Q&A with Jim Simon, managing editor of Honolulu Civil Beat

by Olivia Peterkin

Jim Simon is the managing editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit investigative news organization that covers Hawaii and its neighboring islands, far from his home state of Nebraska.

Simon has over 30 years of experience as reporter and editor in the Philippines, Washington state and now Hawaii.

In college, his first major was geology before he switched to English, after finding he couldn’t remember the names of the different types of rocks.

It wasn’t until several years after he got his undergraduate degree at Beloit College in Wisconsin that he decided to attend the University of California Berkeley School of Journalism, officially beginning his professional journalism career.

I met Simon when he interviewed me for my current job as a reporting intern for Civil Beat, and a few weeks in, we chatted about his personal journey with journalism and what the profession means to him.

Jim Simon (Photo by Anthony Quintano)

Q: Why did you decide to become a journalist?
A: I really didn’t become a full-time working journalist until I was 28. I had fiddled with it when I was working at other jobs; I’d always had a passion for writing and storytelling. My first nascent journalism venture was working on a series of oral histories in Seattle for public radio. Working on those oral histories really cemented that that was the kind of work I wanted to do.

What was your most memorable assignment?
One of the most memorable things for me was spending about a year at The Seattle Times investigating the state’s mental health system and the human cost of a system that was so dysfunctional for families and patients and everyone else. We were able to do some deep-dive investigative stuff, but also it was very emotional. People opened up their lives. The series was called “Facing A Breakdown.”

Why did you decide to make the switch from reporting to editing?
I was a reporter for a long time, 17 years. I never really had a conscious desire to become an editor, but I got recruited to do the job of assistant metro editor and found that I really like helping people shape their work. I found that I really loved working with reporters. Journalism to me has always been a team sport — and one of the ultimate team sports.

What characteristics make a good journalist?
One thing I look for when I hire people is intellectual curiosity. Whether they’re trained or not, they need to be curious about the world and curious about entering other worlds and making sense of it — that’s really important. Persistence and not being bogged down by a vision are also very important in a journalist. The best journalists I know are dogged in that pursuit. But the other thing that some journalists really have is empathy. A yearning to sort of understand people and how people operate. You can have a thirst for holding people accountable, but at the same time you want to understand what makes people tick, and sometimes be in their shoes.

Have you ever considered leaving journalism? If so, why did you stay?
Yeah, all the time. Like any other job. I’d looked at other jobs and I always got drawn back to journalism. I’ve done teaching and I’d looked at other kinds of jobs with things like nonprofits. (Journalism is) a pretty cool job; at the end of the day you get to be a sort of voyeur out there in the world. Also, the culture of the newsroom pulls me in. It’s a combination of driven, smart, irreverent people who have a passion for pursuing a story and the truth.

What is the core mission of journalism?
I’m kind of old school, but a big part of what journalists do is still to hold officials and governments and businesses accountable, and that is what makes democracy tick. Part of our job is to explain the world and bring people into other worlds that aren’t their own.
One thing that has changed is that a lot of journalism organizations need to rethink their role in the community. Part of our job is to not simply point out the problems and the wrongdoing but to point the way toward solutions and innovative alternatives.

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