Creating Hawaii’s Favorite Paper

Don Chapman
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July 22, 2009
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Larry Mehau: MidWeek’s cover on Jan. 25, 1995

I’ll begin this column in MidWeek‘s 25th anniversary issue with the same anecdote I shared in my first column as MidWeek‘s editor in November 1994.

You see, during the 20 previous years I spent as a reporter and columnist, my attitude toward editors was summed up by a veteran New York Times reporter at his retirement party after 40 years. Asked why he never became an editor, as if that were some sort of career deficiency, he legendarily replied: “Editors are those people who separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw away the wheat!”

Having had my brilliant copy hacked up too often by what I considered clumsy, insensitive, goose-stepping Nazi storm troopers posing as editors, I agreed completely.

And then I became one. Yikes.

As it turns out, in a career of what I consider to be nothing but plum jobs (some guys have all the luck), this is by far the best. I’ve heard that it’s not healthy to identify what you do with who you are, but it’s too late for that. I am the editor of MidWeek, and love everything about this job.

(What makes that funny is I hated MidWeek when it began publishing in July 1984. At the time I was the Advertiser‘s lead columnist, and the job came with six paid Neighbor Island trips annually, as well as a Mainland trip. Yes, sweet. But shortly after MidWeek first rolled off the press, my travel budget got whacked - because the little startup was luring away ads from local grocery chains. Even funnier: Today I’m pleased to say they remain a big part of what we do.)

Anyway, over the years I’ve tried to throw away only the chaff, and to cultivate the wheat. You’ll have to ask our writers how well I’ve succeeded. But it’s my humble opinion that

MidWeek is the best-written publication in town.

In the past 15 years, both MidWeek and its editor have undergone some changes (in my case, less hair, more pounds and kids all grown up). When I started, MidWeek had almost no journalistic credibility. It was rightly called a “shopper.” I was determined to change that.

Almost equally bothersome to me was the lack of organization within the pages. Politics, sports, entertainment and food columns were sort of jumbled throughout the paper. So the first thing I did was establish a sensible, predictable flow of content from front to back.

I also started lobbying for more color pages - at the time the only color was on the cover and in a few ads - much to the consternation of our late press manager Russ Retynski, one of the world’s all-time great grouches (but who is still greatly missed).

One story in particular started to change the way people looked at MidWeek - and who even bothered to pick it up. In January1995, for an interview that then-columnist Eddie Sherman helped arrange, Eddie, myself and photographer George F. Lee flew to the Big Island to sit down with Larry Mehau. I brought along four hours of blank tapes, normally more than enough, but we ended up spending the entire day with Larry and his wife Bev at their Waimea ranch, even staying for dinner. Larry and I met two more times at his Hawaii Protective Association office in Honolulu, for a total of 15 hours of interviews, which produced a two-part cover story - among other things debunking Rick Reed’s self-serving fable that Larry was the so-called “godfather” in Hawaii.

Similarly, retired Gen. Fred Weyand sat down for a series of interviews that produced another two-part cover story, in which he for the first time detailed a career that included service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I was, and am, honored that this great man shared his stories with me and MidWeek. (The general has so many good stories, I repeatedly urged him to write a book, but he always refused. He is man of honor.)

Perhaps nothing brought MidWeek as much attention in the early days as our Most Wanted covers, publishing photos and rap sheets of CrimeStoppers’ most-wanted criminals. With a capture rate of about eight of 10, even other media had to cover the captures and mention us. My favorite story regards the woman who appeared on that first Most Wanted cover. An avid MidWeek reader, she went out to her mailbox as usual on a Tuesday in September 1995 and was shocked to see herself. So she called me and demanded, “Who gave you permission to use my photo?!” My reply: “HPD. Uh, where are you calling from, ma’am?”

We also added new features, including Newsmaker, Old Friends, Good Neighbor and Movers.

Readers noticed the changes, and within one year of my assuming the editor’s desk MidWeek‘s readership for the first time surpassed that of the daily papers. Given my 13 years with the Advertiser as daily columnist, beating some of those storm trooper-editors tickled me quite a bit.

And a decade ago we moved to a more convenient tabloid format (from a double-foldout broadsheet, because we wanted a paper people could read on a bus without getting into a fight with their seatmate).

As our readership continued to grow, so did the paper itself - from 24-32 pages in 1994 to 80 or more today.

