On Media, a Field in Constant Flux

Lisa Yamada-Son, the founding editor and former editor in chief of Flux Hawai‘i, reflects on the scrappy, early days of starting a humble magazine about locals arts and culture. Ten years later, the entire media landscape has changed drastically.

It was the summer of 2008. With a journalism degree from Pepperdine University in hand, I returned home to Honolulu, blissfully unaware of the financial collapse happening around the nation. I had managed to accumulate a few good press clippings: features from the college paper, a few profiles from the magazine at which I interned, a 2,400-word feature—complete with infographics—in a local newspaper, for which I was paid $100.

I loved magazines and the stories they told. I loved that one writer could scratch the surface of a story—simply report the facts—and another could dig deep to discover undulating wells of complexity and human emotion, as Truman Capote did when he spotted a tiny article in The New York Times in 1959 that formed the basis for his book In Cold Blood. I loved that you could get up close to the rich and powerful and ask probing, private questions without shame or restraint, as masterful interviewer Dominick Dunne often did in the pages of Vanity Fair. In New York magazine, one of my favorites at the time, I loved that through words on pages I could get a sense of the city’s soul, get to know its characters, and find commonality with the issues they faced, despite being 2,000 miles away.

I longed for a medium in Honolulu that would tell such stories, one that would peel back the picture-perfect façade of Hawai‘i to reveal a warts-and-all look at our culture—one that islanders loved nonetheless. So, with very little training and an investment from my parents, I decided to start my own publication, because I was young, naïve, and, well, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t. Flux, as I decided to call it, would reorient Hawai‘i as a place of influx—a destination frequented by millions of people every year—as well as a place in constant flux.

In those early years, most people assumed print media was on its way out, choked of its lifeblood by the rise of digital media. But to me and the few independent publishers in Hawai‘i who rose up around 2009, it seemed we were in the halcyon days of print. There was Chromatic, a fashion quarterly launched by bridal guru Julie Aragaki; Contrast, an arts title favoring photography and white space launched as a labor of love by a group of guys including designer Mark Kushimi, writer Daniel Ikaika Ito, and surfer Jason Shibata; Innov8, an image-heavy inflight magazine for local carrier Go! Airlines, published by Nella Media Group founder Jason Cutinella. In the years that followed, there would also be Abstract, a training ground of sorts for student designers and writers; Summit, a would-be Monocle for Honolulu; and Trim, an eye-pleasing dip through surfing’s archives.

Mostly, the establishment viewed us upstarts with casual dismissiveness. O‘ahu Publications, whose loose-leaf newspapers, including its flagship Honolulu Star-Advertiser, are printed in its sprawling 152,000-square-foot print production facility; Aio Media and its umbrella of local-interest titles, including Honolulu magazine, which bills itself as the oldest magazine west of the Mississippi; Hana Hou!, the inflight for Hawaiian Airlines long considered the benchmark of editorial storytelling in Hawai‘i; Hawaii Modern Luxury, the fill-in-the-blank outpost of the national media company of the same name—to them, we were but flies to shoo away. “Who even reads Flux anyway?” a publisher who will go unnamed once scoffed in an editorial meeting after one of its editors commented on the diversity of subjects covered within our pages.

The dearth of cultural evolution will come when we, as citizens, bend to the whims of capitalistic impulses, crowd approval, and

Going into the next decade, as we fought for the advertising scraps left in the wake of larger media buys, the industry was forced to grapple with shifting reading habits, new technology, and the specter of social media. In 2010, more than 450 people found themselves out of work after the merger of the Star Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser. A year later, the newly formed Honolulu Star-Advertiser introduced a paywall that put much of the content on its website under lock and key, making a newspaper already deemed irrelevant by anyone born after 1980 even more so. (The online news site Honolulu Civil Beat, launched in 2010 by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, pulled no punches in its critique of the Star-Advertiser’s paywall and promptly cut its online subscription price in half.) The bloodletting was a sign of the years to come: In the 2010s, more than 1,400 cities and towns lost their local newspapers, according to the Associated Press, which labeled the mass closures the death of local journalism. This toll included the Honolulu Weekly, an alternative voice intended to fill the reporting gaps left by the city’s dailies, which publisher Laurie Carlson announced would publish its last issue in 2013 after 23 years in print.

