Ongoing cutbacks at local publications mean there are fewer watchdogs for the public’s interest.

In the 1980s, reporters from four competing publications often attended Kauai County Council and committee meetings, competing for stories but also sharing notes and bolstering the strength of each other’s coverage. 

Today, Kauai council meetings sometimes go on with no reporters in the room.

It’s a dramatic change that has played out across Hawaii in recent decades and comes with risks: less scrutiny of public officials, less civic engagement, more political polarization. It’s also a decline that shows no sign of slowing, with multiple newspapers in Hawaii displaying signs of financial duress today.

“Most people understand that this is not only just tragic, but also has deep implications for the health of democracy,” said Colin Moore, a political scientist with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Star Advertiser staffers Rob Perez, left and right, Bryant Fukutomi hold signs Save Hawaii News outside the Honolulu Star Advertiser offices.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser staff members rallied in 2017 against cuts to the newspaper. Four more employees accepted buyouts last month, and its three-times-per-week live online video interview segment also ended. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Ogden Newspapers is seeking a buyer for The Maui News, a century-old paper that’s dramatically curtailed its coverage and the size of its staff. And in the past month at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, at least four editorial staffers have accepted voluntary buyouts and the hosts of “Spotlight Hawaii” announced the end of their live-streamed interview program featuring local leaders.

“There was this real sense of like slow panic at the beginning of the year when we saw how The Maui News has no vision for the future of the paper,” said Michael Applegate, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. “They’re just managing the decline of the paper and they’re okay with that. And so it’s created this upheaval among news people on Maui who are seeing that there’s a crisis coming for news on the Hawaiian Islands.”

The latest Star-Advertiser buyouts, while relatively few at least so far, come on the heels of a series of cost-cutting maneuvers by the paper’s publishing company, Oahu Publications Inc., which also owns the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, West Hawaii Today, The Garden Island and other local publications. The publisher flagged 31 employees across all departments for removal in June 2020. Ten editorial employees left in 2017 and in 2016, the company trimmed the newsroom by more than 10%.

Dennis Francis, president and CEO of Oahu Publications Inc., did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

An Industry In Crisis

Staff furloughs, buyouts and layoffs have become an industry norm driven by evaporating profits. Nationally, local papers are dying at a rate of two per week. The casualties in recent years number more than 2,000, contributing to a rise in news deserts — communities that aren’t regularly covered by any news outlet.

There’s little reason to believe that local journalism’s death spiral will soon turn around, Moore said.

Even as readers and viewers hungered for Covid-19 updates, advertising revenues that power most media outlets sank to new lows, hobbling local newsrooms. Today, pandemic health concerns have faded and the U.S. is marching toward economic recovery. But problems in the news business remain dire and widespread.

“People today are busier than they’ve ever been before,” said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who retired from his position as Hawaii News Now’s general manager in 2020 to focus full-time on politics. “There’s an expectation in TV news there that you’ll make it worth it, that you won’t waste people’s time. And sometimes in watching, what I see is there’s stuff there that should have been done better. That’s contributing to the problem.”

Technology made journalism faster and cheaper to produce. But it’s done little to stabilize revenue.

Some neighbor island papers struggling to find enough drivers to get newspapers delivered on time have pivoted to postal delivery. For some subscribers, this means the paper arrives in the afternoon, after the news on its pages has already gone stale. 

Newspaper mergers that led to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

The Garden Island, Kauai’s newspaper of record since 1901, has long struggled to retain editorial staff, relying on a revolving door of mainland recruits to fill a dwindling number of newsroom positions. West Hawaii Today recently lost its star reporter, Nancy Cook Lauer, whose years-long investigation of Billy Kenoi exposed the former Big Island mayor’s misuse of a county-issued credit card. 

Lanai Today failed to publish a May edition this year after the paper lost its editor and lead writer, Nelinia Cabiles, who took over when billionaire Larry Ellison bought up the island’s only dedicated news source

The Molokai Dispatch will also lose its longtime editor and lead reporter this month as Catherine Cluett Pactol steps into a new gig as Hawaii Public Radio’s first full-time reporter based on a neighbor island — a signal of the radio station’s steady, modest growth. 

HPR generates most revenue from individual listeners who join as members. So it’s shielded from the pressures of advertiser-funded news. It also isn’t beholden to ratings or circulation numbers that drive broadcast news.

For Pactol, a boots-on-the-ground Molokai reporter for 15 years, staying rooted on the small, rural island positions her to report on community happenings important to Molokai’s 7,000 residents but that might not otherwise attract any independent news coverage at all.

“A lot of the coverage of Molokai from the statewide media comes when something bad happens or there’s a tragedy,” Pactol said. “That’s not necessarily bringing strength to the community and highlighting and celebrating the wonderful things that happen here. And a lot of wonderful things happen here.”

Finding A Path Forward

Employees from The Maui News held informational pickets to raise community support last year as they negotiated contracts with West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers. (Courtesy: Wendy Isbell/2022)

The rise of social media and blogs has filled some of the gaping holes in the news media landscape. Information delivered through social media is rarely vetted for accuracy or objectivity, however. And it can be difficult for some readers to discern advocacy and opinion from the unbiased truth.

“I think for a long time there was a hope that eventually technology would bring enough efficiency gains and a sustainable business model would emerge,” Moore said. “But it doesn’t seem like anyone has really landed on an idea that works. I don’t have any reason to believe that things are going to improve unless you can find an extremely wealthy backer to invest in local news as a public service. You do see that working some places, but that’s a difficult model to emulate.”  

Civil Beat’s major funder is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who launched Civil Beat as a for-profit publication in 2010. The online news site converted to a nonprofit in 2016 and now receives substantial funding from individual donors and foundations.

Even having a wealthy owner does not guarantee stability for a newspaper. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times — two of the nation’s largest newspapers with billionaire owners — have both undergone layoffs this year.

While for-profit newspapers continue to flounder, the number of nonprofit news organizations has grown significantly in the last decade. While many of these nonprofits operate as online-only publications, some newspapers are also turning to the nonprofit model.

The nonprofit National Trust for Local News purchased 22 newspapers in Maine last month, in a bid to bolster local news coverage. The Chicago Sun-Times became a nonprofit in 2022 when it merged with Chicago Public Media, a deal made possible by $61 million in donations from foundations and individuals.

In Hawaii, the loss of coverage is difficult to overstate. 

Reporters covering council meetings on Kauai in the ’80s did more than just compete with other news sources.

“One of the benefits of having multiple reporters covering a story back then is you ended up fact-checking each other because if someone got a story way wrong it was unlikely that the others would,” said Jan TenBruggencate, a Kauai author who was a science writer for nearly 40 years at the Honolulu Advertiser before the paper merged with the Star-Bulletin in 2010. “If you’ve only got one resource and people make mistakes, what can be done?”

The Maui News, which had an editorial staff of 30 throughout much of the 1980s and ’90s, now has just two full-time reporters dedicated to local news coverage. 

Reporting on issues like the county’s decision to adopt a half-percent general excise tax surcharge, simply isn’t as robust as it once was, said Lee Imada, who retired from The Maui News after a 39-year career in 2020. Other issues aren’t being covered at all.

“We’re becoming a little bit of a news desert,” Imada said. “There’s a lot less of a light being shone on actions by the council and the administration, even as the county budget has ballooned to exceed $1 billion for the first time. So county government is growing while the scrutiny of it is decreasing. I don’t have a lot of hope that it will change any time soon.”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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