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The Garden Island ran its press for the last time Wednesday night, making Kauai the only county in Hawaii without a daily newspaper printed on island.
Oahu Publications Inc. officially takes ownership Friday. It will print the paper in Kapolei and fly it over along with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the biggest of several publications OPI manages.
The buyout leaves two dozen TGI employees without jobs and raises questions about OPI’s future plans to expand, anti-trust laws and the shifting media landscape in Hawaii.
Gerald Kato, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii, said more concentration of media in fewer hands means fewer voices participating in the public conversation.
“You lose that diversity, that competition and some of that localism that’s required in community reporting,” he said. “There are reasons we have anti-trust laws. Whether this is a violation of the law or not, the idea that we want to maintain diversity is still valid.”
OPI President Dennis Francis did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Newspapers are consolidating in cities throughout the country as publishers search for a new business model that will save the industry. Preserving even one paper per town has become a feat.
No one knows for sure what the dwindling diversification will mean in the long run.
Advertisers may get hit with higher rates. Readers could see more pay walls. And the lack of competition may lead to complacent reporting among journalists no longer motivated by the fear of getting scooped.
The latest shift in Hawaii’s media landscape took place this week on Kauai — and it didn’t go down well.
OPI bought TGI from Lee Enterprises in January for $2 million, according to Lee’s first quarter earnings report.
The sale was expected to be finalized Feb. 11, but was delayed until Friday. A story in Thursday’s edition of TGI said the hold-up was due to concerns from the attorney general’s office.
Anne Lopez, special assistant to the AG, said the department does not discuss whether investigations are pending or not, or the details of an ongoing investigation.
The buyout resulted in 27 of 42 TGI workers losing their jobs, according to a tally by TGI employees. All the press, circulation and accounting jobs were axed, as were three editorial positions and some in advertising. (OPI puts the number at 25 because an accountant and press manager are being retained to complete the transition.)
Either way, it’s more jobs than OPI initially said would be cut. In January, OPI said roughly 14 jobs would be lost, but the paper would beef up its editorial and advertising departments. (There were ads in Friday’s Star-Advertiser for a reporter, managing editor and page designer to work at TGI.)
Soon-to-be-former TGI employees said what really bothered them was the way in which OPI handled the terminations.
“No one had any idea this newspaper was going to be gutted,” said Debra Comstock, who worked in TGI’s graphics department until Thursday. “This is not a standalone company any longer. We have the great overseer, OPI. It’s no longer Kauai Made.”
Indeed, the Kauai Made logo on TGI’s masthead may have to be pulled to reflect the fact that the paper is no longer printed on Kauai.
Comstock said an announcement was made Jan. 21 that the paper was being bought and that press and graphics workers would be laid off Feb. 11.
She said OPI then interviewed people for other positions, but only let people know if they were going to be hired. She said it wasn’t until last week that her manager let her know as a courtesy that if she hadn’t received an offer by the end of the day, she could consider herself jobless.
“We were absolutely shunned,” Comstock said.
Tom Finnegan, who was recently hired as TGI‘s assistant editor, was also let go. While disappointed for the same reasons as Comstock in how the termination went down, he said he remains optimistic.
“It was handled poorly, for sure. It was like the last kid picked at dodgeball,” he said. “But my hope is we don’t lose the voice that is The Garden Island, because it is a unique voice.”
Finnegan said he will keep rooting for TGI because Kauai residents need a strong local news source.
“The thing that journalists do is they give a voice to the voiceless,” he said. “They shine a light in places where people don’t want lights shone, and they change policies as a result.”
OPI has already had a heavy hand in TGI affairs, the most recent instance coming Wednesday night.
TGI employees said they had to reprint Thursday’s edition because OPI wanted to soften the story about Kauai losing its last printing press. An earlier version of the story included the word “monopoly,” talked about losing the Kauai Made logo and reported the lost jobs by saying how many were cut instead of retained.
The buyout of the historic neighbor island paper comes two years after the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. That deal — orchestrated by Black Press, OPI’s parent company — resulted in 453 people laid off, according to a Star-Advertiser story.
So with Honolulu’s two daily newspapers consolidated into one and the purchase of Kauai’s only daily newspaper, uncertainty lingers over the future of Hawaii’s media landscape.
Kato said news thrives in a competitive environment.
“When you have this monopolization, you have this kind of complacency that sets in,” he said. “You don’t really have to do much. Where else is the reader going to go?”
Former TGI publisher Randy Kozerski said he could see both sides.
“In an ideal world, competition is good,” he said. “However, the reality is the industry has faced significant challenges over the last several years and the efficiencies that can be gained under the ownership of Oahu Publications will hopefully give readers additional content and insight and ensure that there’s local content into the distant future.”
Former TGI employees questioned whether OPI would look to Maui next. They said the buyout began with the launch of Midweek Kauai, a free weekly paper, which took big advertising accounts from TGI.
The employees said they wouldn’t be surprised to see a Midweek Maui pop up soon.
Maui News publisher Joe Bradley said increased competition on the Valley Isle is somewhat of a concern.
“OPI may introduce something over here and if they do, we’ll just have to make sure we’re ready to compete,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do to prepare for it other than trying to make sure we’re putting out a good product.”
Bradley said there’s consistent worry about there not being enough media diversification in Hawaii. But he said at the end of the day he was just glad to see someone step forward and preserve the daily newspaper on Kauai.
“It’s sad to see that it’s not a fourth voice in the state, but in any event, I think they will still take care of the residents there,” he said.
Soren Velice, a former TGI employee who now works for West Hawaii Today, said he isn’t concerned at this point about OPI coming after Big Island papers.
He said as much as he hates to see so many of his former friends and colleagues losing their jobs at TGI, he thinks the transition may result in more localized coverage. But if OPI doesn’t increase the editorial staff at TGI as planned, he said nothing will change.
“We will have to wait and see,” Velice said.