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I knew from the very first issue of Honolulu Weekly that I wanted to work for it.
It was the summer of 1991 and I was in graduate school at the University of Hawaii. The paper was fresh, original, fun, clever, a little wicked.
It was also important, offering content not found in the mainstream media of the time. My six years with the paper, from late 1997 until early 2004, changed my life and formed the journalist I would become.
In spite of up and down years, at its best the Weekly stuck to its “independent, locally owned” commitment, accented the “alt” in alternative and helped make Honolulu and Hawaii a better place to live.
Which isn’t to say it was all one smooth ride.
Among the many lamentations over the Weekly‘s demise, not a few folks have used the occasion to voice a “Laurie (Carlson) had it coming” view because of her publishing practices, to point out that the Weekly may have peaked years ago, to argue that the reign of print has long been in decline.
I have heard — and sometimes made — those comments in phone calls, emails and discussions in recent days and over the years.
As we mourn the loss of the Weekly — and it is a loss, like losing a family member — I think it’s helpful to understand a little more about how it worked. I offer this perspective, fully aware that it is based on my limited experience.
My first article submission to the Weekly was rejected. A rambling, unfocused piece on the UH Board of Regents, founding Editor Julia Steele rightly declined to publish it.
My first interview for a job at the Weekly did not result in my hiring. I interviewed with Laurie (everybody calls her Laurie) for the editor position sometime after Julia and another founding editor, Derek Ferrar, moved on.
Laurie Carlson on Bytemarks Cafe, August 2009.
I finally got my foot in the door by offering to write a holiday gift guide for then Editor Elizabeth Kieszkowski who, desperate for copy, ran the piece and soon hired me as a proofreader. My recollection is that I was paid about $8 an hour or so, but Laurie decided it was too high and subsequently cut it back to around $7 an hour.
I also would not be allowed to work more than 19.5 hours a week, as that would require Laurie to provide health insurance. My work as a contributing writer was calculated separately at 10 cents a word. That was my introduction to Laurie’s tight control over budgetary matters.
It also leads to my first main point about Honolulu Weekly: Many people did not work there for the money. Rather, they were there for the opportunity to work for a great publication and to maybe — dare I say it — make a difference.
Did Laurie take advantage of this? Perhaps. But people like me also had a choice to stay or go. I was later promoted to copy editor and associate editor.
During my last six months with the Weekly I served as quasi-interim managing editor, until Laurie found the candidate she wanted to run the paper after Editor Curt Sanburn left in mid 2003. At that time, I recall a salary of just over $30,000.
I was passed over for Curt’s job, but I eventually got over it. Laurie later approached me to edit a weekly on the Big Island; the job fell through over — yep — money.
I won’t attempt to catalogue the variety and import of the stories that ran in the Weekly. There are simply so many of them.
Instead, I’ll share impressions that have stayed with me, mainly because these stories did not appear anywhere else. They illustrate four areas where the Weekly excelled: politics, sexuality, Native Hawaiians and the environment.
Letters, masthead and Pritchett.
They include the “universe of power” piece by Julia and longtime contributor Bob Rees, now deceased. It was the first educated attempt to chart out Hawaii’s power centers in a post-Big Five world, and it was brilliant and insightful.
Under Kieszkowski — or Stu Dawrs? can’t recall — the Weekly ran an article about polyamory, in which several people explained why they were involved in the practice of sharing lovers. Try imagining that piece in, say, The Honolulu Advertiser or MidWeek.
Curt wrote several stories on Walter Ritte and Molokai, and one I recall in particular looked at efforts to restore the islands fishponds. I had never before thought why sustainability was important, or thought that others were actually doing something about it.
That kind of reporting — intimate, provocative, necessary — continued far past my time at the Weekly. What stands out for me in recent years are things like Adrienne LaFrance doggedly calling all the members of the state House of Representatives to find out where they stood on civil unions. The Weekly‘s last editor, Mindy Pennybacker, deserves credit for helping the paper finish strong, distinguished by award-winning reporting on GMOs.
How much of all this can be credited to Laurie I can’t say. Certainly, she allowed her editors great freedom, and a workspace and environment to foster creativity. Her own interests leaned toward food and culture and the arts, areas where the Weekly has also excelled.
I recall two incidents worth citing that, frustratingly, helped me understand her editorial interests.
On Sept. 11, 2001 — a Tuesday and the day when the Weekly used to be put to bed — she opposed Curt’s idea to leave the Honolulu Diary page blank save for a brief memoriam. As I recall, she did not think the paper should have said anything at all in that issue.
The other incident came in a debate over a Best of Honolulu cover. The production and editorial staff favored a photo of a man eating a bowl of noodles. Laurie, however, had already contracted for an illustration, in the tradition of “Best of” covers.
Both incidents angered her staff. She relented in the first, stood firm in the second.
My second big lesson about the Weekly: It was her paper, not anyone else’s, no matter how much it inspired some sense of community ownership.
Honolulu Weekly ended primarily because advertising could no longer support it. There are multiple reasons for that; former Editor Ragnar Carlson (no relation to Laurie) wrote a pretty thorough explanation of why in a 2009 cover story.
I don’t know enough about advertising revenue to comment on the financials of the Weekly. I do know that Laurie went through ad reps like toilet paper, and many of them had harsh things to say about the way she handled accounts.
She also attempted to branch out, buying that Big Island paper I mentioned earlier. The idea was to look to possible expansion to Maui and Kauai.
Hawaii Island Journal published from 2005 to 2008 under Laurie, and those familiar with HIJ argue that she managed it poorly. Defenders say she was done under by the Big Island’s newspaper monopoly.
Still, Laurie was a successful businesswoman in a media industry still dominated by men. She had an eye for identifying talent; former Weekly staffers can be found prospering today at publications like Honolulu Civil Beat and Hana Hou!
Though stingy, Laurie was often generous with her staff. One memorable example: She arranged for a masseuse once a week, usually the day after publishing. As with many deals, the trade was in exchange for ad space.
Now the red box stands empty. Pennybacker wrote an item in Huffington Post last week explaining that “the editorial team is seeking investors to help us start up, perhaps afresh and under a new name.”
As for Laurie, I don’t know what she’ll do next. But I am grateful to her for the opportunity to have worked at Honolulu Weekly. I’ll let her have the last word here, taken from her own farewell in the June 5 issue:
It has been a good run — 23 years of publishing in a city that needed (and still does) an occasional kick in the okole.