by Danny Peterson
Civil Beat’s Civil Café series convenes influencers and knowledge experts to debate and discuss important Hawaii issues in front of an active and engaged audience. Most discussions are moderated by a Civil Beat editor or reporter, and cover timely and topical issues complementary to Civil Beat reporting like climate change, legislative issues, and economic welfare. The project, founded in 2013, utilizes a non-threatening atmosphere to facilitate community discussion and engagement, and uses mission-aligned partnerships with nonprofits to enhance community welfare. The events are meant to exhibit transparency, establish and maintain relationships with donors/readers, and create a reciprocal relationship with their community.
Project Goals: Honolulu Civil Beat Director of Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto says the goal of Civil Beat is to create and strengthen audience ties by offering them access and engagement activities. “We want to use these events to build really organic relationships with our readers. It’s definitely part of the cultivation process. Since we are online, we need to look for better ways to engage with our audience offline. So that’s why our events have been free. We’re trying to get to know our readers to a point where hopefully they’ll sign up for our newsletter and hopefully they’ll access more of our content because they understand who we are,” Nishimoto said.
Tools and Technology: Civil Beat uses live streaming video to social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
Impact: Civil Beat has encouraged audiences to trust their organization and give input to their Civil Cafe events by meeting up with the community face to face. This has resulted in improved balance to panel members, topic suggestions, panelist recruitment, and some future news story ideas. Civil Beat averages crowds of 75-100 attendees, which allows them to meet their mission of public service and foster a mutually beneficial relationship with readers. The forums spark donations, new members, and new email newsletter subscribers (actual figures not tracked).
Organization Background: Civil Beat is an investigative and watchdog news website based in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, in Hawaii. It is a non-profit operated by a board of directors, including publisher and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Revenue relies on membership via donations, grants, and major gifts.
Project Resources: Civil Café’s funding primarily comes from Civil Beat. A two person fundraising team manages the events and videographers, reporters, and editors contribute their staff time, in addition to their normal newsroom duties. Venue fees are often donated by vendors and they partner with organizations to augment existing engagements, like holding a panel discussion after a documentary screening. There are occasional expenditures for the venue when none are given in kind, but usually doesn’t cost more than a couple hundred dollars per event. In addition, there are costs for refreshments and branding material such as merchandise, backdrops, and other one-time investments.
Here’s what worked
1. Bringing issues to the forefront that affect community.
News stories cover issues such as homelessness, cost of living, and climate change, which become the inspiration for the forums. Audiences have a reciprocal relationship with the organization by contributing story ideas, critiques, and feedback via Civil Beat Morning Coffees, bringing issues audience care about to the fore. In turn, those issues are presented back to the audience. Event manager Mariko Chang said the staff must pivot their time and resources to make the forums timely.
“The topics change, the moderators change, the panel is changed, so we are on our toes a lot of the time. And when the topics change we do try to brace ourselves,” Chang said.
Director of Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto said audience participation is encouraged, but moderation hedges discussions to narrow the focus on the issue at hand.
“We like to keep the discussion on the here and now and what the panelists are talking about and what the general, broad issue is,” Nishimoto said.
2. Providing transparency and fostering community dialogue.
Director of Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto said meeting face to face provides accessibility to audiences that a purely digital platform cannot provide alone.
“It engenders a form of trust,” Nishimoto said. “We’re trying to be as transparent as possible on the digital side, revealing all of our donors, making sure people know who our reporters are. But also in person, putting our reporters out there, at events, so they can talk in person with readers. I think it goes a long way toward readers having core trust in us. I think that’s the primary reason why local news is more trusted than national news at this point,” Nishimoto added.
Audiences can make requests for venues or topics and those unable to attend can watch the videos online, which further strengthen community ties, events manager Mariko Chang said.
“We’re based in Honolulu but there are of course other neighbor islands and we often get requests to host events in different communities there. We do try to live-stream, especially the civil cafes, to keep kind of an active chat.”
Chang added that they are planning to do the events on neighboring islands more often, in the coming year.
3. Supporting organizations doing good for the community.
Civil Café is able to collaborate with other like-minded non-profits whose aim is for the betterment of the community, events manager Chang said.
“Civil Beat has established good working relationships with mission-aligned nonprofits such as Common Cause, the Honolulu Museum of Art, etc. These relationships allow us to reach different audiences and in some cases reduce costs such as venue rental,” Chang said.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Panel Balance
Events manager Mariko Chang explained that collaborating with one particular organization resulted in biased panels, and they are currently working to correct that issue in future installments.
“That was really a lesson because the audience after the event mentioned that the panel itself wasn’t very balanced and so…we really took that to heart. When we organize panels, we turn to the reporters for their expertise and we try to make sure that the panel itself is diverse in terms of knowledge, gender, age, ethnicity, that it’s a well-rounded conversation. Part of that is diligence.,” Chang said.
2. Curating Audience Interest
The public interest for an occasional panel may not be as high as they hoped, Director of Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto explained.
“Sometimes we may put on an event that we thought would bring in a bunch of people because it was a topic that our reporter was really interested in and that we had written about a bunch. We thought it was a really important deal. When sent out the RSVP, for whatever reason, we realized that perhaps our audience doesn’t think the same way or the venue wasn’t the right venue or the timing was off.” Nishimoto said.
Here’s what else you should know
- Partnerships: Civil Beat partners with other local news sources, such as KITV4, to bring stories to audiences, in addition to other nonprofits, such as museums.
- Community Conversations: In addition to Civil Café’s Civil Beat events, they also host a monthly Morning Coffee for audiences directly in their newsrooms where Civil Beat membership subscribers and the general public meet to give feedback on story idea, critique previous stories, and offer additional coverage ideas.
To learn more about this project send Civil Beat Director of Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto or Membership and Events Manager Mariko Chang an email, Tweet Ben @Ben_Nishimoto, or sign up for Civil Beat’s newsletter at http://www.civilbeat.org/.