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.
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.”
How they cover the city
It’s a quiet Thursday afternoon. The sun streams in from the large windows in the Civil Beat newsroom on the second floor of the Central Pacific Bank building in Kaimuki. The office is large, with loud, patterned carpet. Reporters’ desks cluster at one end of the room.
“With even two or three reporters out, it can feel dead,” admits assistant editor Sara Lin. Maybe that’s because she’s used to large, bustling newsrooms. Before joining Civil Beat, Lin wrote for the Los Angeles Times and later for The Wall Street Journal. Still, Omidyar’s foray into online media intrigued her. So the Punahou grad quit and came back home.
Both editors say Civil Beat’s founder isn’t much of a newsroom presence. (He also doesn’t do media interviews.) He’s on the editorial board, but doesn’t dictate what the reporters cover. In financing Civil Beat, Lin says, Omidyar was looking to approach news differently. “We’re not just writing about the news,” she explains. “We’re asking the questions behind the news.” Civil Beat’s motto is, “Change begins with a question,” a slogan it likes so much, it’s been trademarked.
Today, Lin and Epler oversee five reporters, and, as of press time, are in the process of hiring a sixth. The reporters cover four main areas: the city, the state, usually relating to government and public policy, education and the environment.
Browse CivilBeat.com (even without a subscription) and you’ll see a lot happening. Even in its short existence, the staff has impressive election coverage, providing a level of in-depth reporting not compiled elsewhere. The website also has breaking news and entertainment stories, but it’s aggregated content from national and local publications, including HONOLULU Magazine. (It’s a popular online tactic; the more content you have, the more visitors to your website.)
Civil Beat reporters produce two to three stories every week, and each has a blog. Meatier stories often involve slogging through public documents and meticulously inputting data by hand into Excel spreadsheets, says Epler, who helped manage the “Taken for a Ride” series on the state Department of Education’s school bus contracts.
“We went back 11 years, analyzing the data, and noticed that one year there were no competitive bids [for the bus contract], and it happened again year after year, and you see it in the rising costs,” she says. “I believe that series led to the situation that we’re in now, which is that the Legislators got fed up with paying these rising prices and said that’s it.”
It’s that kind of investigative reporting that’s persuaded elected officials to take Civil Beat seriously, says Epler. Gov. Neil Abercrombie himself is a regular reader, says press secretary Donalyn Dela Cruz; his office also has a paid membership.
Last summer, for the first time ever, a Hawaii federal judge allowed a reporter to live blog in her courtroom when Lin covered the Aloun Farms trial. “I was there every day, even though I didn’t have to be,” says Lin. “When someone gives you the chance to try to do something for the first time, you better freaking do a good job.”
“Civil Beat has helped fill the void when it comes to investigative reporting,” says Beverly Keever, retired UH journalism professor, adding that she likes that Civil Beat posts original documents with its stories.
Blogger Ian Lind agrees. The former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter writes about media, public policy and more on his website ilind.net. “I think it’s been a successful experiment so far,” he says. “They’re putting reporters in City Council, at the Legislature, at public hearings. They’re reestablishing [a] presence” that he says has otherwise significantly diminished at print and TV outlets because of smaller budgets and fewer reporters.
Hawaii Reporter has a similar investigative bent, except that it’s Dooley and Zimmerman doing the bulk of the website’s news reporting. When you think of an old-school investigative journalist, you might picture Dooley, with his dog-eared reporter’s notebook and no-nonsense demeanor. He answered our questions matter of factly; usually he is the one asking the questions. He’s covered Honolulu since 1974, working at both The Honolulu Advertiser and KITV.
Following his escort expose, Dooley donned the hidden cameras again, this time for an undercover story about illegal Thai lottery tickets sold by small-restaurant owners, vegetable vendors and knickknack sellers in Chinatown. “It was a really good piece of work,” he says of the story, published this May. “It led to an FBI investigation.”
