As Hawaii business closures continue into a third month, local media outlets that rely on advertisers have taken a major hit, forcing some to reduce journalist work hours at a time when readers are hungrier than ever for news.

Newspapers especially are feeling the pain.

Those who pick up The Maui News will notice the paper is thinner, said Managing Editor Lee Imada. Advertising has evaporated, and rotating furloughs mean a quarter of the staff of 12 is not working any given week. The paper, which had already eliminated its Sunday edition last year, recently cut sections from its Saturday paper.

The ads for hardware stores, restaurants, appliances and entertainment that used to fill pages are “pretty much gone,” Imada said. The losses could have led to layoffs, but the union and paper leadership chose rolling furloughs instead.

We decided to share the suffering,” he said. “We’re trying to wait this thing out.”

Honolulu Star Advertiser offices Restaurant Row. 27 may 2016.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has made temporary staff reductions and schedule changes amid the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Oahu Publications – the parent company of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, West Hawaii Today and the Garden Island, among others – has indefinitely furloughed 50 workers companywide, put another 125 on reduced work schedules and eliminated some freelance positions, according to President and CEO Dennis Francis. Some, but not all, of those positions are journalists. To cut printing and distribution costs, Saturday editions of Oahu Publications newspapers are now only available online.

I don’t think we’re much different than any newspaper in America,” Francis said.

Newspapers Impacted Nationwide

As news revenue disappeared almost overnight amid the coronavirus outbreak, journalists have been furloughed or laid off in virtually every state.

Sound Publishing, a subsidiary of Black Press – which also owns Oahu Publications – laid off 20% of its workforce in Washington state and Alaska, according to the The  Daily Herald in Everett, which lost two dozen employees.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper corporation and publisher of USA Today, instituted massive furloughs and pay cuts at all its properties throughout 47 states and Guam. One outlet in California laid off its entire staff. Another in Tennesee shuttered operations altogether.

It’s a blow that will have profound impacts on the country as events of public interest – from town hall meetings to national policy changes – go uncovered during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. One study found that 1,300 American communities live in “news deserts” where no one is covering the news at all.

Save Hawaii News demonstration by Star Advertiser staffers and supporters outside Restaurant Row.
In 2017, years before COVID-19, Star-Advertiser employees protested layoffs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Times were tough for newspapers before the country’s economy ground to a near halt. In the early days of the internet, news leaders were slow to charge for articles posted online, and subscription numbers have never recovered. Since then, Google and Facebook have taken over the advertising market once dominated by newspaper publishers.

Some newspapers have been hollowed out by hedge funds looking for short-term profits, regardless of the effects on journalism. Layoffs have occurred with somber regularity at most papers throughout the country, causing newsrooms to bleed journalistic experience and institutional knowledge. Readers everywhere have reported that the quality of news coverage has suffered.

One Pew Research study found U.S. newspapers shed half of their employees from 2008 to 2019 – a rate of loss worse than the reduction in coal mining jobs that President Donald Trump has long lamented. Across all media, there were over 114,000 newsroom employees in 2008, according to Pew. By 2019, that number had fallen to just 87,510.

Now the impacts of COVID-19 could be “the death knell,” for some papers, a Sacramento newsman told the Los Angeles Times.

Signs Of Hope

So far, the media landscape in Hawaii hasn’t been as negatively impacted as other places during the pandemic.

Although its ad revenue has declined 40% to 60%, the Star-Advertiser is being temporarily buoyed by help from the federal paycheck protection program, which offers eight weeks of financial assistance, including for payroll. Companies that maintain staffing and compensation levels don’t have to pay the loan back.

That is a plus, but that is temporary,” Francis said. 

Despite the government assistance, most furloughed employees have not been called back to work and most people who were working four-day workweeks still are, Francis said. The furloughed employees include photojournalists, sports and entertainment reporters and those on the business side, like advertising personnel.

“There is no work to do,” he said. “We could disrupt their schedules and things they’ve already adjusted to and return to work. But until there is work to do, we thought it better just to pay them.”

The Molokai Dispatch is also staying afloat with federal assistance as advertisers continue to drop out, according to Editor-in-Chief Catherine Cluett Pactol.

Civil Beat media partner Hawaii News Now isn’t anticipating any furloughs or layoffs. Hawaii News Now

Hawaii broadcasters have also taken a financial hit but have not announced any staff reductions.

Hawaii News Now experienced a “major blow,” according to General Manager Katie Pickman. Suddenly, events that usually attract lucrative sponsorship deals such as the Merrie Monarch Festival, the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, and the Olympics were canceled or postponed. Plus, everyday advertisers pulled their spots, she said.

Revenue has dramatically dipped because people don’t have their doors open,” she said. “Before we might’ve celebrated a $10,000 sale. Now, we celebrate a $1,000 sale.” 

Thanks to good financial planning by HNN’s parent company Gray Television, Pickman said HNN has not had to furlough or lay off any employees.

Newsroom leaders at KHON2 and KITV did not return requests for comment.

Hawaii Public Radio is in “very good shape,” according to President and General Manager José Fajardo. The station postponed its spring fund drive, as did Civil Beat, but HPR members have continued to give, Fajardo said. While some have canceled their memberships, he said others have increased their contributions, and program underwriting is holding steady.

“Thanks to the support of our members, Hawaii’s original non-profit news organization is strong,” he said in an email. “We have no plans to reduce our local staff, and continue to cover local stories on the air and online.”

Civil Beat is also a nonprofit and does not anticipate any cutbacks in its budget or its staff. The online news site is bringing on at least one intern this summer and a Report for America year-long reporter who starts next month, according to Editor Patti Epler.

Despite reduced resources at many media outlets, the journalistic workload has only become more demanding, said Imada, who writes stories in addition to editing. Providing fast, reliable, fact-checked information to the public is essential during a public health crisis. The Maui News has covered the COVID-19 outbreak at Maui Memorial Medical Center, tourism declines, and mask donations in addition to covering everyday news that continues on, like the county budget process.

“It’s literally all hands on deck,” he said. “I’m hoping that maybe the silver lining is that people see the value of our operation, our newspaper, to the community.” 

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