By Paula Thomas and Lara Hughes
Celebrating 50 Years
The Big Island Press Club is the oldest running media and journalism organization in existence on Hawai‘i Island. In September, the club celebrated 50 years of protecting the public’s right to be accurately informed. A dinner was held at Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo to commemorate the auspicious anniversary. Pulitzer prize winner Kirstin Downey was the event’s keynote speaker. In attendance were BIPC founding members Jim Wilson and Eugene Tao, Hawai‘i media professionals, senators, representatives, council people, students and a multitude of community members. Mayor Harry Kim issued a proclamation and declared September 21, the day of the celebration, to be known as Big Island Press Club Day.
In reflection, founding member Jim Wilson commented, “I’m very proud… the club is still in action after 50 years and has a very good record in fighting for openness in government… that is quite an accomplishment.” BIPC president and recent UH Hilo graduate Lara Hughes called for the continued support of journalists and media professionals in the islands and elsewhere, “Our freedoms reflect the successful efforts and sacrifices reporters and media members of the world have made. It is important to consider the coming generations and what we might do for them.”
In the spirit of ensuring a free press, open government, and connection among members of the media back in August 1967, journalists and news broadcasters got together to create a club on Hawai‘i Island. These young men and women worked for the newspapers and radio stations, all competitors for scoops on breaking headlines. To quote former Tribune-Herald news editor Hugh Clark about these times, “Radio folks did not talk to each other and never to the newspaper guys or vice versa.”
As a founder looking back on the events of 50 years ago Gene Tao reflected, “The club was organized during a time when there was a brutal labor strike against the Tribune-Herald. It had really divided the community.” As the story goes, Bill Arballo, a radio guy from KIPA and stringer for United Press International, encouraged a steak fry. Shortly following that, noted correspondent for the Honolulu Advertiser, Walt Southward, hosted a meeting at his home. The stage was set, and the next meeting at the Hilo Country Club launched the official start of the Big Island Press Club.
Within a year, club members had passed so many good times on Friday’s in an old parsonage next to the Tribune-Herald which housed its very own bar, its social purpose was solidified. Says Gene of the change in social climate, “The Press Club was a good gathering place for all media.” The club mended the fences between the news and radio guys. It helped members get past the strike in 1967 and got people working together over issues of open and transparent government.
Early club members hailed from the three AM radio stations on Hawai‘i Island as well as from the seven newspapers statewide. Bill Arballo, from KIPA radio and UPI, was a co-founder along with Jim Wilson, then advertising director and later publisher of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Tribune-Herald reporters Gene Tao and Hugh Clark, along with Southward (who later became a noted PR specialist) and radio DJ Clift Tsuji made up the core group of founders. Advertiser Cartoonist Harry Lyons crafted a logo for the club in a tribute to the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, as she sat at a typewriter making the news. It was delivered to the club with a message: strive to be more than the flourishing Honolulu Press Club. To this day, there are only two press clubs in the state of Hawai‘i.
Once the Club got going, the first big challenge came in the form of having an “Openness in Government” provision approved by the Charter Commission. Nearly 18 months later, an open-meetings open-records provision was part of the Hawai‘i County Charter, and the Club had won its first major battle.
For the initial two years Bill served as the club’s charter president, and in 1970, he and other BIPC members launched an original show called the Imu at the Naniloa Crown Room. The first successful evening, complete with song and dance by members including Hal Glatzer and George Durham, set the stage for a decade-long run of satire-fueled annual fundraising roasts.
Hilo High School journalism teacher Yukino Fukubori was asked to join the club soon after its launch. She refused unless the club would create a scholarship for students interested in media studies. Cobbling together membership dues wouldn’t work long term; but as luck would have it, when roving reporter Robert C. Miller spoke at the club’s first event, attendee and at the time state senator “Doc” Hill was so moved he donated $1,000 toward a scholarship, and Yukino joined the club.
Now, 48 years later, there are six scholarships awarded annually in amounts that total over $4,500. One of the scholarships today comes from funds donated by Yukino herself.
Each year at a dinner held in late April–May, these commemorative scholarships go to Hawai‘i Island students enrolled in college full-time and pursuing a career in journalism or a related field.
Much of the funding comes from donations made by the family and friends of members who have passed on and wish to keep the club’s legacy alive. Thanks to the persistent work of former Star Bulletin reporter Rod Thompson who served as club treasurer for 11 years, the BIPC has wisely invested and protected these funds for the continued support of future generations of Hawai‘i’s media and journalism students. The club became a bona fide nonprofit organization in 2004, making donations tax-deductible. Robert Duerr, of Hawaii Fishing News, took over from Rod as treasurer and has served in the position for the past 14 years.
Janis Selland Wong, who worked for the Tribune-Herald as a reporter and recently retired from running her own freelance writing and editing business, was among the first students to earn a scholarship in 1969. Janis reflects, “That I received the BIPC scholarship 48 years ago and the program continues today is testimony to the Club’s dedication and commitment to future journalists as well as defending the public’s right to know.” She now serves on the board of the BIPC as a director and as the membership committee chair.
Scholarships not only help to perpetuate the journalism profession but keep the BIPC connected to the upcoming generations of would-be media members.
On a Mission
Each year the BIPC announces an emeritus award and a deserved dishonor award. The Torch of Light award goes to a person or organization that works to uphold the public’s right to know. Last year the club honored State Senator Lorraine Inouye for her legislative advocacy during the 2015 Puna lava flow where press was initially banned. This year, the club is giving the award to Nancy Cook-Lauer of West Hawaii Today for her investigative reporting work, which shed light on former Mayor Kenoi’s misuse of a county-issued p-card.
The Lava Tube dishonor award goes to an individual whose lack of communication keeps the public in the dark.
The Big Island Press Club also sponsors newsmaker luncheons and networking events with guest speakers including award-winning TV investigative reporter-turned-PR specialist Keoki Kerr and Hawaii Newspaper publisher Dennis Francis, among others.
The BIPC has also helped sponsor the student-organized UH Hilo Media Symposium for the past two-years running and has welcomed students to serve as directors on the board. Some of these students have even gone on to hold officer positions.
As Hugh noted in his history of the BIPC, “legal battles are everywhere.” Jim commented, “We will always face the issue of access. Open government will always be an issue for reporters.”
Gene adds a new layer to the conversation, addressing the technological advances that media professionals and the global community face today, “There is too much fake news because people don’t have good training. It’s what has got us all confused. That’s why I think that education is important. Two things I want to see the Press Club continue is education and to be the watchdog for the people.”
Providing scholarships to students and a networking platform for media professionals while upholding the public’s right to know has been the mission of the BIPC since its founding, and it may be more important than ever in today’s political climate and this era of fake news.
It is a tribute to the early founders that a club like this exists here on Hawai‘i Island. We can all take a moment to be grateful that it is still going strong, and hard at work on its First Amendment-inspired mission that benefits us all.
If you are interested in supporting the club by becoming a member for a $25 annual dues fee, serving on a committee, or making a donation, visit bigislandpressclub.org. ❖
All photos provided courtesy of Big Island Press Club.