Ka Leo O Hawaii isn’t just a student newspaper; it’s your free weekly report about activities at one of the biggest taxpayer investments in the state, the University of Hawaii. No one in the world can cover this public institution better than the independent student journalists embedded within – and constantly circulating – its systems. For that reason alone, it deserves robust financial support.

As a metaphor, though, Ka Leo should be considered more of an experimental public garden than an executive report. It’s the distinctively protected place, like a greenhouse, in our society where we plant citizenry seeds and either nurture the emerging hybrid species or strangle them.

Students return to UH this week for the start of the fall semester, with eyes bulging at opportunities offered throughout its campuses. UH Manoa, alone, has 280 registered independent organizations (clubs), plus various chartered student groups, such as the Associated Students of the University of Hawaiʻi (ASUH, aka student government), KTUH (an island-wide radio station broadcast on FM-90.1, 91.1 on the North Shore) and Ka Leo, which this month requested an increase in student fees for the student newspaper, the first such request since the 1980s. With a circulation of 10,000 printed copies weekly, Ka Leo is one of the largest and most visible media sources on Oahu.

Kaleo O Hawaii Advertising representative Ashley Maria hands out today’s University of Hawaii at Manoa newspaper to students during Mauna Kea rally held fronting the Campus Center. 13 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat.

UH student newspaper Ka Leo O Hawaii is seeking a hike in student fees to solve its financial problems. The weekly has a printed circulation of 10,000.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This past decade has been a disaster for the newspaper business model, decimating a generation of journalists in the process. Yet similar to what happened during the fall of Nixon, the latest presidential attack on the Fourth Estate has generated a strong counter-wave of support for what journalists do, particularly for industry leaders such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.

While this wave of civic interest has not yet reached the levels of most local and regional news organizations, I’m eager to report that we have been witnessing a recent surge of interest at UH, too, which offers the only journalism major within 2,400 miles.

Our introductory journalism class increased enrollment this fall by about 40 percent, and the path to a celebrated career at The New York Times, or wherever, invariably starts for students in just such a survey course and through participating in student media, like Ka Leo or KTUH. Many – if not most – of the professional journalists in our community right now worked at Ka Leo.

As part of an apprenticeship system, every journalist I know spent at least some time in service of a college newspaper. As an occupation, journalists don’t have licenses or credentialing exams. They have the student-newspaper gauntlet, in which only the best and most-devoted practitioners survive and thrive.

I am one of those, for example, who came to a university unsure of what I wanted to do with my career and life. I had excelled in math and thought accounting might be my calling, until I spent a significant amount of time sorting and categorizing receipts.

Trying to become the first person in my family to graduate from a university, I was wandering in the intellectual wilderness my sophomore year when I enrolled in a basic newswriting course and, as part of reading the student newspaper for class, kept complaining about how terrible the publication was performing.

My journalism instructor, Roberta Kelly, in a moment that I still remember vividly to this day, challenged me to “go down there and show ‘em how to do it.” So I did, only to be immediately shocked and humbled by how difficult journalism actually was to practice in public.

Those next few years writing for the student newspaper honed my skills and opened my mind to what I could contribute to public discourse. Only a few of us in that cohort ended up working as professional journalists, but just like other expansive liberal-arts fields, such as sociology, psychology, history, geography, English, etc., vocational placement isn’t the only goal of a program; perpetuating the ideology is the most important part.

If you believe in fairness and justice, if you believe in holding the most powerful people in society most accountable, if you believe in unadulterated and unvarnished truth, then you follow the journalistic ideology (which is sometimes separate and independent of the business interests of the news “industry”). If you prescribe to this ideology, then more training and practice in it only will make your grasp of the ideology and adherence to it stronger.

The journalism faculty at UH, of which I am a part, recently generated objectives for our graduation-day deliverables in our students that included the following pledge, as a promise to anyone who wants to hire our graduates:

“Our students are aggressive, ethical, culturally adaptable and worldly do-gooders. … They know how to write well. They know the laws that govern public communication. They are tech-savvy. They are proficient with both a video and still-image camera, feeling comfortable on both sides of the screen. Ultimately, they create high-fidelity media that promotes an open and transparent democracy.”

Ka Leo O Hawaii, UH Manoa newspaper dispenser at Hemenway Hall, UH campus.

Green bins holding Ka Leo newspapers can be found all over the UH campus and in surrounding neighborhoods.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Such an ethic transcends traditional media work – although there’s nothing wrong with that, either – to bring the journalistic ideology into all kinds of workplaces that our students end up embodying, including teachers in classrooms, government spokespeople in public meetings and lawyers in courtrooms.

In our heavily networked and digital society, every business is a communication business, and all communication benefits from the fundamentals skills of journalism, such as accurately gathering information from all sides, making sense of that information and then reporting it back to others in efficient and effective ways.

Journalism, like the Scientific Method, is more of a process than a product, as a way to seek truth and share it widely, which is why students from all fields could benefit from taking at least a few journalism classes. Journalism studies can help students in the arts or sciences or engineering or medicine, or countless other fields, communicate with members of the general public about the technical issues they really care the most about, from as many angles and in as much depth as a person desires.

Because the student newspaper is independent from the formal journalism program, it has the potential to attract diverse voices, with different interests, from various fields, into a single forum. This garden of ideas shouldn’t need to justify itself for student-fee support any more than student government does. They are inextricably linked, in our grand-experiment model of Democracy, and without a free and independent press, democratic discourse cannot survive any more than plants without water.

Ka Leo has persevered for nearly a century because of such self-evident truths about the value of a student newspaper. Without it – and it is threatened right now by economic stresses – journalism will be weaker in Hawaii, and you will know less and less about the major investments taxpayers make – and decisions administrators make – in higher education.

This student fee increase seems like a reasonable request, but in addition to giving Ka Leo more money, I hope that community members – and UH students in particular – think deeply about the opportunities a vibrant student newspaper affords our community. I hope you carefully consider where society would be without its journalists and news organizations, from student publications to The Washington Post.

If you aren’t exceptionally pleased with what you get from the local newspaper, this is your chance, get involved, go down there and show ’em how to do it.

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.