Through his one-man Wake and Wander Hawaii newspaper, Will McGough raises a disruptive question: Did journalism give up too easily on print?

McGough independently publishes and distributes his 16-page newspaper once a month around Oahu, akin to producing and sharing a travel blog (only on paper). His mantra: “I love to wake up and find something new.”

Wake and Wander Hawaii mostly shares first-person storytelling about travel within the Hawaiian Islands.

The 31-year-old chooses the ideas, writes the stories (about 10 per month), takes photos, produces and edits the publication’s digital files, picks up copies from the printer and then transports them around the island (by car and foot), placing stacks in about 60 locations. He also does windows, literally, spraying a shot of cleaner on his blue-box fronts with each new delivery, then wiping them spotless.

Will McGough was excited by the response to his new printed publication in Chinatown. When he was making his next delivery, though, he noticed produce sellers were taking his free papers from the boxes and wrapping vegetables in them. So now he places this sign on some of his distribution boxes.

Courtesy of Will McGough

The wiry and youthful entrepreneur has been mistaken on his route – as when wearing his faded Cincinnati Reds baseball hat, shorts and sneakers – for a paperboy.

A graduate of the Temple University master’s degree program in journalism, he actually has been a self-sustaining freelance writer since 2012, he said.

But McGough also has been looking for a way to tell the stories he wants to tell, rather than being confined to compiling the bulleted lists, like Top 5 Craft Beers Brewed in Pennsylvania, requisite in most of the travel coverage published today.

McGough recently traveled to Fiji and — through a series of unusual circumstances — ended up participating in a wild pig hunt. McGough had an amazing time and spun together a splendid pitch to magazines, hoping to publish a long-form narrative about the adventure. He couldn’t find any takers, though, just suggestions of how he could turn that tale into a sellable list.

“Oh, my gosh, my life is lists,” he lamented, “my entire income comes from ‘listicles.’ Quite frankly, I’m sick of it and can’t imagine doing that the rest of my life.”

Reared in a suburb of Philadelphia – where Benjamin Franklin once cranked out the Pennsylvania Gazette – McGough argues that print products might not have the same dominant place in society’s media ecology that they once had, but they still have an important place.

Jack Shafer of Politico made an argument last year that the newspaper industry might have committed a colossal goof in subjugating print in favor of flashier digital channels, when one paid the bills and the other, well, still hasn’t. People habitually continue to read many forms of printed products, including books, magazines, comics, flyers, brochures, etc., and, yes, even newspapers, he noted. Advertisers pay significantly more for paper, and printed ads appear to be effective.

A counterargument, though, is that newspapers did not respond boldly enough to changing technologies, to protect their business interests, allowing Craigslist to suddenly siphon off their classified ads and Facebook and Twitter to subsume their delivery systems, leaving them holding inky old news splattered onto rolled up papers about to be unceremoniously tossed into the neighborhood bushes by poorly trained 12-year-olds.

I think both perspectives are correct, to varying degrees, but each offers oversimplified analyses of what happened. The industry was way too conservative and way too liberal, holding onto telegraph-era traditions while also giving away valuable news products to anyone who could connect two computers across the internet.

In those days, journalists traditionally were kept separate from business interests, for good reasons (to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interests), by a formidable wall between advertising and editorial departments. The degradation of that wall has contributed to the “fake news” meme circulating now.

McGough said he’s meeting or exceeding his expectations so far for the small business. He’s also working seven days a week, often 12 hours a day.

McGough, with Wake and Wander Hawaii, knows that to survive he has to be more than just a writer in his business model. He has to generate the stories but also sell sponsored content, negotiate with printers and deliver the papers himself.

“No one’s dying to have a new publication in their stores, so you have to be relentless,” he said.

When I asked if he followed some sort of industry standard about conflicts of interests, such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, he guffawed and said he follows his own code of ethics. If it feels right to him, he said, he’ll do it, and if it feels wrong, he won’t. He added that readers can judge his ethics by the character of his content.

In that respect, he will approach sponsors only when he considers them to be a good match for his editorial sensibilities, such as local airlines offering good deals on flights between islands. He won’t, he said, just sell space to anyone.

Generally speaking, his business model is based on the mathematics of the “true fans” concept, in which any media creator needs just 1,000 patrons providing $100 a year, or linked variations of that ratio, to create a sustainable income.

He distributes 5,000 free copies per month but at this point only has about 20 subscribers. He covers his costs with “sponsored content,” not display ads. He’s already two months ahead on his bills, he said, and invested some of the profits back into the business.

McGough moved from Denver to Oahu about a year ago and immediately began building out the Wake and Wander Hawaii idea, releasing the first issue in October but skipping two months along the way because of conflicts with his other work commitments.

He said he’s meeting or exceeding his expectations so far for the small business. He’s also working seven days a week, often 12 hours a day.

He has tried hiring part-time staff and freelance writers. He has considered renting office space, rather than creating the newspaper out of a room in his rented unit in a Waimanalo farmhouse.

“This is grassroots, small staff, a new model,” he said. “If I was going to pay for layout, rent office space, hire distributors, it just wouldn’t work.”

Many other small publishers around the island have similar dreams, of staying focused on print and niche topics, including Kailua Town magazine, Honolulu Plus and the North Shore News, with the motto “Dis Buggah Free! Since 1970.”

The stylish free weekly, Metro HNL, which McGough considered his toughest competition, started with much fanfare in 2014 but flamed out a few months ago, without as much as a goodbye column from its editor, Christina O’Connor. Her final piece, which used fake names in coverage of the saucy topic of “Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies,” remains the lead story on the defunct paper’s website, in an odd stasis, not quite dead but not alive anymore either.

O’Connor, now on staff at Midweek, was reached by telephone but when asked about what happened to Metro HNL, she suddenly said she had a meeting to attend and that “the publisher” would call me to talk about that. I asked who that would be, and she repeated “the publisher.”

I said I would like to talk to her, too, about her experiences of running a print-oriented weekly here. She said she would call me back. I asked her if she would really call me back. She insisted she would. She didn’t, and “the publisher” didn’t either.

From his perspective, McGough theorized that Metro HNL started with too much overhead and not enough personal commitment.

“A big office with a bunch of reporters on phones,” he said. “That’s an old-school model.”

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.