Malia Zimmerman has never been afraid to take on the political establishment in Hawaii.
She took on the former governor after she was fired from her journalism job -- saying her employer was pressured by the governor to fire her. She exposed political corruption and refused to hand over sources. And she constantly takes on Hawaii's notoriously tight-knit business and political elite.
Her site, the Hawaii Reporter, is one of the few investigative online newspapers that digs deep into local issues and politics --and that has gained her national attention.
On March 14, 2006 the Ka Loko Dam, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, was breached – unleashing 400 million gallons of water, destroying everything in its path, and taking the lives of 8 people. After months of investigating, Zimmerman helped expose the government’s failure on many levels to prevent the disaster.
“That story changed my life, changed my direction in life, and taught me a lot,” Malia says. “That story represents everything that’s wrong about Hawaii: a big, powerful businessman, who gives the media a lot of money for advertising because he owns car dealerships, and him not being looked into or investigated because of all that.”
She’s known for being fearless and tenacious in challenging assumptions and the status quo, says former Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), and that has earned her some powerful enemies in Hawaii.
“Folks that work in the political status quo in Hawaii don’t really want any light shown on what they’re up to or why, and those folks don’t like Malia because she does shine a light. So they’d just as soon she go away, which she’s not going to do,” Case explains.
Malia says Hawaii’s former governor, Benjamin Cayetano, a Democrat, is the foremost example of politicians taking issue with her reporting. During her three years at a Honolulu business journal, Zimmerman broke several stories critical of then-Governor Cayetano, including voting irregularities in an election he narrowly won, and state regulatory agencies bullying business owners who openly supported Republican candidates in the previous election.
In response, Malia says, Cayetano pressured her employer, Pacific Business News, to fire her, and essentially blackballed her from being hired by other news outlets.
“Once you go through something like that, nothing really scares you any more,” Zimmerman says.
Without a job and little chance of being hired, Malia took the chance to follow her dream of starting a newspaper that focused on the government and investigative reporting.
She launched Hawaii Reporter, the first all online newspaper in Hawaii, in 2002 with a news staff of one – herself.
During its first few years, Malia filled out the website with her investigative stories, op-eds written by well-known individuals she recruited, and published government and business records.
“When she started this site it was only every few days, she was doing it all by herself,” remembers former Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii).
“Today she has picked up a number of respected journalists who have since lost their jobs with the merger of the newspapers or got spun off with the merger of the television stations…so she has a lot of prominent investigative reporters, columnists, and political cartoonists who used to be in the main stream media but are now with her.”
Lawmakers in Hawaii are very aware of Malia nowadays, Case says, and they keep close tabs on what she’s covering.
“The Hawaii Reporter is one of those sources that I wouldn’t be surprised if virtually all the politicians read it, follow what she has to say, but they don’t necessarily say they do,” Case says with a laugh.
Politicians aren’t the only ones opening Hawaii Reporter on a regular basis though.
Zimmerman says the site received as many as a half million readers per month nearly every month this year.
Randy Roth, a professor of law at the University of Hawaii who served as senior policy analyst to former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle, says readers go to Hawaii Reporter because of the reputation its built of doing the stories others aren’t and providing different points of view in a fair and balanced way.
“People who are less than happy with politics in Hawaii view the Reporter as an essential source of information and points of view. They are more inclined to hold the politically powerful accountable as compared to mainstream media,” Roth explains.
Asking tough questions, not backing down, and getting to the bottom of an issue, Malia says, is a reputation both she and her paper take great pride in.
“We really come at it from a tax-payer’s perspective, that it’s all about how your tax-payer dollars being spent.”