As newsprint contracted and advertisers became increasingly interested in targeted audiences, niche publications gained a firm foothold. In 2011, Jason Cutinella and I partnered, and Flux came into the fold of Nella Media Group, which, in addition to Innov8, had dipped its toes into in-room hotel media. In the years that followed, we launched title after title at breathtaking speed. We secured hotel contracts as a result of our intense preoccupation with design, paper stock, and unique publication dimensions until we became one of the largest hotel publishers in Hawai‘i; we championed LGBTQ media as same-sex marriage became legalized in 2013; we forged partnerships with developers to pipe original content into the sought-after luxury residential market. By 2016, we had about a dozen print titles under our umbrella.

As the years went on, many of our print brethren from 2009 faded into obscurity or irregularity, hanging on by the passions of remaining founders. Jason and I discovered that a single title could seldom support itself on its own. Instead, it often needed to be part of a larger conglomerate in which more financially successful titles could carry others (at Condé Nast, for instance, Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair account for more than 60 percent of the company’s total revenue), or it needed to obtain a large infusion of cash (Pierre Omidyar with Civil Beat) or the financial support of some other corporation (Vice and its $25 million Intel advertising partnership).

Nella Media Group had survived by capturing significant market share, with a variety of titles that helped support each other. But publishers both large and small were forced to evolve beyond the traditional notion of simply writing stories for print and online, scrambling to find creative ways to continue engaging advertisers. “We’re not in the business of keeping the media companies alive,” Trevor Edwards, Nike’s then-corporate vice president for global brand and category management, had told The New York Times in 2007. “We’re in the business of connecting with consumers.”

Connecting with consumers meant that media companies became responsible not just for covering cultural events but also for building them. The linchpin of event sponsorship—the ubiquitous logo placement—would no longer do. Advertisers instead sought immersive moments that would tug on the heartstrings and inspire “FOMO” in legions of social media users across the world. “Experiences” became inescapable. There were brunches in far-flung fields and fashion showcases in bars. There were design talks and architecture walks, pop-up shops and pop-up dinners. In 2014, we shipped an entire store of Hawai‘i goods across the country to New York for a three-day pop-up shop, then one-upped ourselves in 2017 by going international, to Sydney, Australia. Honolulu magazine got ambitious in 2015 with a series of ill-fated fashion shows that took over the cavernous Hawai‘i Convention Center in an effort to replicate New York Fashion Week in the islands.

All the while, social media use continued to spread rapidly. In 2016, Instagram’s user base skyrocketed to half a billion people. Facebook grew steadily before hitting 2 billion users in 2017, with Google-owned YouTube trailing closely with 1.5 billion users. Anyone—including advertisers themselves—could produce high-quality content, bypass traditional media, and stream it to users around the world. To stand out, companies churned out “native advertising” with storytelling not unlike the kind you might find produced by the media houses themselves.

Nowhere was this overlap of storytelling and advertising more evident in Hawai‘i than in banking. You’ve seen the commercials, which began to air in 2015, one nearly indistinguishable from the next. There, among a blogroll of entrepreneurs on Hawaii National Bank’s website, are Sig and Kuhao Zane, describing how hula keeps them grounded in both life and business; there are Joe Serrao and Nāpali Souza from Salvage Public, recounting how First Hawaiian Bank helped them expand to the Japanese market; there’s Manaola Yap in an impressive two-and-a-half minute spot that starts off slow and cinematic against the lush green of Hawai‘i, gradually building with pulsating energy until we find him on the runway at New York Fashion Week. “Whatever we need to do to help them get … as high as their dreams will take them, that’s our goal,” narrated Winfred Cameron, American Saving Bank’s business banking officer.

Despite the success of native advertising campaigns, a 2016 Nielsen report found that marketers who distributed their content in partnership with publishers saw, on average, a 50 percent higher brand lift than those who published content on their own. To meet this need while still maintaining some semblance of editorial integrity, media organizations launched marketing divisions to capitalize on the growing desire for branded content—that is, editorial directly funded by advertisers.

T Brand Studio by The New York Times ran a video series highlighting four titans of art “paid for and posted by” Tiffany and Co.; The Atlantic’s marketing team put together an extensive feature documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, made possible by Netflix’s Israeli thriller Fauda; the Washington Post’s WP Brand Studio partnered with healthcare service provider Optum to detail America’s growing opioid epidemic in an immersive, data-driven feature. In Hawai‘i, companies like Oahu Media Group (Oahu Publications) and Library Creative (Aio Media) scrambled to follow suit.

