If anything, they really set the bar for other newsrooms.”