Monday, April 26, 2010


THE HARD PREJUDICE OF HIGH EXPECTATIONS: When we first heard about the new “Peer News” project- E-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar’s new Hawai`i based on-line journalism project- we were excited to say the least.

Afterall he’d hired John Temple, late of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News as editor and what with slowly dying “he said she said”, ledeing/bleeding, corporate TV and print press- all of it Honolulu centric- we’d expected that soon we’d be seeing a healthy dose of investigative and enterprise journalism and investigative reporting.

We looked forward to them digging deep into the corruption behind the daily reporting headlines, along the lines of what is doing nationally or sites like, Voice of San Diego, New England Center for Investigative Reporting, or The Bay Citizen are doing in their local markets.

Thanks to Ian Lind for the list and descriptions of each in his piece last Thursday, Peering at the Civil Beat,

Civil is the name of the news venture as previewed last Tuesday in a soft launch with a the promise of a May 4 official “launch” and Ian, like us- and apparently many people- is apparently more than a little disappointed.

First eyebrow raised was at the price- a $240 a year tag ($20 a month) which ‘Disappeared News’ Larry Geller called “a gated community”, which as he and others have pointed out is more than even the Wall Street Journal charges.

We were prepared for paying for great content, even if many of those leaving comments on Ian’s piece thought it was way too much. But as far as we’re concerned the problem isn’t the price but the mission of Civil Beat itself.

Omidyar’s introductory piece speaks volumes for those who have been looking for what the “publications” listed above offer. He writes

Welcome to Civil Beat! We're glad you're here. We are building a new civic square for Hawaii, and we hope you'll join us.

One thing I've noticed since moving back here four years ago is that Hawaii is blessed to have many people who are committed to making our Islands a better place to live...

(L)earning from people who have different backgrounds from ourselves, and being enriched by it -- informs what we are trying to build here: a new kind of civic square.

What does it mean to build a civic square? For us, it's about building a place where we can all learn about and better understand our home, the challenges we face, and debate and discover ideas and strategies for moving forward. Our greatest asset in successfully doing that is the richness and diversity that Hawaii represents. In my experience, the best solutions come out of discussions that involve a diversity of points of view, conducted in a respectful and good-faith search for common ground and meaningful compromise.

That's what we're going to try to do. But building a new civic square isn't something any of us has done before. We're going to be learning constantly as we build. One thing we're pretty sure about, however, is that we have to start with a different kind of news service.

High minded words but more notable for what it isn’t than what it is. Compare it to the statements of the others- quoted in Ian’s piece- and you find none of those words like

-shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them

-exposes injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices, and corruption so that those responsible can be held to account and so the public can be armed with the information needed to debate solutions and spark change.

-arm citizens with information needed to fully participate in the democratic process (and) hold the powerful – including major institutions, officials and policy makers – accountable to the public.

-Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions to problems.

Omidyar makes it clear that his main thrust will be to create:

a new civic square without putting up any news articles. That’s different – a news service without news, at least initially. It’s intentional. We want to begin by talking with you about what we’re doing, to hear what you want from us and what you think we should be asking. We believe conversation and civil debate with our reporter-hosts and with other members is central to what will make Civil Beat valuable.

That’s apparently exactly what his reporter-hosts are for the most part, doing now if you read through the blog formatted entries so far- throwing out short bursts of some facts and soliciting feedback.

But if Omidyar’s mission is not what we were expecting, Editor Temple’s description of the nuts and bolts make it clear we’re at the wrong place.

I’d like to tell you about the journalism you can expect to find here from our team of reporter-hosts. It’s different. And I’m excited to begin talking with you about it before we start publishing articles on May 4.

We start this news service with the belief that we’re here to serve you. That means our daily work is to ask the important questions citizens might have in the face of the complex issues facing our community. And to answer them in a way that helps members reach an informed opinion, based on our reporting and the discussion that will take place as we together create the new
civic square.

While there are people who complain that reporters talk “at” and not “with” readers we suspect that their number is small compared to those who just want more out of reporters than shallow “sound bite” interviews from the “two sides”. All that’s seems new here is that the reporters will actually answer the commenters, unlike most news sites.

But if a reporters’ next story is limited to living up to the rather limited expectations of their readers- as opposed to “enterprise journalism” where a story writes itself based on days, weeks or even months of research, evolving as the facts present themselves- it will be a rather limited product since readers generally “don’t know what they don’t know” as the saying goes.

The kicker is that apparently the content- the news article, as it were- are going to be open to non-members and those who pay are essentially paying for the ability to “comment” and “discuss” issues raised by their seven “reporter-host(s)”.

It’s truly baffling. While there are differences between Omidyar’s for-profit model and the non-profit nature of most of these other new local sites this venture seems to be more of a social networking site than a news site... a kind of Facebook for news and politics junkies like us.

Apparently its business model is not to sign up those who crave deeper news reporting without the economic biases of the shallow corporate-controlled press but to take advantage of the boom in “comments” on blogs, on-line versions of print newspapers and social networking sites and to do it for an issue-oriented audience.

The only difference seems to be that Civil Beat will mandate that all comments be, well, civil- as a matter of fact that’s why they named it that. They are apparently not going to take “anonymous” comments which is a plus. But who’s going to determine what’s civil and what’s not is a question that’s eventually going to have to be answered.

But even so, it’s gotten to the point where we personally never leave or even read comments at newspaper sites anymore and only sometimes peruse the comment sections at blogs and only very occasionally leave a comment- and then only in order to provide information pertinent to the post not the other comments... something that is many times the last thing you find in most comment sections.

Even the blogs with the best comment sections are generally dominated by those who seem to choose up sides and go at it with “conventional wisdom” comments reflecting their side’s take on the issue. Some are even paid to do so, as evidenced by how some of the more prominent blogs like Derrick DePledge’s and Dave Shapiro’s at the Honolulu Advertiser grow in length when candidates for office are mentioned... or the issue is Honolulu rail.

Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we’re missing something. We certainly will find out on May 4 and will certainly return to the subject. We really hate to be so critical so soon but after a ponderous weekend we felt the need to say this now rather than later.

So far, paying $20 a month to be able to leave comments- even if it is billed as a discussion with a civil “town hall” format- doesn’t sound like what we or most people were expecting, waiting for or are willing to shell out $20 a month to do.

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