At the Helm at the Associated Press
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Reprinted from March 18, 1994
Editor’s note: In his long career in journalism, Gordon Sakamoto rarely got the kind of byline exposure that most print, broadcast — and now web — journalists get for their work. That is the nature of the newswire business, and Sakamoto was one of Hawai‘i’s most experienced in the medium. Sakamoto died Nov. 8 in Honolulu at the age of 82.
I “met” Gordon Sakamoto in the late 1970s when I worked for about a year at what was then KHVH Newsradio 99. I had the gawdawful midnight to 6 a.m. on-air shift and was the only person in the entire station, which was located in the former Gas Company building on Bishop Street. I had to deliver two newscasts each hour — each about five minutes long. As if that shift weren’t bad enough, trying to scrape together enough news to read over the airwaves after a slow news weekend, as most were, to fill the overnight newscasts was the absolute pits. Most of the “news” was old copy, some of it even from the past Friday.
At about 4:30 a.m., I would call Gordon at UPI’s Honolulu office and beg him to send me some fresh copy to read for my last two newscasts. Remember, there was no internet back then. I didn’t even have access to the morning’s Honolulu Advertiser.
Within about 15 minutes, the station’s rickety old teletype machine began spitting out fresh copy, most of it rewrites from the Monday morning Advertiser. But at least it was fresh news.
I didn’t meet Gordon in person until a few years later, at the yakudoshi party of a mutual friend. We shared a good laugh about those KHVH days. I am eternally grateful to Gordon for his kindness and professionalism. He was my unsung hero in those KHVH days — and, I’m sure, to so many newsrooms that depended on his reliable wire service reporting.
In an effort to help you understand and appreciate Gordon Sakamoto’s contributions to journalism in Hawai‘i, the Herald is pleased to reprise this March 18, 1994, story on Gordon by former Honolulu freelance writer Charles Gary. Charles now lives and works in Los Angeles.
There comes a time in a person’s life when making the wrong decision could mean missing the boat.
Imagine it’s 1979. You’re Gordon Sakamoto, a Hawai‘i-born journalist working in San Francisco as an overnight editor for United Press International. Night after night, you transmit breaking news about the western United States to a network of competing news organizations around the country. It’s an enormously important and gratifying job.
Then imagine that you are offered an opportunity to return to your home in Hawai‘i to head the local UPI bureau.
An important decision, to be sure. But Sakamoto needn’t have worried about missing the boat — he already owned it.
“I had bought my family this four-person vinyl boat for Christmas (that year),” he recalls. “We liked to go camping and stuff, but we didn’t get to do it very often. So there we were, with this big inflatable raft in our house.”
Fortunately, the Sakamotos didn’t have to wait long to use their new toy.
“I walked into the office (the next morning). I found a note there saying, “How would you like to work as the Hawaii state editor?”
That was 14 years ago.
Sakamoto was recently named the new Hawai‘i bureau chief for UPI’s former competitor, The Associated Press. He succeeds Howard Graves, who retired last year.
Sakamoto sees his new job as an opportunity to broaden the world’s knowledge of the Western Pacific region, continuing where Graves left off.
“Graves did an outstanding job of covering an area that’s not been written about very extensively,” he says. “So, because of that, I have some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Hawai‘i, Sakamoto says, is a gold mine of interesting news often overlooked by the media at large.
“People hear you’re from Hawai‘i and they say, ‘Oh, hula girls, sunshine and the beach.’ But there are many, many interesting things going on here.”
Among the many hard issues that deserve wider attention Sakamoto cites the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement, the tourism dilemma and same-sex marriages.
“This is an issue which could affect the rest of the nation,” he says of the latter.
Sakamoto got his start at McKinley High School, where a teacher recognized his potential and encouraged him to pursue a career in journalism. The teacher even pointed his way to college.
“I went to her alma mater, Missouri Valley College,” he says. “It was in the middle of this small Presbyterian farming environment. There were only about 800 students going there at the time.”
After college, Sakamoto went to work for UPI in Hawai‘i as the organization’s only Asian American general assignment reporter.
Three short years later, he moved to San Francisco to work as a cables editor for UPI.
