BCNI Notes: Howard Weaver on an emerging news biz model

Howard Weaver was at BCNI to talk about a new news model in Hawaii from the Honolulu Civil Beat (an outlet from Peer News) that wants to challenge the notion that "people won't pay for content" (disclosure: it is a venture to which he was a consultant and he now has a diminishing role). The site will focus on community news in Honolulu and charge a $20/month subscription fee to access content. There will be a few-dollar fee to even access the site because the founder, Pierre Omidyar, believes in a capitalist economy that won't be sustainable if you give anything away for free from the start.

All Howard's opinions were his only. He does not represent Peer News or the Civil Beat, although he was a consultant for them.

"Why is a Facebook beer worth more than your news story?" Howard asked in a recent blog post. People pay for fake gifts on Facebook, but won't pay a dollar for a news story. This is a problem. We first have to answer it before moving on to charge for content.

The basic premises for adopting Civil Beat's model:

  1. It has to be an online newsorg that has no production costs
  2. The news has to be a niche product, an "elite" niche
  3. As a result, there's a need for hyper-efficiency
  4. There has to be a focus on technology (only 5 reporters, but two programmers).

What is the atomic unit of journalism?

An atomic unit was a "news article" in the past. But an atomic unit of journalism is going to change radically in the new era of journalism. News can't be "articles" but a service. The Civil Beat is drastically changing the way they view the final product.

The atomic unit of journalism is tied to co-creation.  We see evidence of their mindset in the fact that the job title for their staff members is "reporter hosts"  (because reporters are servants in the process of gathering the news).

An important part of the news site is the living story. Although Google launched "living stories," Howard noted that they were really like topic pages. Peer News wants to approach stories realistically. For example, if there's a new zoning law, it's based on something initiated 10 years prior. A traditional news aritcle throws in background information in a few grafs, but the living story doesn't assume the reader will do his/her own background research. The living story is fully contextual.

Why he thinks it will work:

  • Small staff is hyper-efficient on open source tools, so the production costs are drastically cut
  • They'll be reaching a unique, elite niche for which professionals like real estate agents will want to and be capable of paying

Some people in the audience were skeptical about the paywall. A few questions that were asked:

  • How can a democratizing force also be sustainable financially? If you charge, is it still democratizing? Howard made the comparison to broccoli (deep, investigative, valuable stories) and curley fries (fluff, generic, cheap, reporting). We can't babysit society and ensure that they'll read what's good for them, but we hope that they have strong enough judgment to know that it's good for them.

Plugging into the already-existing blog network

Although the Civil Beat doesn't intent to include advertising, Howard's suggestion to them would be to connect with local blogs and build an ad network. The Civil Beat will cover elite topics, but not nightlife and food and entertainment, etc. If local blogs can fill that space and they can share advertising, everyone would profit.

The site will launch officially with full content May 4.