2015 General Excellence in Online Journalism, Small Newsroom finalist


About the Project

Honolulu Civil Beat just turned 5 years old. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and this community, and have fine-tuned what we want to be now that we are at least partly grown up.

The vision is still the same — we want to use our journalism skills and ideas to engage the community in a way that helps people make good decisions about Hawaii. Ultimately, it’s all about making Hawaii a better place.

But we’ve also learned that people can’t relate solely to “in-depth, investigative, watchdog reporting.” While we pride ourselves on our high-level public affairs coverage we have learned that there needs to be multiple ways to skin that particular cat.

To that end, we have changed our game a bit this past year. Yes, we still try to do at least three major in-depth reporting projects a year (no small feat since we only have seven reporters) and you’ll find those on our site under the “Special Reports” tab. (Check out “Death on the Streets,” an examination of homeless deaths, and “Promised Land,” a multimedia reporting project on an island that was once a bombing range that Native Hawaiians are now struggling to restore.)

And we will always use conventional reporting methods to bring news and important developments to readers. For instance, our coverage of the 2014 elections was both traditional and innovative (see our Elections/Politics page). We commissioned a number of independent polls (The Civil Beat Poll) but we also sponsored community events that we call Civil Cafes that offered panel discussions of political and community issues. We were the only news outlet to give an early forum to the long-shot gubernatorial challenger, David Ige. He went on to win the Democratic primary over the guy who was running for re-election.

So, while Civil Beat is very strong when it comes to solid news reporting, engaging writing and well-crafted opinion pieces, we decided we needed to give more of a voice to what was bubbling up from the community.

Please check out the “Living Hawaii” series as a great example of that. We have been examining the high cost of living in Hawaii as a Civil Beat initiative with the goal of surfacing as many solutions as possible. In July, we asked Deputy Editor Eric Pape to focus pretty much full-time on this series. He has produced an amazing series of high-level columns and in-depth reports on complex economic issues behind the high cost of living.

The community responded overwhelmingly to this mix of more accessible journalism. Everyone — from taxi drivers to gubernatorial candidates — are hit hard by the cost of living. The series became an undercurrent of the elections.

In September, we started a Facebook group to channel discussion on the issue. It has grown to nearly 1,000 members who share not only practical tips for bringing down the cost of living, but offer news reports from other places and propose ideas that could work for Hawaii. Members include local residents as well as policy makers and civic leaders. (The success of that group led us to create other Facebook groups around education and a controversial development project, the construction of a $6 billion rail line.)

In April, we launched a new section of the site to allow people to share their own personal stories about how the high cost of living has affected them. “Connections” has included tales of how higher prices here affect cancer treatment, how people who move away cannot move back again, how young adults can’t afford to buy homes here. The development of Connections required innovative design and programming aimed at encouraging storytelling and personal narrative instead of the shorter, often less-thoughtful comments like those you see at the bottom of all our stories.

Connections has now expanded to include an outpouring of emotional stories on another sensitive topic — Native Hawaiian culture and beliefs as they bump up against the University of Hawaii’s efforts to continue development of world-class astronomy facilities on a sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.

In the past year, we also launched a new podcast series — the Pod Squad — that takes advantage of the same voices, both on staff and from the community to further drill down on issues of importance.

Besides our growing Facebook following, we use Twitter as well as Storify to cover breaking news and events that resonate with the community. Live blogging interesting hearings or court proceedings, for instance, has become standard operating procedure.

We also livestream our Civil Cafes (live community forums) that have become monthly occurrences and regularly draw more than 100 people to the venue and more online. Topics have ranged from homelessness to improving biking in Honolulu to political efforts to produce more renewable energy. We’ve done education cafes at various schools and taken the forum to the Legislature where lawmakers, staff and citizens attend over the lunch break. Most of the events are also carried live on the public access cable TV station, Olelo.

In the past year we also have increased our efforts at data reporting — another element our readers love. Among other things, in April we developed and published a searchable database of the financial disclosure forms required annually of all elected officials and top state executives. Those are available as pdfs on the state website — until someone leaves office and then they’re hidden. But our database, which we add to every month, is searchable in numerous ways and maintains an archive of disclosures even after people leave government service. The response was overwhelming and the City of Honolulu Ethics Commission asked us to include local officials as well, which we have now added.

Civil Beat has won numerous accolades and awards, including two first-place trophies in 2013 from the ONA. Our work in 2014 won six Best of the West awards and we have been named the best news website for four years in a row by the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. We have been written about in many journalism professional journals (Neiman J-Lab, MediaShift, Columbia Journalism Review) and also in general circulation publications and magazines.

Most importantly, though, we have had a great impact in Hawaii. And that’s what we set out to do five years ago. A few examples besides what we’ve described above: Our investigative work has been used as the basis for legislation on police accountability and reform. Our watchdog reporting has led to campaign finance investigations and ethics probes. Our sustained reporting on lack of public access to inspections of elder care homes resulted in the governor ordering his health department to post the records online.

But we are reaching the community in a way that is inspiring them to make a difference too. Our coverage of lack of air-conditioning in many public schools (our photographer used a special infrared heat camera to show “hot spots” around students’ and teachers’ desks) prompted a group of private school student leaders to launch a Kickstarter campaign. They raised $20,000 which is paying to bring solar-powered air conditioning to one classroom in a low-income neighborhood. They plan to continue raising money for more classrooms when school starts again in the fall.