“I filed the Hawai’i report,” Sakamoto says. “It was really different from the way it is now. There was no satellite hook-up, no computers. All they had were land lines like telephones, and RCA Global (telegraph) to send the information.”
Despite the limitations, Sakamoto kept newspapers, broadcast stations and financial institutions abreast of Hawai‘i happenings.
The technology of the wire industry eventually changed — with satellites and computers becoming standard by 1965. Likewise, Sakamoto’s job opportunities expanded as he became more experienced.
Sakamoto worked as a copy editor and news editor before accepting a position as a sports reporter — a job that had particular appeal to him.
Sakamoto had accomplished much as a hard-news writer and editor, but his years as a sports writer hold a special place in his bag of anecdotes.
For starters, he had the privilege of covering the Oakland A’s during their string of consecutive World Series appearances from 1972 to 1974. It was during the ‘72 series that another amazing, amusing coincidence occurred between his personal life and his job as a writer.
“It was the last game of the series,” Sakamoto recalls. “I had come home from the game, and my wife’s water (bag) broke. She was pregnant with my first son.”
Sakamoto’s long relationship with UPI ended in 1988 after years of financial problems had plagued the news organization.
“We had a staff here in Hawai‘i of about four people by the end of 1987,” he says. “They (UPI) were going to cut about two more positions and I said, ‘I may as well be one of them.’”
After 27 years with UPI, Sakamoto left to try other things. The move proved to be a wise one, as UPI later discontinued its U.S. operations.
Taking a break from journalism, Sakamoto took a job as a special projects manager for the state Department of Business and Economic Development. At DBED, he schemed up new ways of stimulating Hawai‘i’s economy.
Not surprisingly, sports again topped his agenda.
“Sports is, in itself, an industry. But, it’s very much tied to tourism,” he explains. “We had the numbers to prove that sporting events definitely had an impact on Hawai‘i’s economy.”
With this in mind, Sakamoto and his colleagues put in a bid to bring the World Cup soccer finals — international soccer’s equivalent to the Super Bowl — to Honolulu. There were only 26 U.S. cities bidding for the finals at the time, Sakamoto says.
While the bid was unsuccessful, Sakamoto says he feels the attempt was useful in focusing some needed attention on the Islands.
“People who would never have even thought of looking to us to hold their events were suddenly aware that Hawai‘i was an option,” he says.
By 1992, however, Sakamoto had grown weary of his position at DBED and yearned for a return to newswriting.
He left DBED and did some freelance work for the AP. When a regular staff position opened there last April, Sakamoto applied for and got the job.
Graves had indicated that he would soon be stepping down from his role as bureau chief. Sakamoto, a veteran of the news wire industry, saw yet another opportunity.
“I expressed interest in the position from the beginning,” he says.
Sakamoto says he is happy to be where he is — at home and doing what he does best. During his career, he had managed to break a lot of ground as an Asian American journalist in a profession that initially had a white face. Today, he sees much more recognition for Asian American journalists.
“Look at the bylines in the papers,” Sakamoto says. “We really set the pace here. I think Hawai‘i has been a really terrific breeding ground for the Asian news media.”
Sakamoto does have some concerns, however, about the media job market in Hawai‘i.
“I feel uncomfortable about the situation here, because there aren’t many media jobs available,” he says. “A lot of local journalists are forced to look elsewhere for a job.”
Sakamoto admits this reality could have some benefits for local journalists, as they gain exposure in other markets, just as he did.
Sakamoto’s new position still affords him the time to watch sports.
“He goes in on his days off to cover University of Hawai‘i football and basketball games for AP, says Stephen Tsai, a close friend of Sakamoto and sportswriter for The Honolulu Advertiser.
“He gets his wife and kids into it, but he’s kind of a detached fan,” Tsai says. “He doesn’t root for any particular team in a game. He just loves to watch. He’ll stand there, with his horned-rimmed glasses, and with this straight look on his face. He’s a journalist at heart, so he’s objective.”
Sakamoto still has that big boat he bought 13 years ago. And though he’s been around a while, he can still paddle with the best of them.