Editor’s Note: There’s a feeling in Hawaii that people here don’t like to rock the boat, to speak up or publicly raise concerns about important issues and possible wrongdoing. But public debate and discussion are vital if we are going to make Hawaii a better place for residents and businesses. This series spotlights people (and organizations) in Hawaii who aren’t afraid to make waves.
WAILUKU, MAUI — Tommy Russo has a nose for bullshit.
Political malfeasance? Animal cruelty? Police corruption? Environmental hazards?
The Maui Time publisher and his shoestring staff routinely sniff out stuff people in power don’t want discovered — and then air it out in the alternative weekly Russo founded in 1997.
“I want to challenge the status quo,” Russo said over spring rolls last month at a Vietnamese restaurant a short walk from Maui Time’s office.
“I just didn’t realize that putting myself out there would be such a lonely place.”
Russo isn’t looking for pity. He’s just frustrated by the dishonesty and depravity he sees at the highest levels of government and business.
“We’re not in a sustainable society right now and I think we all know this,” he said. “If I’m not going to fight for change, then how can I expect anyone else in this community to do the same?”
Russo is a fast-talker with dark eyes and a bright smile. There’s a kindness in his demeanor that might surprise some people who only know him from the first-person YouTube videos of his confrontations with Maui police.
As part of “Operation Recon,” the Maui Police Department set up a traffic stop along Haleakala Highway in November 2012. Officers were cracking down on oversized trucks and tinted windows.
Social media was blowing up about the traffic backing up for miles, so Russo drove over to check it out. He approached the police along the side of the road while capturing the action with his phone’s camera.
Police told him to back away, but Russo continued asking questions and filming the scene. He was arrested for obstruction of government operations, resisting arrest and harassment. A year later, he’s still fighting the case in court.
That wasn’t Russo’s first run-in with MPD.
In April 2011, Russo said he was assaulted by a police officer and a security guard after using his phone to film reality TV star Duane “Dog” Chapman and his entourage in a Wailuku parking lot. A civil case is pending in federal court.
“It’s not just my duty; it’s all of our duty to demand a police force we can be proud of,” Russo said, adding that it’s a shame these negative incidents put a dark cloud over the work of the many great cops.
“We have a right to travel unmolested in this country.”
Russo launched Maui Time 17 days after he landed on the Valley Isle, armed with street smarts, a communications degree from Chico State and a few thousand dollars in graduation money — just enough to print the first two editions.
“It’s almost ridiculous how difficult it’s always been financially,” he said. “But it’s important work, man. We’ll run this thing as long as we can — hopefully forever.”
Russo thrives off a good challenge — financial or otherwise. It’s why he started the paper and several other small businesses.
His latest endeavor is Cheqbook.com, which he co-founded with a group of Maui entrepreneurs as a competitor to QuickBooks.
The online startup is no surprise. Russo said he consumes 40 hours of audio content a week, mostly in the form of technology podcasts like TWiT and Tech News Today.
Maui Time’s website may not reflect his tech obsession, but that’s because he doesn’t want to invest the paper’s limited resources into a “failed experiment.”
Russo envisions a “big data” site that culls posts, tweets and government data and dishes it out in relevant clusters of information that eliminates readers’ needs to follow hundreds of feeds. He thinks Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos will do Big Data with the Washington Post.
The Maui Time office in Wailuku, Oct. 4, 2013.
News should be extremely personal, full of context and curated by pros, he said.
Russo expounds on one idea after another without skipping a beat or missing a bite during our long lunch conversation. He’s like an interactive podcast. You could just press play and listen as he riffs on topics, but he also welcomes your interjections and exchanges of thought.
He’s not all business though. When asked, he’ll gladly explain the Mark Mahoney tattoo on his arm of an old lowrider he built with his dad in the Bay Area. Or the Freddie Negrete piece of his daughter, who’s now 7 years old. Or how he’s into kiteboarding now and juicing (the non-steroidal type, you know, with fresh produce).
Russo met his wife Jen — “a tattooed, mohawked, bad-ass chick” — at a newspaper launch party in 2000. She’s the Maui Time general manager, but has picked up extra duties over the past few years as the staff has shrunk.
