Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can sometimes feel like we’re isolated and alone. Yet Hawaii has so much in common with the island nations of the Western Pacific, we’re hoping to bring that region a little closer to home as part of a new international reporting program.

Thomas Heaton has joined our staff as a reporting fellow from the Li Center for Global Journalism, part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The program, established in 2020, seeks to encourage serious journalism on international issues.

Thomas shares our interest in agriculture and environmental issues, particularly food security and sustainability. Before he went off to Columbia to get his master’s degree, Thomas worked for news organizations in New Zealand and Nepal where he developed a keen interest in agriculture and the economics of food production in various parts of the world. You can read his bio here.

Thomas Heaton portrait.
Thomas Heaton has joined Civil Beat as an international reporting fellow. You’ll be seeing a lot of stories set in the Pacific Island region that we’re hoping people in Hawaii will connect with. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The fellowship at Civil Beat will allow him to more deeply explore the intersection between climate change and agriculture in the Western Pacific as well as other issues affecting the region.

Thomas notes that there are many difficult conversations going on at an international level about the climate, including stories that don’t get much coverage, especially from the viewpoint of the Pacific nations.

“I think agriculture is extremely important because it is affected by everything from sea level rise to economics to politics,” he says. “Food touches on everything we do and stories can be told from the root up.”

Thomas grew up in New Zealand where he began his journalism career. Covering issues like health care, homelessness and refugees convinced him that food and sustainability were important things to delve into as a journalist. His family life — he’s an army brat — and his career have taken him all over the world.

“I feel like I’ve kind of come home in a way here in Honolulu,” he says.

It’s a big change from New York City obviously, where he attended classes at Columbia. “I feel like I’m back in the backyard of New Zealand.”

The World Health Organization defines the Western Pacific region in this map. 

International reporting that isn’t necessarily grounded in Hawaii is a new area for Civil Beat. We are sharply focused on local news, of course, but since we launched in 2010 we’ve always tried to bring readers stories that speak to what other places are doing and what lessons we can learn and share.

That’s not to say we’ve never stretched our news coverage across the Pacific. Anita Hofschneider in particular has a deep interest in Micronesia and has reported extensively on the issues Pacific Islanders face at home and in Hawaii. Our series “Black Market Babies” that delved into Marshall Islands adoptions was the focus of a season of our Offshore podcast and an investigative series that won national awards. In 2014 we sent reporter Chad Blair and a photographer on a reporting trip to Micronesia.

But we’re hoping that Thomas’ work will bring an even deeper connection between Hawaii and the region with which we share broad common interests.

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