UH Campus Newspaper Turns 90

Ka Leo exhibit

Part of the Ka Leo exhibit at Hamilton Library. Leah Friel photo lfriel@midweek.com

A new exhibit celebrates nine decades of student journalism at Manoa, and asks compelling questions about the paper’s role

She may be 90, but this old lady is anything but gray. In fact, Ka Leo O Hawaii, the University of Hawaii’s student newspaper, has never looked better. Soaked in color, and boasting art, graphics and online resources that previous generations of student journalists could barely have imagined, the newspaper seems well poised to do what it has always done, outlive and sometimes outperform its larger and better-funded competitors.

In celebration of its milestone, Hamilton Library’s Bridge Gallery is hosting an interactive exhibit that not only celebrates the newspaper’s rich heritage, but asks a fundamental question about the role of newspapers.

“One of the themes is ‘has a free student press been too free at times?’ and it asks the viewer to engage in that question when they view the content that has upset people over the years,” says Jay Hartwell, faculty adviser for the UH Board of Publications.

The question is appropriate. Over the years, Ka Leo‘s editorial decisions have angered, shocked, entertained and informed the campus community. It has reported on the news and, at times, become part of the news. At no time was this more evident then in 1990 when Joey Carter, a Caucasian student, wrote a commentary for the paper objecting to being called “haole.” Professor Haunani-Kay Trask’s response to the editorial created a thoughtful and sometimes angry yearlong discussion of culture, free speech and Native Hawaiian rights. Similar discussions have been held over the years from nuclear testing in the Pacific and Vietnam protests to whether a professor whose research was thought to be racist and sexist deserved a building named in his honor, or if an article discussing sexual positions is proper for a university newspaper.

But through it all, it’s been students, working for little or no pay, who have made each celebrated and controversial decision that has produced the state’s most independent newspaper. That independence, says Hartwell, is not by accident.

“What is impressive is the university’s commitment to the program. There have been many times over the 90 years that the student editors really upset the university community and the community at large, and yet the commitment has never waivered to this student-led program, and that has a lot to do with that 90 years.”

The exhibit was created by UH graduates Erica Lenentine (BA-Art, 2011) and Chad Kikuchi (BA-Art, 2010) who pored through 90 years of issues to select the subjects to be presented. The display asks viewers to tweet their responses to six questions scattered throughout the show and inspired by the content. One part of the display asks, “When should student journalists put limits on their free press rights?” The question was prompted by comics and satire that over the years have angered people on campus who thought Ka Leo went too far. Some of those cartoons are on display and shielded by an opaque American flag with the First Amendment stenciled upon the white stripes. By opening the flag, people can answer the question.

“One of the neat things about going through 90 years of Ka Leo‘s coverage is seeing how much of it was student-led and student-inspired,” says Hartwell. “All the changes that have taken place in terms of design, in terms of coverage, in terms of content have all been led by students.”

Some of the photos on display were taken by former Ka Leo photographers Jordan Murph, who has gone on to shoot for Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Golf Digest and Getty Images, and Kent Nishimura, who worked for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Getty Images and The New York Times.

The paper has grown considerably since 1921 when Henry Bindt, a blind student, decided UH needed a student newspaper and shepherded the idea to fruition. Today Ka Leo has a total production staff of about 90 students doing everything from writing to photography, page design, advertising and marketing.

“What’s wonderful about Ka Leo is that it attracts all kinds of students,” says Hartwell. “You have people who are passionate about sports, you have people who are passionate about news, you have people who want to tell stories through features, people who want to be illustrators or videographers and we get all of them here and they all want the opportunity to learn the process through Ka Leo.”

Since its inception, Ka Leo has been supported by student fees and advertising. Ad sales had always been wanting because of the inexperience of the newspaper’s skeleton advertising staff. That changed in 2010 when the Board of Publications, the group that oversees Ka Leo and other campus publications, hired Rob Reilly as its first advertising sales, marketing and promotions adviser. Under his leadership, Ka Leo‘s advertising has climbed from $80,000 in his first year to a goal of $250,000 for this academic year. Reilly says the entire Ka Leo budget is $750,000 a year.

“When I came in we had one student ad rep and one designer,” he says. “Now we have 15 ad reps, eight designers plus a PR team and Web-development team, a student ad manager and a student marketing director.”

All this to provide even more career opportunities for staff members.

“The ultimate goal is to provide a professional work experience for the students so when they graduate they can seamlessly move into a job in the media industry, if they want to,” says Reilly. “They will also have professional working experience, not just belonging to a student organization, but working at a student newspaper that was run very professionally.”

Have the student editors always made the right decision? No. Ka Leo has made its mistakes. But it also has challenged and sometimes surpassed Hawaii’s professional dailies in terms of speed and fair reporting. Such was the case in 1953, when in the face of the Red Menace, Ka Leo was the only publication to fairly report on The Golden Rule, a 30-foot ketch that pulled into Honolulu Harbor on its way to protest atomic testing in the Pacific. While both the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin characterized the crew as unAmerican, Ka Leo sat with the crew members and provided perhaps the only in-depth coverage of the story. Douglas Cater, writing about the issue in his 1959 media study, “The Fourth Branch of Government,” wrote, “Ka Leo was among the few local newspapers to let divergent voices speak in the news section and reserve opinion for the editorial page.” Or as Helen Garacimos Chapin wrote in Shaping History: The Role of Newspapers in Hawaii, “… the student publication rose above the level of mainstream press discourse to distinguish itself.”

The exhibit runs through May 11 and is open to the public.