In 2019, Lanai’s only newspaper sold to Pulama Lanai, the management company that oversees billionaire tech mogul Larry Ellison’s ownership stake in this island of 3,000 deeply rooted residents.
Ellison owns 98% of Lanai, including a third of the housing, the water utility and the twin luxury resorts that employ the majority of working residents.
Now he also owns Lanai Today, the paper of record on this tiny island with no traffic lights and only 30 miles of paved road.
The ownership change is raising questions about the independence of the lone newspaper that covers the Lanai community, where much of life is already dominated by Ellison’s influence.
Joie Chen, a senior advisor at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute, said residents should stay vigilant for signs that the paper could be stifling community voices, especially if those voices contradict his plans for the island.
“I can’t think of an environment in which transparency is more important than when you have a situation where so much of the island, and now the only news source, is owned by one voice,” said Chen, who worked in television news for 30 years.
The paper’s new publisher, editor and lead writer, Nelinia Cabiles, says she has full control over editorial direction and no one has ever tried to guide her coverage.
“I wouldn’t have accepted this job if I was supposed to communicate a particular point of view,” she said.
But some residents say the paper has historically displayed bias in favor of the majority landowner.
“Over here, it’s still the coconut wireless that keeps us in the know, the newspaper doesn’t really get into sharing voices that are dissenting,” said Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson. “But my point is that it never did. That’s how it’s always been.”
Founded in December 2008 by longtime Lanai resident Alberta de Jetley, Lanai Today has long been filled with stories about local businesses and government officials, reprinted press releases, letters to the editor about homeless pets and a tally of traffic citations and arrests.
Feature stories dominated its 20 black-and-white pages — a story on the Four Seasons’ employee of the month or the island’s new UPS delivery guy. A chronicle of municipal landscaping improvements. A blurb about the badminton club’s loss of practice space.
As the paper’s owner, publisher, editor and lead writer (who also sold advertising and managed subscriptions), De Jetley said her main objective was to support her advertisers and her own vision for the island’s future.
Although a majority of Lanai residents opposed it, she did not hide her support for a controversial large-scale wind farm — the project known as Big Wind — near Polihua Beach proposed by David Murdoch, the island’s previous billionaire owner.
“There was one voice coming out of that paper and it was pro-windmill,” said Johnson, who, in addition to serving on the County Council, works as a farmer.
The paper’s top story in January 2018 discussed Ellison’s plans to grow food in high-tech hydroponic greenhouses and declared, “It’s an exciting project and will create agricultural jobs for residents.”
A 2018 report about plans to use the skies over Lanai as a test site for giant, high-altitude drones with wings that span more than 200 feet included similar praise: “It ultimately may open doors to an exciting career in aerospace technology for our next generation of Lanaians!”
De Jetley acknowledges her bias. But she said no one ever told her what she should and shouldn’t write. Rather, she made editorial decisions based on her desire to portray the island in a positive light.
“I got some flack for not wanting to step over into areas that were problematic,” she said. “But my feeling always was, ‘Hey, if you want to write something that I don’t really want in my paper, buy advertising space and you can say anything you like.’”
By mid-2019, De Jetley, then 74, had tired of monthly deadlines and decided to give up the paper. In a bid to ensure that the tiny island wouldn’t lose its only news outlet, she
asked Pulama Lanai President Kurt Matsumoto if the company would like to buy it.
The first edition of Lanai Today under Pulama Lanai’s new ownership was printed in December 2019.
“I think it was something that was very appealing to (Pulama Lanai) because what if I had managed to sell it to somebody else whose mindset was totally different from what we are all working toward?” said De Jetley, whose point of pride is that she held on to three-quarters of her advertisers throughout her 11 years as publisher.
Still, the sale of Lanai Today to Ellison may have saved the island from joining the growing list of American news deserts — communities that have no local news coverage at all.
The coronavirus pandemic hit a couple of months after the ownership change went into effect, and De Jetley figures she wouldn’t have been able to keep the paper going while her advertisers were suffering a long bout of economic devastation.
“If (Ellison) didn’t buy it,” she said, “who would have?”
Across America, billionaires are increasingly stepping in to save the fourth estate, investing in newsrooms on the verge of economic collapse. Civil Beat was founded in 2010 by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire who also founded Ebay.
In many cases these ultra-wealthy media barons — Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post and Patrick Soon-Shiong of the Los Angeles Times, for example — are pouring financial investment into newsrooms that had been on life support while reportedly staying hands-off when it comes to editorial coverage.
This isn’t always the case. When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg forbade his eponymous media company from investigating his 2020 presidential campaign, he undermined the organization’s credibility.
A quarter of all U.S. newspapers have folded in the last 15 years, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study of the demise of local news coverage.
When a local newspaper shuts down, research shows that voter participation wanes and taxes go up. In place of local news, communities start to rely on national news coverage.
“You see this kind of myopia developing,” said Brett Oppegaard, who studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
“You’re kind of seeing the world through this gigantic lens instead of seeing what your neighbors are up to or what your city council is deciding on or how your local police force is doing,” he said. “And those are all significant losses to a community.”
Lanai Today under Ellison’s ownership has changed in small but visible ways.
Last May the paper underwent a redesign with color photographs and a magazine-style front page.
The content has changed some, too.
There are more human interest pieces, such as an interview with a 9-year-old boy who discusses his favorite books and biggest fears. The tone is more literary.
There’s a new standing column by Sensei Ag, the high-tech hydroponic farm funded by Ellison, that includes news about the company as well as a recipe spotlighting Sensei Ag-grown ingredients.
And there’s a bit more more transparency. A reprinted press release now states the name of the organization that wrote it. An editor’s note reads: “I asked Lanai Today readers to reflect on 2020 … Full disclosure: the entries are from my friends.”
Born in the Philippines and raised on Lanai, Cabiles left the island in 1982 when she was 17 to pursue higher education, including a master’s degree in creative writing, on the mainland.
The job at Lanai Today brought her back home.
“I see this as an extraordinary opportunity to showcase this community because Lanai is really unique,” she said. “It’s not for everybody. And so my objective is to write stories that celebrate this way of life and that help people see their own connections to this history here.”
Cabiles is on the board of the Lanai Chamber of Commerce. De Jetley is listed as a member of the board’s advisory committee.
Cabiles said accuracy and objectivity are her guiding principles, and she tries to seek out sources with opposing views. But she acknowledges that the paper doesn’t cover many controversial stories.
That doesn’t mean Lanai doesn’t have controversy and hotly debated topics.
Residents often complain of political neglect as there’s a perception that state and county government would rather let the island’s billionaire landowner invest in Lanai projects.
And like everywhere in Hawaii, affordable housing is in short supply and families sometimes bunk up together to keep a roof overhead.
The loudest reader response has so far been generated by Cabiles’ first-person column about her encounters with Filipino stereotypes and her column denouncing residents who dump deer carcasses off the highway.
If readers feel as though they aren’t seeing enough variety of perspectives reflected in the paper, Cabiles said she hopes they’ll write letters to the editor, which she publishes, to express their views.
But, more than other places, Johnson said Lanai residents tend to keep their criticisms close to their chest, especially if it goes against the majority landowner.
“This is still a plantation town, it’s a one-company town,” Johnson said. “To speak out in public, there’s risks involved for anyone.”
“Let’s say, for example, I work for (Pulama Lanai),” he said. “Well, then I also rent my apartment or my house from the company. I also go grocery shopping at the company store. If I go fishing, I drive on the company road to get to the beach. Everything is owned by the company. So if you do have a differing opinion, you really ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.