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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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.