Maui Time Editor Anthony Pignataro has watched Russo’s primary focus change over the past decade from businessman to devoted family man.
“He loves his young daughter dearly and she’s turning out to be the same kind of creative, full-of-energy type of person that he is,” he said.
Russo gives Pignataro total editorial control over the paper.
“Tommy is the first one to say that when he intervenes, bad things happen, so his preference is to just let us be,” Pignataro said.
“I take his mission very seriously,” he said. “I wish we had more people, more budget. But it’s something we all have to live with as journalists.”
The one area in the paper Russo does like to get more hands-on with is the cover, which often generates controversy.
Pignataro described Russo as someone who deftly directs his seemingly endless energy at specific targets. Everyone’s generally in the clear when his focus is a new mobile startup. But when it’s a police officer, politician or even an advertiser, look out.
Maui Time has had to rely on mom-and-pop shops for advertising because Russo won’t play games or look the other way.
“We’ve done a fairly decent job of pissing off major corporations in the market, so we haven’t gotten any of their money basically ever,” he said. “We’ve always told our clients that, ‘You’re not No. 1. You advertise with us because we have an audience. And if I do anything for you that doesn’t feel on the up and up, my readers are going to see it and we’re not going to have readership.’”
Russo called it a constant “tightrope act,” not just with advertisers but government officials and business leaders.
“It’s just a bunch of games, a bunch of bullshit,” he said.
The cover of the Oct. 29, 2009, edition of Maui Time.
Take, for example, the Oct. 29, 2009, edition of Maui Time about “The Seven Scariest County & State Elected Officials.” The cover depicted then-Mayor Charmaine Tavares, who had canceled the popular Lahaina Halloween party, as a cartoon with guts coming out of her mouth and bloody wounds on her cheeks.
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, who considers Russo a friend and plays poker with him, recounted the fallout.
“It was not a pretty portrayal,” he said in an interview at his office last month.
“He felt that she was being … too much of a dictator trying to direct what’s allowable and what’s not allowable, and she had crossed the line with Tommy,” Arakawa said.
“So, Tommy now goes on a rant and because he’s a prima donna with a paper, he starts building this thing up. Well, now she starts getting scared and she gets the police involved because she wants to make sure there’s no physical threat to her because she’s starting to feel he’s a little bit wacky and it kind of escalates.”
“It’s not that Tommy is a bad person,” Arakawa said. “And I don’t think Tommy ever intended to do her any physical harm. But from the police side, they have to react when the mayor says, ‘I feel threatened.’
“That guy doesn’t have it in his soul to hurt mosquitoes. He’s a wuss when it comes to physical threatening.”
Pignataro said Russo likes “poking people in power,” adding that this likely goes back to when he was a kid growing up in a middle-class family in California.
Arakawa and his communications director, Rod Antone, chalk Russo’s antics up to the business that he’s in.
“He has to do things that are anti-normal,” Arakawa said.
“Tommy is in the newspaper business, and he’s been very successful in what he’s doing,” he said. “People who are in that business are very temperamental and sometimes very imaginative. You sort of have to be imaginative to be in that business. And they’re also prima donnas, for the most part.”
Still, Antone, a former reporter, said the Valley Isle may be better off because of the competition Maui Time gives Maui News, the county’s daily paper. (Maui News actually prints Maui Time, despite the public chastising it receives for doing things like putting up a paywall on the paper’s website.)
Speaking from personal experience, Antone said Oahu was better served before the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
“The competition made us better,” he said.
Arakawa says you have to admire a guy like Russo, who’s been “a rock” at the paper, but he doesn’t blame the police or former mayor for their reactions to his aggressive style.
As for Russo, he said it’s getting harder to keep up the pace but he has no plans to give up fighting corruption at all levels.
“The more I see it, the more frustrated I get,” he said. “But I’m also realistic. I don’t know if I’ll effect change.”
Russo has always thought “Nudge” would be a good name for the paper.
“Just nudge things in a better direction,” he said. “Shining a light for a better outcome. It’s been a very dark place.”
Looking five years ahead, Russo said he hopes to see more people at the table engaged in broader community discussions on how to bring about positive change.
“A lot of people hate me, but if they saw the bigger picture, they might feel different,” he said.