“What is the atomic unit of journalism?” Howard Weaver asks as he discusses the pre-launch philosophies of Peer News. This is an important question because the news startup doesn’t want to brand itself as a news site. Doing so will lock your community into thinking about you with a particular paradigm. Instead, Peer News wants to offer a range of services to its audience.
Started by Pierre Omidyar, this news startup in Honolulu will be an online-only, subscription-only approach to covering political news. Online-only means no legacy costs or issues and, at this time, they have no plans for taking advertising. In addition, one of the insights Pierre made while thinking about this is that local civic government news is an elite niche with a capacity for “hyper-efficiency.”
If you’re starting a subscription model, Howard asks, why is this going to be worth more than a free beer on Facebook?  For this operation, the compelling argument is the opportunity for a close relationship with a skilled journalist in a valuable local niche. By becoming a member of the site, the user has equal opportunity to posting their opinion and joining the discussion.
Peer News be charging $20/month because that’s what the competition charges for home delivery. There are five reporters, two web developers, an assistant editor, and an editor. By having the technology capacity internal, they hope to be able to innovate with how they package and deliver information. For instance, they hope to emulate Google Living Stories to provide contextual, canonical pages for ongoing stories and issues.
One question from the audience: how do you reconcile the fact that, by charging a subscription fee, you’re excluding some percentage of the population from access to information and democratic debate? There was also a spirited debate, albeit lacking much data, about paywalls and whether this would work well at a local level. Howard argues, however, that they’re selling the experience and not the goods.
Two reasons they think this news startup can work. First, the entire operation requires a lot less financial resources than running a print newspaper. Peer News provide high-quality journalism and break even with operating revenues of a couple million dollars a year. Second, they’ve identified a local niche whose information is high value to a certain part of the community.
That’s a good point about charging an amount for what the competition charges for delivery. Many pundits forget that much of what we pay for with a print publication is delivery.