The Paperless Press in Honolulu
Good journalism isn’t dead. While there are fewer reporters, and Honolulu has become a one-newspaper town, local online-only news outfits pursue solid reporting and somewhat less solid revenues.
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Following his escort expose, Dooley donned the hidden cameras again, this time for an undercover story about illegal Thai lottery tickets sold by small-restaurant owners, vegetable vendors and knickknack sellers in Chinatown. “It was a really good piece of work,” he says of the story, published this May. “It led to an FBI investigation.”
“I take my hat off to Malia Zimmerman, and I’m pleased she hired Jim Dooley,” says Keever. “I’ve been hooked on Hawaii Reporter from the beginning.” She says she even sent Zimmerman a card and a check for the Reporter’s 10th anniversary.
Unlike Civil Beat, Hawaii Reporter doesn’t have a newsroom; Dooley spends his workday in a small office in the basement of the Capital, while Zimmerman also has an office near Roy’s in Hawaii Kai. In addition to his longer, research-intensive pieces, Dooley posts news stories every day. “Malia is good about [giving me the time],” he says, “But it’s a two person operation, so if I’m not contributing on a daily basis I feel kind of bad.”
Zimmerman is the face of Hawaii Reporter and is well spoken and personable, which works well in her roles as reporter, editor, sales representative and publisher of the website. Dooley says she works around the clock, always “feeding the beast.” Somehow she also appears on a twice-weekly Olelo news show.
Despite Zimmerman’s and Dooley’s hard-news stories, the Hawaii Reporter is often pegged as having a conservative bias. The website does feature John Pritchett’s cartoons and a weekly column by KHVH radio host Rick Hamada (both Hawaii Reporter and Civil Beat go on his show). Lind sees the Reporter as right leaning and, because of that, says he’s only “an occasional browser.”
“People label us conservative, but the bottom line is we go in and we look at news stories from a taxpayer perspective and that’s how I see it,” says Zimmerman. “I think our straight news stories are straight news stories.”
Conservative bent or not, Dooley says it doesn’t affect his reporting. “People can look at the stories we’re producing and draw their own conclusions,” he says.
How do they make money?
That’s a really good question,” says Zimmerman, with a laugh. “We’ve done a lot of experimentation.” She’s not alone; it’s something everyone in the publishing industry, from lone bloggers to media conglomerates, talk about, a lot, HONOLULU Magazine included. It’s safe to say there’s not one, proven formula to making big bucks online.
Still, Zimmerman has managed to make a living off her website, and pay Dooley a salary. She sells ads to companies such as Aston Hotels, JS Services and the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. It doesn’t hurt that she can tout website traffic spikes upward of 200,000 uniques when national sites such as the Drudge Report or Fox News link to a Hawaii Reporter story. According to quantcast.com, which tracks websites’ traffic, Hawaii Reporter has 20,000 to 30,000 average monthly unique visitors.
Avid Hawaii Reporter readers do their part by donating anywhere from $5 to $95 (the amount needed to become an “assistant watchdog”). “We also get grants for investigative reporting,” she explains. In 2009, Hawaii Reporter partnered with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a national nonprofit that funds local government reporting. It’s supported some of Zimmerman and Dooley’s stories.
Over at the Civil Beat headquarters, things are simpler. There is no online advertising, says operations director Heidi Pliszka, nor do they intend to sell any. Civil Beat brings in money through donations and paid subscriptions at $19.99 per month (or less, when there’s a promotion).
Pliszka wouldn’t share how many subscribers Civil Beat has, but says the website gets around 50,000 individual visitors each month. Lind admits he only subscribed when there was a price break. “At full price, I would question whether it’s worth it at this point,” he says. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how many members Civil Beat has, it has the financial backing of Omidyar, Hawaii’s richest resident, and the 50th wealthiest American (as ranked by Forbes in 2011).
Omidyar’s patronage is something anyone familiar with Civil Beat would acknowledge, including its own staff. “Pierre started this, he got it going, but it can’t just be in the hands of one person,” says Lin. “Ultimately, if this succeeds, it has to be something that the entire community decides to [support].”
“I don’t know if he’s making any money,” adds Keever, “but he’s interested in impact, and he’s had it. Not many news outlets have a billionaire as publisher. I think its innovative and inspiring.”
Both Civil Beat and Hawaii Reporter are homesteaders on the digital frontier and the real secret to their success isn’t getting the most unique visitors or subscribers, but, rather, going back to the roots of journalism. It’s about solid reporting, which often requires time, patience, sifting through public records, interviewing multiple sources. And then uploading the story online and tweeting about it. This is 21st century news in Honolulu.