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Editor’s Note: It’s always awkward to write about yourself. But the media landscape in Hawaii has been changing and more change is in store when Civil Beat and Huffington Post launch a new website next month. It’s an important issue, so we asked Adrienne LaFrance, a former Civil Beat reporter who has also worked for other news outlets in the state, to explore what the changes have been and what they mean for news consumers.
A half-decade is a long time in media years.
A really long time.
Since 2009 we’ve seen the demise of The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the launch of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in their place (2010); a merger of local TV stations KHNL and KGMB (2009); the launch of Honolulu Civil Beat (2010) and The Hawaii Independent (2008); the recent shuttering of Honolulu Weekly (2013); the takeover of The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai by Oahu Publications which owns the Star-Advertiser (2013); plus enough high-profile staffing changes at local media organizations to make a news junkie’s head spin.
Hawaii media is being fundamentally disrupted and reinvented by the profound changes that are whipping through journalism around the globe. Even as the Internet continues to dismantle the traditional print advertising-based business model, our increasingly wireless society is reconfiguring how we interact with news, information and one another.
Just months after we bid aloha to the 22-year-old Honolulu Weekly, we will witness the September launch of HuffPost Hawaii, which will be published as part of a partnership agreement with Civil Beat.
This summer feels a bit like a new chapter in local journalism, a time to reflect on what we’re gaining and on what we’re losing as we forge ahead. For all of the turmoil in the industry, I can’t imagine a better time to be a journalist.
The trajectory of my career has granted me an interesting perspective on our changing mediasphere, and perhaps some insights into what it all means for local journalism and those who consume it.
My professional roots run deep in Hawaii where I was a reporter, editor and anchor at Civil Beat, Honolulu Weekly, and Hawaii Public Radio. I also wrote articles for several Hawaii-based magazines and taught a journalism course at the University of Hawaii.
And for the past two years I’ve worked as a national media reporter for Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and as a reporter on the national desk for a chain of newspapers that includes The San Jose Mercury News, The Denver Post and more than 70 other daily papers.
For this article, I also interviewed a dozen other Hawaii journalists, former journalists and media critics — including people whose journalism experience in Hawaii far predates mine — to get at undercurrents of frustration with Hawaii media and some cautious optimism about the direction we are moving in.
“The glass is half empty: A lot of news media have closed, and we really need more investigative and thoughtful reporting on subjects that don’t get enough light,” said Ann Auman, chair of the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. “That includes government, business and our communities. But the glass is also half full. If you invest the time to read and watch it, you’ll find a lot is still being uncovered and reported on.”
But there are more laments on the half-empty side: concerns about diminished quality, shrinking resources, and ownership conflicts. “I think any time a publication closes, the public loses,” said Natalie Iwasa, one of Honolulu’s most engaged citizens — you can often find her giving testimony at City Council meetings — and an avid reader of Hawaii news. “In general, the news has become more about entertainment than it is about traditional news.”
I first got to know Iwasa when I joined Civil Beat as a city government reporter shortly after the site launched in 2010. When I first began to show up at Honolulu Hale every day, city workers were perplexed.
Who is the reporter with that laptop always sitting on the same bench in the hallway, and in the back row of even the dullest City Council meetings? Doesn’t she know the mayor doesn’t have any press conferences scheduled today?
Soon enough I became a fixture. People knew where to find me to talk about city business. I got a lot of scoops just by always hanging around, and I like to think that some of my reporting made a difference in Honolulu. More than one person told me it had been years, maybe longer, since a reporter had spent so much time walking the halls of Honolulu city government.
So Iwasa’s concerns about entertainment coverage overwhelming substance make sense to me. A Media Council Hawaii study during the 2012 election cycle revealed that Hawaii television broadcasts included more political advertisements than substantive political news coverage, a finding that good-government groups called “alarming.”
Media Council Hawaii’s Chris Conybeare, who has led the way in challenging Raycom Media’s “shared services agreement” between local TV stations, says there are too few media voices in the mix in Hawaii.
