When U.S. Rep. Mark Takai died just over a year ago, he was remembered for his many accomplishments, especially his political and military service as well as his passionate support for education and student athletics.

What received less attention was that Takai was also a journalist, having served as editor-in-chief of Ka Leo O Hawaii, the University of Hawaii Manoa student newspaper, from 1990-1991.

After his death, Takai’s Democratic colleague U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard recalled his work at Ka Leo in remarks in the House of Representatives.

She noted how Takai “investigated sexual harassment at a time when victims were routinely blamed and disbelieved. Perhaps that is not too hard to believe because even today that is happening, but almost 30 years ago, he stood up for the victims.”

Takai himself explained in a television advertisement for his 2014 race for Congress that he was actually sued by some UH employees for publishing stories on sexual harassment. It clearly helped form the exceptional leader Takai would become.

We bring up the late congressman because the newspaper that he loved is in danger of dying.

Ka Leo, founded in 1922, is going broke, and the flame-of-knowledge logo that the paper shares with the school could soon be snuffed out.

The Student Media Board is expected to decide later this month whether student fees should be raised for the first time in decades to keep the operation going. The ultimate decision rests with the UH Board of Regents.

Our advice to UH: Increase the fees, but also reconsider the business model.

Print advertising — and print newspapers —  are going the way of the horse and buggy, and the trend line is equally obvious on campuses.

While it is noble for Ka Leo to want to continue its print edition, Chaminade’s Silversword and Hawaii Pacific University’s Kalamalama exist only online. Those school publications went all-digital in the past few years. 

Kalamalama’s Facebook page actually gets many more hits than the newspaper’s website, and the comments and interaction reflect the preference of the younger generations.

Meantime, UH Hilo’s Ke Kalahea — more a news magazine than a newspaper — has struggled to maintain a consistent web presence. Its glossy version, however, which is funded solely by student fees, is published every two weeks and is distributed around campus by students.

Going Where The Students Are

As recently as 2010, a study by the Poynter journalism institute in Florida found that students preferred the printed newspapers of student papers to visiting the website version, such as over lunch or walking between classes.

But seven years is an eternity in the modern era. A 2015 Penn State report explained that student papers are struggling to innovate digitally to satisfy readership habits.

Congressman Mark Takai editorial board1. 29 march 2016.

Congressman Mark Takai visited Civil Beat’s office in March 2016. He excelled as editor-in-chief of Ka Leo.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Another Poynter piece last year notes that papers at campuses including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Arizona State University and Cornell University have been doing what Ka Leo has already done: dropped the number of days it produces a print edition in favor of more focus on digital.

One paper — The Mountaineer and Mt. San Antonio College — dropped its print edition and website in 2015 to publish entirely on Medium and Twitter. Others exist only on Facebook, examples that Ka Leo (which has a Facebook page and a website) should explore.

Some may think most people consume news through mobile devices that require apps. (Ka Leo now has one, called Manoa Now).

In fact, many folks are consuming news through a mobile browser instead. A student news website should have a platform that is responsive on mobile devices with quick load times.

Why Students Should Care

While college newspapers are following students online, the big question is whether there is any revenue to be made by the shift. It’s a mixed bag so far, underscoring the necessity for university support.

There is also the vexing challenge of student apathy.

It’s not that Ka Leo hasn’t published work relevant to student lives.

Recent cover stories reported on the sluggish search for a new Manoa chancellor, urged voter turnout in the 2016 election with a “no vote, no voice” headline and an illustration of the rail project, and explored how to mitigate the challenges of commuting to and parking on campus.

Here are a few reasons why students should care about having a newspaper:

  • They serve as the pulse of student life and the most public way to express their voice in university matters. (Ka Leo Of Hawaii means “the voice of Hawaii.”)
  • They help set the public agenda for public discourse and document activities that their student dollars are paying for.
  • They hold leaders accountable, fulfilling critical democratic functions within the UH media ecosystem.
  • They provide invaluable work experience — in writing, editing, production, art and photography, video and design, working with the public, collaborating with others, abiding by budgets, critical thinking — which are far more valuable than simply earning a B in calculus.

Which brings us back to Mark Takai.

Another controversy during his tenure came when Hawaiian Studies professor Haunani-Kay Trask told a white student from Louisiana that Hawaii could do with one less haole.

Takai and Ka Leo did a tremendous service by devoting issue after issue — through letters, commentary, cartoons, illustrations and news stories — to chronicling the heated aftermath. Some even called Ka Leo racist for its reporting. 

But the paper helped students, faculty and staff navigate through an emotionally charged issue that involved powerful, sometimes complex arguments on multiple fronts.

Ka Leo shaped Mark Takai. Let’s keep it alive to shape future leaders like him.

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