The Paperless Press in Honolulu
Good journalism isn’t dead. While there are fewer reporters, and Honolulu has become a one-newspaper town, local online-only news outfits pursue solid reporting and somewhat less solid revenues.
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Jim Dooley had made several phone calls to the number listed on the Volcano Girls escort website to set up a “date” with a woman named Kendra. Dooley was to pay $300 for her “gift” and meet Kendra at the Waikiki condominium at 250 Ohua Avenue. She buzzed him in to the first-floor apartment. They walked into her bedroom, where white twinkling lights strung atop the bedroom window provided the only light. Dooley handed her $50—the cancellation fee—and walked out, but not before catching the whole thing on video, thanks to the small hidden cameras he had secured to himself before leaving the office. He later confronted UH economics professor Lawrence Boyd, who owns the condo, on camera about the alleged escort services in his home. Boyd denied any such activity. And then HPD got involved, thanks to Dooley’s digging.
It would have been a great scoop for any newspaper. These days, though, Dooley’s stories don’t hit the streets at all—in print, anyway. He writes for Hawaii Reporter, an online-only news website, alongside Malia Zimmerman, who co-founded the site 10 years ago this February. The two of them are Hawaii Reporter’s entire staff, and their work makes waves. Zimmerman is best known for her coverage on the Ka Loko dam breach in 2006 and its ties to James Pflueger, but the pair have also unearthed stories on human labor trafficking, illegal lottery gambling in Chinatown and prostitution.
It’s been two years since Honolulu became a one-newspaper town, and three years since the consolidation of Hawaii News Now shuttered one TV newsroom. Many reporters lost their jobs, some turning to public relations or different careers entirely. Some people feared Honolulu was in for a daily-news drought. Instead, there’s been good news for those who like their reporters scrappy and the reporting investigative: Professional, online-only publications are filling the gap. This includes Hawaii Reporter and Civil Beat, the two-year-old journalism startup by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. While some ex-reporters and bloggers around town also break stories and provide commentary through personal sites, these two organizations are trying to make a go of it as actual businesses, with enough revenue to fund full-time, salaried reporters. We checked in with both to see how they do what they do, and whether or not what they do is sustainable.
How they got started
Take a quick glance at the “about us” tab on each website, and you’ll likely recognize some of its staffers—Jim Dooley, Chad Blair, Malia Zimmerman. Some of them have been reporting in town for decades, and, likewise, some were laid off from those same big-name news institutions. This happened to Zimmerman. She was let go from her reporting job at Pacific Business News (PBN) and decided she not only still wanted to be a journalist, but her own boss, too. So, together with Jay McWilliams, also formerly with PBN, the two launched Hawaii Reporter in February 2002. “I felt like Hawaii really needed investigative news and a media outlet that wasn’t going to be so concerned about [whether] advertisers would be affected by a story.” She started off by posting short news stories, before “blogs were even a thing,” she says with a laugh. The website originally brought in money through researching government documents and records for the public.
John Temple, Civil Beat’s launch editor, also turned to an online news gig after he lost his print job as the editor/publisher/president of the Rocky Mountain News when the 150-year-old paper folded in 2009. (Temple declined to be interviewed, referring us to Civil Beat’s current editors.) He spearheaded the citizen-driven journalism website yourhub.com in Denver before being tapped for the Civil Beat position. He’s now back with the big, mainstream media again; this April he left the Islands to become managing editor of The Washington Post.
Taking over the helm at Civil Beat is Patti Epler, a seasoned reporter in a handful of states, who was originally brought in as the deputy editor. Like her predecessor, she, too, had been laid off from print journalism. Of her new role at Civil Beat: “It’s probably one of the best news jobs in the country. It’s very freeing from the print model, it’s an exciting place to be.”