The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has furloughed and reduced the work schedules of some of its staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put a tight squeeze on the local economy.

The move comes as daily newspapers and alternative weeklies nationwide that rely on advertising as one of their chief revenue sources are taking similar actions in varying degrees, with some forced to cease their print publications to cut costs.

“Essentially, we just reacted to the significant drop in advertising that occurred when the stay-at-home order went into effect and businesses had to close,” said Dennis Francis, the president and publisher of the newspaper, which is owned by Oahu Publications.

At least eight people were indefinitely furloughed, although the publisher said that number is not final. Some of them are journalists working in the sports and features departments, as many of the events they cover have been canceled.

Most of the staff are now working four days a week instead of five, he said. Some on the operational side are working three-day work weeks. Francis would not say exactly how many people are affected.

“Things are changing day-to-day, so we’re still reacting to that,” he said.

Star Advertiser newspaper office Restaurant Row. 27 may 2016

It is unclear when furloughed employees at Hawaii’s largest newspaper will return to work.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The publisher said the moves are temporary and he hopes operations can return to normal soon. Meanwhile, the news coverage will remain pretty much the same with the exception of sports and entertainment, he said.

Francis said the company will have to reevaluate the situation should the pandemic continue past April 30.

Susan Essoyan, a co-chair of the Pacific Media Workers Guild unit representing the Star-Advertiser’s editorial employees, said she and others were surprised by the company’s move.

“We understand the new economic reality that Hawaii is facing,” she said. But work conditions shouldn’t be unilaterally imposed, given union contracts, she added.

The news staff have been going “all out” to cover all angles of the pandemic, constantly posting updates on the newspaper’s website, she said. The newspaper has taken down its paywall for its coronavirus coverage.

“We feel like the reality is that the community needs responsible news coverage now more than ever,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sound Publishing, which is owned by the same Canada-based parent company, Black Press, as the Star-Advertiser, also announced furloughs and layoffs in the past week for its Washington state publications. The company is also ceasing print operations for nine of its 13 weeklies.

Elsewhere in Hawaii, the Molokai Dispatch, that island’s only newspaper, has lost a couple of its major advertisers at least temporarily, said Catherine Cluett Pactol, its editor-in-chief.

“We have a symbiotic relationship with our advertisers,” she said. “Their economic health is ours.”

Star Advertiser newspaper for files. 27 may 2016

Newspapers across the country have been forced to make adjustments during the pandemic.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The loss in advertising hasn’t led to any staffing or production changes for the team of three, she said. “Like everyone else, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Newspapers were already struggling to figure out how to replace advertising as a revenue source, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media research organization based in Florida.

The pandemic has put them in an “accelerated timetable,” he said. “There are papers that are having to make a lot of adjustments.”

Those adjustments may include staffing changes, not printing the papers on some days, but also moving faster to develop better digital subscriptions, he said.

The “silver lining” is that people are seeing the value in digital news, Edmonds said.

“People are seeing what a newspaper can do in a crisis and they kind of like it,” he said.

At the end of the day, newspaper companies must decide how much coverage they can provide, given audience support.

“It’s time for managers, CEOs, to kind of assess the situation and make a calculated bet,” Edmonds said.

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