In a devastating blow to Hawaii’s largest daily newspaper, leadership at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser told employees it intends to lay off about half of its union news staff by the end of the month.

Thirty-one workers across all departments are flagged for removal: 15 of the newspaper’s 34 reporters, two photographers, three page designers, seven clerks, three graphic artists and a web designer.

Among them is Kristen Consillio, the newspaper’s health reporter who has been diligently tracking the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes publishing multiple stories in one day. Popular columnists Lee Cataluna and Christine Donnelly are also on the chopping block, according to the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Separately, longtime Editor Frank Bridgewater, who just turned 70, is retiring at the end of the month.

Save Hawaii News demonstration by Star Advertiser staffers and supporters outside their offices at Restaurant Row.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser employees protested cuts in 2017. The latest round is even worse.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The newsroom union is negotiating with management. In the past, workers identified for a layoff have been spared by employees who volunteer to retire early. If carried out, the layoffs will have a profound impact on news coverage throughout the state.

“That means fewer journalists keeping the ʻpowers that be’ in check, less questioning of authority, fewer answers to your burning questions and even more substandard information disseminated to the public,” Consillio wrote in an Instagram post. Consillio referred questions to the newsroom union.

The union had been in talks with the leadership for months to find a mutually agreeable way to achieve cost savings, including extended furloughs, according to Michael Applegate, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. The parties hadn’t yet come to an agreement. To announce the removal of half the union news staff is “an incredibly rash decision,” she said.

“There are ways through this, not only short term but long term, that are viable options,” she said. “The company is either posturing to get us to agree to what they want or don’t really have the interests of workers in mind and they’re planning to do these layoffs anyway.”

Dennis Francis, president and CEO of Oahu Publications Inc., did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Messages left with editors at The Garden Island, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald and West Hawaii Today – newspapers also owned by Oahu Publications – were not immediately returned.

The Star-Advertiser, like most newspapers in America, has undergone major staff reductions in recent years. In 2017, union employees at the Star-Advertiser protested the loss of a quarter of their staff within a year. More recently, the impacts of the coronavirus on businesses have caused advertising – a newspaper’s bread and butter – to disappear.

In May, Oahu Publications indefinitely furloughed 50 workers companywide, put another 125 on reduced work schedules and eliminated some freelance positions. To reduce printing and distribution costs, Saturday editions of its newspapers became online only. The Star-Advertiser received assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which offers eight weeks of financial assistance, including for payroll. But Francis noted in May that the help was only temporary.

The PPP money ran out this week, according to Applegate.

Sandy Ma, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause, called the latest cuts “disheartening.”

“It’s the free press that holds power accountable,” she said. “Without reporters doing in-depth investigative journalism on government, we’re going to lose that oversight. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Newspapers produce more original local news reporting than television, radio and online-only outlets combined, according to Duke University researchers. But that hasn’t translated into cash flow.

In the early days of the internet, newspapers were slow to charge for content posted online. Subscription numbers plummeted and have never recovered. They also lost revenue when Craigslist replaced the need for classified pages and Google and Facebook took over the advertising market once dominated by newspapers.

Most newspapers in the United States are owned by just a handful of companies like Gannett and Tribune which have rewarded their CEOs even as they lay off journalists. Other papers are owned by private equity firms like Alden Global Capital, which Vanity Fair called a “hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry.”

All of this has resulted in relentless newspaper staff reductions. One Pew Research study found U.S. newspapers shed half of their employees from 2008 to 2019. Senior reporters, those with the most seasoned journalistic skills and deepest institutional knowledge, are often among the first to go at many papers. The Star-Advertiser’s union agreement protects employees based on seniority. Those on the layoff list are those with the least years of service, Applegate said.

Oahu Publications is a subsidiary of Black Press, a privately owned company that has made cuts consistent with the rest of the industry. In April, it laid off 20% of its workforce in Washington state and Alaska, The  Daily Herald in Everett reported.

The cuts come at a time when there is no shortage of news amid a deadly pandemic sweeping the world, the economy tanking and the country undergoing a reckoning on racial injustice and police brutality. With fewer reporters, some stories will go uncovered.

“Meaningful journalism that educates, enlightens and inspires to affect positive change in our society has been my passion for nearly 20 years as a Hawaii news reporter,” Consillio said. “It has been a privilege and blessing to serve the community I love.”

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