The loss of Honolulu Weekly — which was already in a deep financial crisis when I was its managing editor in 2008 — represents the death of one of the few independently owned and operated media organizations in Hawaii. Even the new HuffPost Hawaii will be part-owned by Civil Beat, and will share its office space.
“Basically I think there are forces that are struggling against these monopolies and we certainly welcome them,” Conybeare said. “I think the Star-Advertiser has had to become a little sharper in its reporting because of Civil Beat, but still I think the general public is not being served. Civil Beat for instance has really valuable stuff but I just don’t know what their reach is.”
Civil Beat has a well-educated and influential readership, but it still doesn’t seem to have a very broad one. Civil Beat declined to share subscription numbers or to specifically characterize its subscriber growth rate other than to say it has “increased a lot,” according to editor Patti Epler. More on that later.
A small crew of former Honolulu Weekly staffers began publishing a Tumblr called HI Spy in June that bills itself as an “insider’s guide to Hawaii art, culture and politics.”
Staffers at just-folded publications routinely branch off to try to start something new, yet the result is rarely long lasting. There are some exceptions, but community support for such fledgling projects can diminish quickly, and even when it doesn’t, support from readers rarely translates into financial sustainability unless there is also strong financial backing on the business side. In other words, such new publications face the same financial constraints that the old ones did.
Former Weekly Editor Mindy Pennybacker says she and her former staffers will launch HI Spy as a weekly website this fall with a “slender print companion to each edition,” and a bimonthly or quarterly print magazine next spring. She says HI Spy will be a nonprofit that brings in revenue from advertising, sponsorships, donations, and subscriptions.
There are other independent voices writing about the Islands for a Hawaii audience — if you know where to look. Environment Hawaii has for more than 20 years regularly covered issues and broken news missed by other outlets. The Hawaii Reporter remains a rare Hawaii outlet that prominently features conservative ideas and opinions in our most Democrat-friendly state in the country, but it is struggling to make ends meet. Blogger Ian Lind’s site has been an influential must-read for journalists and newsmakers since he launched it in 2000. (He’s also a regular columnist for Civil Beat now.) Lind even had the savvy early on to mix some fluffier content in with his serious offerings. He’s had a weekly “Feline Friday” series since at least 2001. The Internet’s obsession with cats has since been well documented.
But much of Hawaii media is painfully slow to embrace Internet culture, let alone demonstrate an understanding of it on par with many Hawaii residents. Few Hawaii news organizations, for example, seem to truly understand how Twitter works. It is a publishing platform that enables people to connect and interact with one another, not just a way to parrot headlines and links that are already available on their websites. (Hawaii’s local TV stations and some individual journalists are notable exceptions.)
People increasingly begin their day not by looking at the front page of a print newspaper or even the home page of a trusted website, but by visiting sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit to see what stories people are talking about.
In an Aug. 10 interview with NPR, BuzzFeed CEO Jon Steinberg called social media the cable news of our era. In other words, social platforms are changing audiences’ habits as drastically as the introduction of the 24-hour news channel did in the 1980s. And while old-school journalists often scoff at BuzzFeed’s colorful and quirky mix of content, those who refuse to acknowledge the site’s influence are missing something important. More broadly, news organizations that ignore or downplay our Internet-powered society’s new and evolving habits do so at their peril.
So I was heartened to see that Hawaii Public Radio, which has long resisted developing a web presence, is now seeking a digital producer. It’s a small step but an essential one.
The Hawaii Independent, which should be well-positioned as a web-native site to adapt to digital habits, still appears to struggle to execute its editorial vision. Publisher Ikaika Hussey told me that the site is experimenting with a variety of revenue options, including hosting events and scooping up former Weekly advertisers. He says he wants the Independent to have an intellectual and magazine-like web presence that he hopes will one day be like Hawaii’s version of the New Yorker or The Atlantic. “We’re not there yet, but that’s where we’re headed,” Hussey says.
