Hawaii is losing another independent media voice this week. And that’s too bad.
Hawaii Reporter founder Malia Zimmerman is leaving the island for a job as an investigative reporter with FoxNews.com based in Los Angeles. It sounds like a cool gig — she’ll focus on criminal justice issues including ferreting out the kinds of corruption she’s been ahead of the pack on here. And she gets to travel all over the country to do it.
But the future of her 13-year-old website — her labor of love, as she calls it — is somewhat in doubt. Its primary funder, Watchdog.org — part of the conservative Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity — is looking for someone to take over.
Still, no one had materialized by the time I sat down with Malia for iced drinks Friday afternoon at a Starbucks in Hawaii Kai.
Longtime investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman is leaving Hawaii for a mainland news job.
Patti Epler/Civil Beat
The fading of Hawaii Reporter should be of concern to all of us who cherish arms-length news reporting. And for a number of reasons.
First, the shutting down or absorption of independent media voices seems to be growing in Hawaii in recent years.
In 2009, two TV news operations — KHNL and KGMB — consolidated under one owner, Raycom Media of Alabama, into what’s now known as Hawaii News Now. The two stations air the same daily newscasts. A third station, KFVE, buys the news report from Hawaii News Now but does not broadcast at the same time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said all three stations had consolidated under Raycom and simulcast their news reports.
In an email to Civil Beat on Tuesday, Hawaii News Now general manager Rick Blangiardi and news director Mark Platte said: “Raycom did consolidate the newsrooms of KHNL and KGMB into Hawaii News Now to ensure the survival of our news effort in a very challenging environment for news operations all across the country.”
They noted that the consolidation into Hawaii News Now has resulted in more hours of news, including investigative and public interest stories, than other stations in Hawaii.
In 2010, the venerable Honolulu Advertiser was taken over by the nearly as venerable Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Oahu Publications, owned by Canadian media mogul David Black. His Black Press Ltd. operates numerous media properties in Canada, Washington state and California, among others. When the papers morphed into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, many journalists — mostly from the Advertiser — were let go. Hawaii has clearly suffered from the lack of what had been for more than 100 years a sometimes fierce competition between the two big dailies.
Meanwhile, in 2013, the scrappy, independently owned Honolulu Weekly folded. No one stepped forward to save it and though its editorial staff tried for a time to keep it alive online, the crew abandoned the effort and found employment elsewhere.
“I’ve struggled really really hard to provide an independent voice in news in Hawaii.” — Malia Zimmerman
In the case of Hawaii Reporter, the state is also losing a very different kind of editorial voice. Most of the media leans to the left here, supporting liberal causes and Democrat politics.
Malia’s operation was one of very few associated with Republicans and conservative politics, thanks in large part to her main funding source. While she and her reporters practiced some of the best watchdog journalism in the state, there was no mistaking the conservative voices that often provided much of the secondary material she published.
That’s a view this heavily Democratic state needs and will surely miss. Voter apathy and low turnout in Hawaii’s elections is often blamed on the sheer dominance of the Democratic Party in Hawaii. Arguably, that situation just took a turn for the worse.
Malia, who was born and raised in Kailua, waves off the conservative tag of Hawaii Reporter with a short laugh.
“Personally, I’m a Libertarian,” she says, fiscally conservative but socially moderate to liberal.
Politics aside, she says the Hawaii Reporter, which launched in 2002, was aimed at the kind of issues everyone should appreciate — government waste, accountability and fraud.
Malia and the reporters she was able to afford for a time produced some of the best investigative reporting on important community issues that are still bubbling up — police corruption, prostitution, human trafficking. The small staff loved hidden-camera videos and posted them with online reports.
Malia traveled to Samoa one year to write about a garment factory that had essentially enslaved hundreds of women.
Laotian farm workers suffering at the hands of their overseers on Oahu were the subject of a special investigation: “Scammed in Laos, Trapped in America.”
Her reporting on Thai farmworkers helped fuel a U.S. Department of Justice criminal case against the farm’s owners. (That case was later dismissed.)
“Jana’s Story” followed the life of an underage sex trafficking victim in Honolulu, and was part of a string of stories and videos about brothels operating — seemingly as law enforcement turned a blind eye — on Oahu.
Soon after the so-called “Wonder Blunder” scam cost the University of Hawaii hundreds of thousands of dollars when a sold-out Stevie Wonder concert turned out to be a fraud, Malia flew to Miami and tracked down the elusive office of the phony promoter.
“The underbelly of Hawaii,” is how Malia describes her specialty, lamenting that the people in power on the island often are aware of it but ignore the problems, despite the high human costs.
It’s what drove her to reporting in the first place, and as she looks back on more than a decade of deep dives into the dark side, she’s a little bittersweet to be leaving it all behind.
It’s a tough road to travel when you’re doing it virtually alone and with no money.
“I’ve struggled really really hard to provide an independent voice in news in Hawaii,” she says.
What about the continuing loss of independent media outlets?
“I do see a problem,” she says.
And the problem she describes is the same now as it was when she started Hawaii Reporter: big media owners controlling the news and protecting the advertisers and the politicians they need for their own survival.
“They’re ignoring stories that should be told, they’re protecting people, they’re protecting government,” Malia says.
“I think we gave everybody respect. I published everybody’s letter. I got people from all walks of life to write columns for us.”
But it’s a tough road to travel when you’re doing it virtually alone and with no money. When Watchdog.org cut Malia’s funding a year or so ago, she lost veteran investigative reporter Jim Dooley, who had joined her site after he was laid off by the Advertiser in the takeover. Other revenue sources proved elusive in the small island community.
So when editors she’d worked with from Fox News’ website approached her about a job, she decided to take it. The time has come, she says, to try something different while still being able to do what she loves — report on crime and corruption.
“I’m 46,” she says. “I just really wanted a change.”
But first, one last evening paddle with her Hawaii Kai team. She knows she’ll be back frequently — her family’s here, her roots are here.
“If I ever left for a week before this I’d get homesick,” she says. “But now I feel like I’m ready for a new challenge.”
Watch a 2012 video highlighting some of Hawaii Reporters’ best work:
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.