My daily printed newspaper doesn’t arrive through the courteous hands of yesteryear’s newsboys — it gets launched onto my doorstep sometime around 4 a.m., like a short-range missile.

I know its impact is imminent by the high-pitched squealing of the moped motor, as the deliveryman approaches and takes aim, followed by the loud thump of the paper hitting some section of my home, usually near my bedroom window, disrupting the otherwise quiet Manoa mornings.

I also gather no one else living anywhere near me still takes the printed paper, because the moped then squeals off at high speed (sorry, neighbors!) as if it were making a getaway.

Counterintuitive to that experience, I picked up and opened the paper recently to read a full-page advertisement announcing it has become the 12th largest newspaper in the country, putting the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in close company with such paragons of American journalism as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, etc.

Star Advertiser newspaper for files. 27 may 2016

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser is now among the top 12 newspapers by circulation in the U.S., according to the Alliance for Audited Media.  But the numbers include free handouts and the circulation of acquired newspapers such as West Hawaii Today and The Garden Island newspaper.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The ad shared a simple message, of “No. 12,” connecting bigger with better, and leaving it at that. Yet that sentiment seemed like it needed more context so I started looking into this claim and reflecting on its deeper meanings.

What Counts In The Numbers

Most newspaper-based media organizations in the country participate in a ranking system administered by the Alliance for Audited Media. The Star-Advertiser first heralded its arrival in the industry’s Top 25 in 2012, with a circulation of 225,000 daily printed and digital subscriptions (AAM was known as Audit Bureau of Circulations at the time).

The formula for how these subscriptions are measured is constantly being refined, said Aaron Kotarek, vice president of circulation for Oahu Publications, which owns the Star-Advertiser and several other local and regional publications.

“The stats are what they are.” — Aaron Kotarek, VP of circulation, Oahu Publications Inc.

“The stats are what they are,” compiled in the ways in which they are, Kotarek said.

When asked about any particular programs or initiatives that the company has started in recent years to boost circulation, Kotarek said company policy prohibits him from commenting about those sorts of topics.

The 2012 story acknowledged that the “Star-Advertiser” label, for the purposes of this ranking, included its “branded” editions, such as the free handouts Midweek and Street Pulse. Kotarek said that the 2015 number (used for the “No. 12” claim), of about 286,000 customers, also included the audiences of recent acquisitions, such as West Hawaii Today and The Garden Island newspaper.

When asked last week for more specifics about what the Star-Advertiser reported to AAM to achieve its higher ranking, Kotarek said he would send me the full report, so I could look at it in detail myself. As of this publication’s deadline, though, I still had not received that document.

Focusing On Quality

The Star-Advertiser’s tremendous growth has occurred during the same era in which some of the nation’s largest and most dynamic newspapers, in cities such as New OrleansCleveland, and Portland, Oregon, essentially have shriveled and abandoned the idea of daily printed circulation. The industry overall has suffered dramatic losses of subscriptions.

The Star-Advertiser appears to have weathered this period better than most. It has taken advantage of the buyer’s market to aggressively acquire other media properties in the region, merging with – and eliminating – competitors.

While celebrating the Star-Advertiser’s new ranking – and the increased power that designation displays – we also should view a circulation number for what it is (and what it isn’t).

USA Today, for example, is the most circulated publication on the list used by the Star-Advertiser in its promotion. Cross-checking that list with winners of the Pulitzer Prize – arguably the pinnacle of American journalism – shows that USA Today and the Star-Advertiser are the only two publications on this Top 15 list without one. USA Today has twice been a Pulitzer finalist. 

The light-and-bright USA Today is a relative newbie in this business (founded in 1982), and its approach focuses more on quick forms of service journalism, rather than the in-depth types of pieces favored for Pulitzers. 

The Hawaii newspaper legacy of the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, though, is quite different. It includes a combined 282 years of publishing before the merger in 2010 (and another five-plus years since). Its successes have been many.

The legacy of the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin includes a combined 282 years of publishing before the 2010 merger.

Yet for an example of how a quality-focused comparison could go, we could look at similar-sized newspapers based on the ultimate achievement in the industry. The Tampa Bay Times – No. 14 most circulated, roughly two decades “younger” and two spots “smaller” than the Star-Advertiser – won two Pulitzer Prizes last month, for local and investigative reporting, bringing its total Pulitzer haul to 12. Again, the Star-Advertiser has zero.

So, as circulation manager Kotarek noted, the stats are what they are. Circulation numbers are important because they represent audience size, and audience size dictates what you can charge for advertising. Ad prices affect revenues, and, as Kotarek described it, “Any time you are growing, that’s a good thing.”

The Vanishing News Reader

As a way to get to know my university students, I ask them at the start of each semester where they get their news. Over roughly the past decade of teaching journalism and communication classes, I’ve seen the number of hands raised – when I ask who reads a daily paper – drop from about a quarter of the people, in the mid-2000s, to just a few of the most eager students in my classes this year (usually those sitting near the front of the class, often looking sort of sheepish about it.)

A few weeks ago, I asked the same question at a guest lecture, in a general survey course, about the scope of communication research. None of the roughly 100 students in the lecture hall raised their hands. My follow-up query, asking who watched television news, didn’t produce much either — just a couple of hands.

This is a small sample and certainly an unscientific one; but if that was my full experience with this sort of sentiment, I wouldn’t think Hawaii was the place with one of the largest newspapers in the land. (Almost all of those students did raise a hand later, though, when I asked how many read or watched news on a smartphone or tablet computer). I happen to like getting news in many forms, including on television, on my laptop, on my desktop, on my mobile devices and through print products.

As for my print edition, I opened that paper recently – kind of hoping for some Top 15 greatness – to read an ironic journalistic account of the broad societal irritation with early morning moped noise on Oahu. That newspaper story never mentioned the potential connection between the noise and the delivery of the product with the story in it about the noise.

I found it hard to believe that no editor asked the author (Marcel Honoré) what in the world all of these moped drivers were doing out so late at night or early in the morning? That might be an important part of the story!

Then, I started wondering if Honoré was being censored and intimidated, like in a bad episode of “Hawaii Five-0.” Picture a shadowy figure coming up to Honoré, and saying, “Listen, buddy, you don’t want to look too hard into this early morning moped thing.” Then, I just laughed the story off, for what it probably was: A throwaway space-eating piece.

Yet, when I saw the No. 12 advertisement printed again, I thought more about that unfulfilling moped story and its implications. If that single piece of journalism would have been my entire experience with the No. 12-sized newspaper in the United States, I might wonder how it reached its lofty status. Because, like it or not, size implies quality in newspaper parlance (blame the penny press.)

When the Star-Advertiser stakes a space on that revered list of Pulitzer-winners and claims that it belongs there, it implicitly shoulders a new responsibility to the ideology of journalism, too. Those societal duties and expectations – whether the Star-Advertiser acknowledges them or not – extend well beyond just filling space between the advertisements.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.