A state stereotypically known for surfing, volcanoes and hula dancing, Hawaii is not generally thought of as a media hub. And things haven't exactly been getting better.
Honolulu lost one of its two newspapers in May, and the city's three commercial television news operations merged into one last November.
What's more, most Hawaii news sources are based in Honolulu, the bulk of news stories are focused on its home island of Oahu, one of eight main islands that make up the state. "You'll only see other stories if something huge happens," which doesn't allow people to "get a sense of those communities," says Robert Pennybacker, PBS Hawaii's vice president of creative services.
But starting in February, an initiative called Hiki Nō may just turn things around. The project, a joint venture by PBS Hawaii and the Hawaii Community Foundation, will establish the nation's first statewide student newscast, inviting middle- and high-school students from all over the state to participate. Hiki Nō's goal is to help bridge the information gap for the people of Hawaii, providing stories from many places that have long been ignored.
Students and teachers from schools throughout the state will create a virtual newsroom to pitch ideas, submit draft scripts, upload broadcast-quality video and craft a newscast.
The finished products will be sent to PBS Hawaii's headquarters in Honolulu, where they will be reviewed, then aired in a 30-minute, commercial-free newscast in a prominent early-evening time slot. Viewers nationwide will be able to follow Hiki Nō broadcasts online.
The virtual element of the project will solve a problem created by the state's geography. "Unlike the other 49 states, the state of Hawaii is not a contiguous land mass where you can drive from one end to another... You fly over," says HCF Director of Communications Kalowena Komeiji. Using digital technology, Hiki Nō participants can compile a newscast with students from other islands without ever leaving the classroom.
The newscasts will also help bring different social classes together: All public, private and charter middle and high schools will have access to the network at no cost. Hiki Nō will not launch until February 28, 2011, but already 60 of Hawaii's 170 schools have committed to participate.
PBS Hawaii has installed Susan Yim as managing editor and Pennybacker as executive producer of the project. They'll provide storytelling feedback and uphold PBS' journalism standards, among other duties.
"We've held teacher training workshops across the state in journalism and video production," PBS Hawaii CEO and President Leslie Wilcox says. "The teachers are motivated and enthusiastic. They say their students are intrigued by the notion of real journalism, after growing up in a media universe in which opinion is too often presented as fact."
Says Yim, "In the process of doing broadcast journalism, students learn skills they can apply to succeed in college and the workplace―and perhaps even more important―to be informed citizens. They're encouraged to be curious, ask questions, think critically, be creative."
Schools are currently participating in workshops on how to incorporate Hiki Nō into their existing programs. The newscast will initially air once a week, but HCF and PBS Hawaii intend to increase newscasts to six times a week within the first year.
"Already in their discussions with the different schools, it's pretty clear that there's a lot we don't know about what's going on in our island communities," Komeiji says. Citing an example of a school known mainly for its poor test scores and not its strong theater program, Komeiji says, "Believe me, I've lived here all my life, and I never would have pegged this achievement onto that school... That's the potential of Hiki No―to bring community news like this and the voices of our students to the fore."
Back in June, members of the Hawaii Community Foundation gathered for a conference call. At the other end of the line was the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, delivering unexpected good news: Knight had decided to award HCF a $240,500 grant for the project.
PBS Hawaii, the state's only public television station serving six of Hawaii's islands, initially thought of the idea as a way to give the state's youth a chance to learn valuable skills, such as how to ask good questions, teamwork and collaborative leadership. Then it teamed up with HCF. But making Hiki Nō a reality seemed like a long shot. It needed crucial funding from Knight to get off the ground, and Knight had never before awarded a grant to any organization in Hawaii.
"We were under the mistaken impression that the Knight Foundation only funded projects in 'Knight communities', and Hawaii isn't a Knight community. Perhaps we were trying to temper our expectations," Komeiji says.
"I announced at a staff meeting that several contracts had just been executed," Wilcox recalls. "A few staffers looked at me like I must have fallen on my head. It was a big number. And then came surprise and earnest applause... There were fist bumps and high fives all around."
PBS Hawaii asserts that Hiki Nō "can do" what has not yet been done in Hawaii. "We believe our students, guided by their teachers, can effectively use technology and journalism to better themselves and our state," Wilcox says.
Funds from the grant will go toward Web design and broadband infrastructure, training workshops for teachers, high-definition editing equipment and video storage, wages for staff, travel and tools for other public broadcasters to replicate the model.
Seed funding for Hiki Nō came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation. The largest single contribution is the one from Knight.
The Knight Foundation donated $3.14 million to 19 locally focused foundations, HCF included, in its Knight Community Information Challenge effort to ensure that communities are informed on key issues. The program is part of the foundation's Media Innovative Initiative, a $100 million-plus effort to help meet America's information requirements.
"Information is a core community need," says Susan Patterson, program director for Knight. "It's as important to a community as clean air, jobs and good schools. Our democracy can't effectively function without it."