Journalists don’t do what they do for accolades, and any particular recognition or honor isn’t necessarily the sole measuring stick for the value of a piece of journalism. That disclaimer noted, awards do provide evidence of impact, and they do matter.

To put a scope on it, no Hawaii-based journalist has ever won a Pulitzer Prize for work produced here. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser is one of the nation’s largest newspapers now, but even in the combined 282 years of publishing before the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin merged in 2010, and in the six-plus years since, no Pulitzers.

So, when the state’s top journalists compete for peer recognition, they can do that in a variety of decentralized regional and national contests, never explicitly crossing paths with each other. But they also can come together for a night, on the same playing field, and compete across mediums and circulation sizes to see whose journalistic work here really rises to the top.

Star Advertiser newspaper office Restaurant Row. 27 may 2016

Besides occasional individual entries paid for by the journalists, the Star-Advertiser hasn’t been entering the annual SPJ contest since Honolulu’s two daily newspapers merged in 2010.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Late last month, the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists recognized the best in the state in 2016 during its annual Excellence in Journalism awards ceremony. Just about everybody was represented, including Civil Beat, magazines (Honolulu Magazine, Hawaii Magazine, Hawaii Business Magazine), TV stations (KHON-TV, Hawaii News Now, PBS Hawaii), neighbor-island newspapers (Maui News, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Molokai Dispatch), and many others.

A major player not present just happened to be the largest media source in the state, the Star-Advertiser, which once again decided to sit out the annual competition. As Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind chronicled years ago – and not much has changed since, according to event organizer Stirling Morita – when the daily newspapers merged, the Star-Advertiser decided to stop covering the nominal costs of entry in this contest. In turn, its journalists mostly stopped participating.

Citizens of this state thereby not only lost the fractious freneticism of two competing dailies, in the same city, they also simultaneously were blinded from witnessing how that merger affected the overall quality of journalism here, because direct comparisons among all of the practitioners on the islands no longer were supported.

Also, the blended Star-Advertiser never has competed directly against the new SPJ crown-holder, Civil Beat, which has scooped up wooden plates by the boxful, including winning recognition as the “best online news site” for the past seven years including again taking home the top honor this time. Civil Beat also won the Public Service Reporting award for “Dying for Vacation,” about the high rate of tourist deaths in Hawaii.

With the biggest collection of journalists on the islands, the Star-Advertiser should be leading development and growth of the media community, setting the bar high, not sitting on the sidelines.

But this lament isn’t about the prospects of a Civil Beat vs. Star-Advertiser grudge match, it really is about the dulling of journalism community-wide due to the deprivation of direct comparisons and ecological strife. Just as in the natural world, media ecologies benefit in the long term from competition for resources, including audiences. In short, when media companies compete (in ethical ways) we get better journalism, and we all benefit.

The SPJ awards this year were bestowed upon many fascinating local stories, in print, online and in all sorts of media forms, including photography, video and audio. I’m assuming you already have seen Civil Beat’s corpus of work. Yet I also encourage you to look around at high-quality pieces by other journalists on the islands, from throughout this list.

Here is a sampling of the stories chosen as Hawaii’s best journalism in 2016:

  • Nancy Cook Lauer of West Hawaii Today, “Done Deal?” exposed how the Democratic Party in District 2 rigged decisions prior to public interviews and a public voting process. When caught, they tried to brush off ethical concerns by calling the sneaky behavior “just lobbying” and “the process.”
  • Warren Daubert of Hawaii Business Magazine, “Who We Are,” displayed an impressive array of infographic techniques, in this case used to colorfully visualize census data, chipping away at the deep complexity of local culture.
  • Leslie Wilcox, Daryl Huff, Britt Young, Joy Chong and Emilie Howlett of PBS Hawaii, “Facing Our Mortality,” presented a roundtable of local luminaries coping with serious or terminal illnesses, giving voice to the extreme challenges they face day to day, including enormous medical costs, invasive treatments, disruptions to career plans and all sorts of personal impacts.
  • Sonny Ganaden, Jonathan Canlas and John Hook of Flux Hawaii, “Against the Wind,” offered a cultural sketch of Kahuku football on the North Shore, combining school lore contrasted with gritty black-and-white photography juxtaposed with romanticized monochrome videography.
  • Dennis Hollier of Hawaii Business Magazine, “How to Build a High-End High Rise” used a chatty and disarming second-person point of view (a writing technique rarely used in journalism) to lead readers through the behind-the-scenes process of putting together one of those massive structures ever-rising in downtown Honolulu.

And so on. As uplifting as this list is, in its representation of local journalism, think about how much denser and deeper it could be if all of the media organizations on the islands fully participated, and brought their very best to this competition, including KITV (another notable absence) and the Star-Advertiser. I read the printed version of the Star-Advertiser regularly, and I know good journalists in that organization are doing high-quality, award-worthy work.

So I called and emailed Ed Lynch, managing editor of the Star-Advertiser, to try to get his perspective on this situation, asking him why the largest media source in the state doesn’t compete here with the others. He didn’t respond to either inquiry (which seems hypocritical for the leader of a newsroom that demands everyone else responds to its journalists’ questions).

I could imagine an excuse being the cost, but that is a weak one, since the entry fee is low, only about $25 per story. The time to complete the entry form also is minimal and can be done online.

Before the merger, Lind reported that roughly 45 percent of the entries in this contest were from the two dailies. So I also could imagine an excuse from the Star-Advertiser being that without a rival daily, the competition just isn’t tough enough. That perspective, though, is dismissive and offensive to the other journalists in the state who also do great work, including those who outperformed both dailies during the pre-2010 contests.

Because the Star-Advertiser hasn’t competed in the SPJ contest since the merger, and it hasn’t gone head to head with Civil Beat and other upstarts in this competition, speculation that it would sweep or dominate the contest is unproven. And if it did well, that would help to recognize the great local journalism being done by Star-Advertiser staff members. So what is there to lose?

Next year, the Star-Advertiser should step into the SPJ Hawaii ring and see where it now stands with the current crop of journalists around the islands.

When a Hawaii-based journalist finally wins a Pulitzer Prize, that will be a monumental achievement for the individual, the news organization and the state. Meanwhile, the SPJ competition steels us all and shows the broad community what journalists here can do.

With the biggest collection of journalists on the islands, the Star-Advertiser should be leading development and growth of the media community, setting the bar high, not sitting on the sidelines.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.