STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
A new Internet news site launched yesterday, in Honolulu. This is a city that looks like it is about to become a one-newspaper town, because its two current papers the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Advertiser are expected to merge. So this new Internet effort seeks to charge for its news. It's called Civil Beat and it's funded by a well-known Internet entrepreneur.
Hawaii Public Radio's Ben Markus reports.
BEN MARKUS: Half a dozen reporters - some clutching their morning coffee - have gathered around Civil Beat Editor John Temple for their daily news meeting.
JOHN TEMPLE: And this week, just to be clear, I mean articles and beat updates and then Twitter are our focus, not topic pages, and we'll work on that. So I think we should jump into beat updates.
MARKUS: Topic pages. Twitter. This isn't your classic newspaper lingo. But, then again, this is a newsroom starting in the year 2010.
Temple is heading Honolulu's Civil Beat not only because of his long track record in print journalism, most recently at the Rocky Mountain News, but also his extensive online work. After the meeting he explains how this newsroom is different.
TEMPLE: We're going to be sharing with the public, what we're working on as we're working on it, and the experience of working on it.
MARKUS: So the reporters will essentially keep blogs and send tweets as they pursue stories. They'll write regular news articles, but they'll also host online discussions of the beats they cover - like politics or education. And they'll maintain so-called topic pages, which will act as a constant living story, continually updated. So if you're interested in Honolulu's passenger rail project, there's a page for that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)
MARKUS: In the newsroom, the reporters type away of their MacBook Pros. News veteran Katherine Nichols recently came on board from the Honolulu Star- Bulletin, a paper whose financial future is in jeopardy.
KATHERINE NICHOLS: I've been writing professionally here for 16 years. And I've been at just about every publication and I've done TV too. So I have a pretty wide range of experience, and yes this is different, but that's the thrilling part for us.
MARKUS: Civil Beat is the brain child of billionaire eBay founder and Hawaii resident, Pierre Omidyar. He says social networking is the backbone of his new venture.
PIERRE OMIDYAR: The website itself doesn't have any super fantastic technology that's revolutionary, that's going to, you know, do any sort of crazy things that people haven't seen before. It's really about engaging with citizens, engaging with our friends and neighbors here in the community in a different way.
MARKUS: Omidyar wouldn't say how much of his fortune he's sunk into Civil Beat but he's betting Hawaii residents will pay a whopping $20 a month for the right to read news and participate in the online conversations.
MARKUS: Across the country, news websites are a dime a dozen, and most of those operations have yet to prove they can turn a profit.
Rick Edmonds is a news business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a Florida- based journalism school. He says larger operations like Civil Beat have struggled.
RICK EDMONDS: On the other hand, having a committed patron with deep pockets, and potentially involving some of your audience as members, at least shows some potential.
OMIDYAR: If it's valuable, they'll pay, and if it's not valuable they won't pay - and we'll learn from the fact that they're not paying.
MARKUS: Omidyar says that's one of the most important lessons he learned from eBay, which turned a profit well before other dot-com phenoms.
OMIDYAR: I mean it's just a much simpler business model. All these other things, where you bring in advertisers or you incur a lot of debt, or this - that's just far too complicated, I don't really understand that.
MARKUS: Omidyar believes that for journalism to be successful, the basic business model needs to be profitable.
Despite spending countless hours of his own time writing code for the website, Omidyar says he won't let Civil Beat become a money pit.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Honolulu.