If the Independent were to become a true aggregation force the way The Atlantic is, it could seriously undermine the paywall-protected Star-Advertiser by delivering the most interesting excerpts of longer print stories in a free and web friendly way.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser is likely the best known news organization in Hawaii. The collective knowledge in that newsroom — career reporters who have covered the islands for decades — remains a great asset. But like many print newspapers, its website is an aesthetic mess. The design is so cluttered that it detracts from, rather than elevates, the paper’s better journalism. (I have had plenty of my own articles appear on similarly hectic newspaper sites.) More broadly, being the best-known publication on the islands also means fielding some of the biggest complaints about the shortcomings of local journalism.
“For the Star-Advertiser, you might think with the consolidation of talent and resources (from the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin) that there would be more innovation, more investigative reporting, more of an effort to show that the new paper carries on the best traditions of both, more showcasing of its best talent,” said David Briscoe, a Hawaii bureau chief emeritus for the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, it seems to be carrying on the best traditions of neither, except maybe in self-marketing and innovative ways to splash advertising into every part of the paper, including the extremely annoying fold-over front page.”
The Star-Advertiser site’s “hard paywall,” meaning some articles are impossible to view unless you become a paid subscriber, is an online strategy that remains controversial in the industry. Many media trackers argue that the only site that can reasonably make a paywall work is The New York Times because no one else can match their combination of breadth and quality for a vast readership that is willing to pay online. Star-Advertiser editor Frank Bridgewater declined an interview request.
Civil Beat, too, uses a paywall, but its approach has evolved over time. The site has already dismantled its hard paywall — a system that required first-time visitors to the site to pay for access — in favor of a metered paywall that allows visitors to read some Civil Beat articles for free before they’re required to register (and eventually subscribe). While it is possible that Civil Beat will one day eliminate its paywall, the site’s editor says there are no plans to do so.
“We have talked about (taking down the paywall),” Civil Beat’s Epler said. “We’re not changing it right now but certainly the Huffington Post Hawaii addition will get us to thinking about how we should do things a little bit differently.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Hawaii residents had to rely on the daily papers and a twice-an-evening news broadcast to find out what was going on here and in the rest of the world. But now, online coverage is increasingly splintering to target specific audiences who can search for their news anywhere on the Internet. They can access nearly anything, whenever they want to. It’s not an easy environment for publishers to navigate, particularly on the local level.
“I’m not sure that what we’ve seen in Honolulu is much different from what other cities are seeing in their media,” said Bobby Lambrix, a blogger for Media Council Hawaii who works in public relations for the firm MVNP. “There are less resources devoted to covering hard news like city hall meetings, and more resources to food, features and entertainment.”
Indeed, there’s no shortage of feature writing in Honolulu. Nella Media Group publishes the Chinatown Newspaper, a slim, ad-heavy, free publication that doesn’t have an editorial website to speak of. Issues are published online in full as print replicas — so there are no links, no updates, and no new content between editions. NMG also publishes the inflight magazine innov8, as well as the lifestyle quarterly FLUX Hawaii. Newer to the scene is The Offsetter, a Honolulu culture site that appears to publish new content every few days or so.
Web-native news shops like Civil Beat and The Hawaii Independent may not face the operational costs associated with putting out a physical print product, but the digital news industry is still seeking reliable sustainable business models. (And, no, having a generous publisher doesn’t count as a “business model” by industry standards, although it is worth pointing out that Civil Beat founder Pierre Omidyar is part of the growing ranks of wealthy tech entrepreneurs who have taken a profound interest in the press. See also: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who bought The New Republic, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is buying The Washington Post.)
Civil Beat has earned a reputation for investigative tenacity among newsmakers, long-time readers and media trackers, but its popular reach in Hawaii has so far been limited, especially when compared with local television and the Star-Advertiser. (That said, Civil Beat has come a long way. I remember making local reporting calls in the site’s first few months of existence and hearing the person on the other end of the line ask, “Civil Beach? Civil Beef?”)
Briscoe, formerly of the Associated Press, says Civil Beat “badly needs to find better ways to promote itself.”