“I take my hat off to Malia Zimmerman, and I’m pleased she hired Jim Dooley,” says Keever. “I’ve been hooked on Hawaii Reporter from the beginning.” She says she even sent Zimmerman a card and a check for the Reporter’s 10th anniversary.
Unlike Civil Beat, Hawaii Reporter doesn’t have a newsroom; Dooley spends his workday in a small office in the basement of the Capital, while Zimmerman also has an office near Roy’s in Hawaii Kai. In addition to his longer, research-intensive pieces, Dooley posts news stories every day. “Malia is good about [giving me the time],” he says, “But it’s a two person operation, so if I’m not contributing on a daily basis I feel kind of bad.”
Zimmerman is the face of Hawaii Reporter and is well spoken and personable, which works well in her roles as reporter, editor, sales representative and publisher of the website. Dooley says she works around the clock, always “feeding the beast.” Somehow she also appears on a twice-weekly Olelo news show.
Despite Zimmerman’s and Dooley’s hard-news stories, the Hawaii Reporter is often pegged as having a conservative bias. The website does feature John Pritchett’s cartoons and a weekly column by KHVH radio host Rick Hamada (both Hawaii Reporter and Civil Beat go on his show). Lind sees the Reporter as right leaning and, because of that, says he’s only “an occasional browser.”
“People label us conservative, but the bottom line is we go in and we look at news stories from a taxpayer perspective and that’s how I see it,” says Zimmerman. “I think our straight news stories are straight news stories.”
Conservative bent or not, Dooley says it doesn’t affect his reporting. “People can look at the stories we’re producing and draw their own conclusions,” he says.
How do they make money?
That’s a really good question,” says Zimmerman, with a laugh. “We’ve done a lot of experimentation.” She’s not alone; it’s something everyone in the publishing industry, from lone bloggers to media conglomerates, talk about, a lot, HONOLULU Magazine included. It’s safe to say there’s not one, proven formula to making big bucks online.
Still, Zimmerman has managed to make a living off her website, and pay Dooley a salary. She sells ads to companies such as Aston Hotels, JS Services and the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. It doesn’t hurt that she can tout website traffic spikes upward of 200,000 uniques when national sites such as the Drudge Report or Fox News link to a Hawaii Reporter story. According to quantcast.com, which tracks websites’ traffic, Hawaii Reporter has 20,000 to 30,000 average monthly unique visitors.
Avid Hawaii Reporter readers do their part by donating anywhere from $5 to $95 (the amount needed to become an “assistant watchdog”). “We also get grants for investigative reporting,” she explains. In 2009, Hawaii Reporter partnered with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a national nonprofit that funds local government reporting. It’s supported some of Zimmerman and Dooley’s stories.
Over at the Civil Beat headquarters, things are simpler. There is no online advertising, says operations director Heidi Pliszka, nor do they intend to sell any. Civil Beat brings in money through donations and paid subscriptions at $19.99 per month (or less, when there’s a promotion).
Pliszka wouldn’t share how many subscribers Civil Beat has, but says the website gets around 50,000 individual visitors each month. Lind admits he only subscribed when there was a price break. “At full price, I would question whether it’s worth it at this point,” he says. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how many members Civil Beat has, it has the financial backing of Omidyar, Hawaii’s richest resident, and the 50th wealthiest American (as ranked by Forbes in 2011).
Omidyar’s patronage is something anyone familiar with Civil Beat would acknowledge, including its own staff. “Pierre started this, he got it going, but it can’t just be in the hands of one person,” says Lin. “Ultimately, if this succeeds, it has to be something that the entire community decides to [support].”
“I don’t know if he’s making any money,” adds Keever, “but he’s interested in impact, and he’s had it. Not many news outlets have a billionaire as publisher. I think its innovative and inspiring.”
Both Civil Beat and Hawaii Reporter are homesteaders on the digital frontier and the real secret to their success isn’t getting the most unique visitors or subscribers, but, rather, going back to the roots of journalism. It’s about solid reporting, which often requires time, patience, sifting through public records, interviewing multiple sources. And then uploading the story online and tweeting about it. This is 21st century news in Honolulu.