In 2016, Douglas Holt asserted in a Harvard Business Review article that despite investment in branded content, the result has had very little payoff with consumers. He attributed this to what he calls the rise of “crowdculture,” which refers to content driven by people rather than by brands. “Historically, cultural innovation flowed from the margins of society—from fringe groups, social movements, and artistic circles that challenged mainstream norms and conventions. Companies and the mass media acted as intermediaries, diffusing these new ideas into the mass market,” he wrote. Social media changed that by “binding together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration.”

From motherhood to muk-bang, fuming incels to funny cats, social media allowed global communities to congregate around topics both domestic and dangerous. Out of these communities arose whirlwind personalities that championed individual causes and dealt in influence—a new form of currency that was valued by how much power one wielded online—the most notorious of which included the famous-for-being-famous Kardashian family.

And yet, much of the influencer market was like the Wild West. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission, which works to protect and educate consumers, issued letters to 90 influencers after estimating that more than 90 percent of top celebrity endorsements were violating FTC regulations on proper brand sponsorship disclosure, meaning viewers had no way of knowing whether an influencer was paid for his or her endorsement of a product. Later that year, Hawai‘i locals had a good chuckle after Mercedes-Benz posted a photo on Instagram that featured its GLC Coupe parked in front of Chinaman’s Hat on O‘ahu’s east side. Its caption was purportedly written by North Shore photographer and influencer Brooke Dombroski (who the car company had tapped to document and post about a drive along the coast), although given its erroneously tagged location and peculiar phrasing, it could just as well have been written by a Russian bot: “This photo was captured at our first stop: Ala Moana Bowls, a nice expert spot for Big Waves right in Honolulu.”

In 2018, Nella Media Group evolved to become NMG Network, in a pivot toward video content. Working together, Jason and I had figured out a few keys to success in media. Like the dynamics of a good marriage, we let the other focus on each’s respective strengths: his in sales and development, mine in editorial. Jason would reach for the sun; I would gently pull him back. It was this constant push and pull that made us elastic—that ever-present tug that stretched us to our limits, forced us to evolve, and enabled our company’s nimble success. To quote David Crow in Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts: “A field must be in constant flux to be able to survive.”

In the last few years, most of the rapid growth of social media in the United States has largely leveled off, according to Pew Research. What’s more, four years ago, Americans widely believed technology companies made a positive impact on society, but today, that number has declined 21 percentage points, to just over half of Americans, Pew data showed in 2019. In 2018, a group of Stanford students, at odds with the addictive qualities of smartphones, petitioned Apple for an “essential model” that would limit a phone’s features to allow for calls, texts, mapping, and camera functions only. Earlier this year, The New York Times published an article under the headline, “‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses,” documenting the growing mistrust of Big Tech by college graduates.

Despite Americans’ changing attitudes, it can still feel like we’re scrambling to keep up with technology in what often feels like a race to the bottom, where everyone’s a loser. We are more informed citizens than ever before, and where does that leave us? “Who knew all of human knowledge could make people dumber?” comedian Ronny Chieng quipped on his Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America! The dearth of cultural evolution, it would appear, will not come on the doorstep of technology’s ascent or with social media’s incessant creep; it will come when we, as citizens, bend to the whims of capitalistic impulses, crowd approval, and self-interest.

In Flux’s first year of print, and even in the years that followed, many of the ads that ran in our issues were given away for appearance’s sake. In 2014, we landed our first luxury client, Tiffany and Co., which committed to an annual back-cover ad buy—a spot it holds today. Afterward, luxury clients came tumbling in: Chanel, Gucci, Hermès, Fendi. I knew we had officially “made it” when one Instagram user accused us of being “fancy magazine people.”

Back before the launch of Flux, we had hired a market research firm to see where the demand might lie for a product like ours. Responding to a question about the need for a medium such as ours, one interview with a stakeholder at an art gallery was most telling: “You know when your city has achieved critical mass in cultural events, museums, in publications. … We need to have the other voice.” Nella Media Group has been one of the fortunate few that has achieved success in what has been a brutal decade for traditional media. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the environment today feels a bit like it did in the years before 2009’s Great Print Wave, when a group of bright-eyed 20- and 30-somethings felt that the stories yet to be told were as numerous as the stars in the night sky, when it felt like anything was possible.

This is the first piece that ran in our “Special Section: Ten-Year Anniversary”, click to read more on topics such as Surfing, Conservation, Education and Gender

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