Gene Park, a former Star-Advertiser reporter who has since done stints in public relations and as a multimedia specialist for the state government, says he still gets “puzzled looks” when he mentions Civil Beat around friends who “aren’t policy wonks or news junkies.”
As a relative newcomer in the Hawaii media scene, Civil Beat has also at times faced criticism for having a young and sometimes malihini staff. Epler shrugs off those complaints.
“We definitely are more aggressive than other media and I think it is a good thing and something that Hawaii needs,” she said. “Political operatives and press secretaries will tell us, ‘That’s not the way we do it here in Hawaii,’ that we’re tone deaf because we ask questions that others don’t ask, or that we adhere to other journalistic standards that others don’t adhere to. We’re not going to back off from what we believe to be good journalistic principles just because some people don’t like it.”
Civil Beat’s track record of bothering public officials is part of what makes some readers appreciate the site. Again, Park: “CB is a known entity among newsmakers, and it’s pretty obvious that they feel pestered. That would be impact enough already, but I know past stories have achieved more than that.”
Its deal with The Huffington Post seems to be one way to spread awareness about the work of Civil Beat, which is in its fourth year of existence, as well as a way to boost revenue. The arrangement means Civil Beat will get a share of HuffPost ad revenue, and HuffPost will distribute some Civil Beat content across the global network of Huffington Post websites. As for what readers might expect, Huffington Post has a reputation for lighter click-friendly fare and aggregation, though it does engage in weighty journalism, as when it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for its 10-part series about wounded veterans. The Huffington Post also is known for its extensive political coverage.
Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington told me that Huffpost Hawaii is committed to publishing everything from the silly to the serious, a strategy that Huffington Post co-founder and BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has called the “Paris cafe” approach.
The idea is that humans are complex and benefit from all kinds of content, and that seriousness and frivolity can — and should — naturally come together in one place. In Hawaii, The Huffington Post‘s emphasis will be on improving readers’ quality of life by “redefining success beyond money and power to include our well-being, wisdom, capacity to wonder and to give back,” Huffington said in a phone interview. “What is interesting is that Hawaii — with the aloha spirit and the way so many Hawaii residents live — epitomizes that.”
Huffington believes there is global interest in stories dealing with Hawaii values, and that even the population of more than 7 million tourists who visit Hawaii each year can be considered an audience in and of itself. But the bigger local impact that The Huffington Post could have may be how it will affect Civil Beat’s allocation of reportorial resources. HuffPost Hawaii will free up Civil Beat to focus even more on document-driven investigative work, Civil Beat’s Epler said.
“Civil Beat is, and always will be, focusing on public affairs that are important to Hawaii, and fostering community debate and discussion through our stories and our reporting and our columns and our community voices,” Epler said. “Huffington Post Hawaii will have the commodity news. They’ll have the governor’s press conference. They’ll have the shark bite on Maui. We’ll be focused more on deeper dives, more enterprise, more investigative, and more watchdog journalism, which is what we’re already doing.”
There’s a popular trope in journalism that the industry’s golden age is over. In certain crowds, nostalgia runs thick for the time when traditional newspapers were cash cows and headlines landed on your doorstep once a day, rather than blinking across the tiny hand-held computer device in your pocket at any moment. And as someone who’s spent countless hours reading old Honolulu newspaper microfiche in the cool basement of the Honolulu Public Library, I get it.
But I’m also of the mind that, as journalist Ann Curry writes on her Twitter page, “journalism is an act of faith in the future.” Asking difficult questions and uncovering answers empowers people, and really can bring about change for the better.
Hawaii has always seemed to me a place where the distant past and the far-off future are present in equal measure. The community promotes a balance of intense respect for tradition and a fierce commitment to making things better for generations to come. Maybe that’s why “kupuna and keiki” always seem to be uttered in the same breath.
For journalists who take it upon themselves to tell the stories of the islands and share them despite — or perhaps because of — the uncertainties ahead, the responsibility is great.
So, too, are the opportunities.