In the early years, I wrote most of those features, along with a column and some cover stories. But as our staff gradually increased from three full-timers in the office to 14 (with a similar increase in the number of local columnists and freelance contributors), in recent years I find myself writing less and managing more. In fact, working with younger writers, photographers and artists to help turn a raw idea into a polished story is every bit as satisfying to me as writing a solo story.

Also significantly, in the early days I judged MidWeek columnists to be too white, male and liberal. Nothing wrong with any of those - to paraphrase the old saw, hey, some of my best friends are liberal white males - but not when that describes nearly all your political writers. And so we began to find some balance by adding new columnists, including Rick Hamada and Michelle Malkin, ardent conservatives both, one of Japanese heritage, the other Filipino.

The single thing of which I am most proud is that you will never find a newspaper that presents a broader spectrum of opinion on matters of politics and world affairs than MidWeek. This represents my world view as perhaps the most independent editor you’ll ever meet. Which is why each week we publish columns with which I disagree, from both our liberal and conservative writers. To do anything less, to me, is to fail to fully express our sacred American liberty. At a point in history when press freedom is limited or nonexistent in so many parts of the world - Iran and Myanmar are perfect examples, China limits news about protests by Tibetans and Uigurs, and when President Obama gives a speech to the people of Russia it is not carried by state-controlled Russian TV or papers - MidWeek will remain a beacon of free expression, where all civil dialogue is welcome.

Indeed, nothing gives me more satisfaction than hearing from readers who say they appreciate MidWeek‘s obvious respect for their intelligence by offering multiple, undiluted opinions of all stripes.

And so, considering all this, by the time MidWeek was named best non-daily newspaper in the Hawaii Publisher’s Association Pa’i Awards a few years ago, nobody was surprised.

One of the best things to happen to MidWeek during my tenure was the promotion of Ron Nagasawa to publisher in December 2001. Ron tends to be a quiet guy, but when he speaks good ideas pour forth. Honolulu Pa’ina photo pages, Business Roundtable, the Hot Ticket movie review, Style pages, Scene@Night nightlife photos, Ron Mizutani’s ocean column and the pets column by Dr. John Kaya each originated with Ron - who also just happens to be our town’s most popular columnist. Among our staff, Ron is like the coach you want to play your best for and win, because you respect him so much and don’t want to disappoint him.

Likewise, our owner David Black bringing in Dennis Francis as company president in July 2004 infused us with new energy and good ideas, including the popular Doctor In The House column as just one example. In this business, we run on energy and ideas as your (non-hybrid) car runs on gasoline.

Two things about MidWeek have remained constant over the past 15 years:

First, senior editor Terri Hefner had been here nearly two years when I arrived, and she is one of the most solid, reliable and hardest-working people I have ever known. I respect her tremendously, and often bounce ideas off her. If Terri thinks an idea is bad, forget about it.

Second, readers appreciate that we do “good news.” Next time you hear someone say good news doesn’t sell, point ‘em our way. In fact, in the past year MidWeek readership is up by 20,000 adults, according to Scarborough Research, at a time when papers across the country are losing readers, from The New York Times to the Los AngelesTimes, and other papers are tanking, including big, venerable papers in Denver and Seattle. Even the San Francisco Chronicle is on the ropes, and its demise would leave the city without a daily paper. Meanwhile here on Oahu, half a million folks pick up MidWeek every week, and we thank each one of you for doing so.

But we’re not about to take anything for granted, not in these times. Yes, being the best-read newspaper in Hawaii does make us proud, especially looking back at whence we came. But it’s also a responsibility to every week bring you stories that are of continuing interest and relevance in your life - stories that inform, entertain and edify. And by story I mean the full package, words, photos and headlines.

At many papers there is a sort of disconnect between the editorial side and the advertising side. But you’ll never meet an editor who appreciates more than I what our sales folks do, and what our advertisers make possible - the delivery each week, for free, of an award-winning paper to nearly 300,000 Oahu homes, not to mention some fantastic savings when you shop. If you like receiving MidWeek, please continue to support the loyal advertisers who pay all the bills. (The amazing thing is our ad rates are considerably less expensive than, say, the Advertiser, which then charges people for the paper.)

As I’m fond of telling our staff, journalism is the greatest team sport ever. The process of turning raw story ideas into a printed newspaper that shows up in your mailbox requires so many steps and skill sets, so many people, only a great team can pull it off. And we’ve assembled a great team here at MidWeek.

I am eternally proud and grateful to serve as their editor, and look forward to celebrating future significant anniversaries with them and with you.

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