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Leisure Time Stephenson soaks up the sun on an Hawaiian Beach

UI alum expands journalism skills to the Hawaiian Isles

While The University of Iowa campus in Iowa City faced temperatures plummeting past the zero degree mark, Megan Stephenson (B.A. 2009) completed her winter newspaper internship on the desert-like Hawaiian island of Molokai.

There was understandable culture shock when, in October 2009, Stephenson landed on an island that, although across which takes three hours to drive, spans a mere 38-mile width.

“Kaunakakai is such a small community-based town. Everyone here knows everyone else and they stop to talk to each other on the streets,” the J-MC School graduate said. “Even the cars have bumper stickers that say ‘This is Molokai, slow down.’”

With such a strong focus on the immediate surroundings and the intimacy of the island locals, the Molokai Dispatch, the weekly newspaper where Stephenson interned, aims to serve Molokai residents a substantially central source for their news.

Because Hawaiian culture is at it’s near-purest form in Molokai—Stephenson often uses words like ‘ohana (family) and limu (seaweed) incorporating the native Hawaiian language to her stories.

The locals have taken a slow warming to “imports” (a term deemed for travelers from the mainland United States) and generally discourage the popularized tourism of the island.

“But if you’re too connected how can anyone look at your community objectively?” Stephenson said. “I have the ability to report on the affairs in Kaunakakai without bias and I think that’d be much more difficult for a local.”

The tight-knit community of this small island—the fifth largest of the Hawaiian archipelago—needed time to grow comfortable with the five “imports” who all live together in a house maintained by the owner of the weekly newspaper, Todd Yamashita.

The recent J-MC School and history graduate applied to The Molokai Dispatch in October and was asked to start her internship two weeks later as Yamashita had an urgent task for her to begin.

“When he asked if I was afraid of bugs I knew I was a strong contender for the job,” she said. “Of course, I lied a bit.”

New Landscapes Stephenson stands on the Kauhako Crater in Kalaupapa

Stephenson, who said she impressed Yamashita with her degree in history, was assigned a project exclusively for the Molokai Dispatch’s Web site, themolokaidispatch.com, on the island’s infamous leprosy colony, Kaluapapa.

The project was an extensive research-based series of stories on Father Damien [de Veuster] and the leprosy colony on Molokai.

Stephenson, after weeks of intensive reading and historical research, trudged through the rough terrain six miles down the cliff to the colony for first-person interviews.

“If you take a mule ride or plane, you’ve cheated,” Stephenson said on reaching the bottom of the cliff. “If you hike, you feel like you deserve to be there. Like you’ve given back.”

Although her internship had been prolonged when she assumed the temporary position of acting manager, Stephenson was anxious to return to the continental United States in May and proceed with her career-hunt although she “gained so much valuable experience from [her] time in Molokai.”

Her opinions on the fate of the newspaper industry have been altered after her time spent on the islands. “The community newspapers are just as important now as they have ever been,” Stephenson said.

“It’s the national and international newspapers that are going to have to fight the costs of the changing industry.”

Stephenson doesn’t know where she wants to go after Hawaii, but knows now that she wants to create and maintain an intimate relationship with her readers and not keep herself limited to deadlines and word count.

“You need a focus,” Stephenson said about her career and the newspaper industry alike. “You need a big idea and to make it happen.”

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