I’ve been there, inside a newspaper when it published its final edition.
I was the editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado’s oldest newspaper, when it said “Goodbye” on Feb. 27, 2009.
So Sunday, June 6, 2010, when The Honolulu Advertiser said “Aloha and mahalo,” brought back a lot of memories.
I want to share a few reflections on the last days and final editions of the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, which on Monday will publish in a broadsheet format as the Star-Advertiser.
When I arrived in Honolulu in January and began meeting people here, it was obvious that the conventional wisdom was that it was only a matter of time before the Star-Bulletin would fold. The only question was how soon. Journalists at the Star-Bulletin seemed uneasy. Their counterparts at the Advertiser seemed to think they were in the catbird seat. How wrong conventional wisdom can be?
Two stories about the newspapers kept coming up when I talked to journalists and to people in the community, and both were negative for the Advertiser and positive for the Star-Bulletin.
One was World War II and the way the Advertiser had used the epithet “Japs” in its headlines and articles while the Star-Bulletin never went down that road, even though it was the only Honolulu paper to publish the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That single difference said a lot about the two titles in many people’s minds.
The other was the “Broken Trust,” the earth-shattering essay that exposed corruption among the trustees of the Bishop Estate and in the state’s power structure. Advertiser executives had had the chance to publish it first, but had dithered so long that courageous editors at the Star-Bulletin beat them to the punch.
Despite the fact that more people seemed to have a soft spot for the Star-Bulletin, The Advertiser, to this journalist’s eye, was clearly the better of the two newspapers when I got here and the better of the two websites, by far.
Ever since the purchase of the Advertiser was announced, the “fact” that the ownership group of the Star-Bulletin led by David Black has lost $100 million on the paper since taking it over has been repeated again and again, in both papers and elsewhere. I’ve met David Black and believe that he’s an astute businessman. I don’t believe he has the resources to lose that kind of money in Honolulu, nor do I believe he would allow that to happen or that any lender would help him buy the Advertiser if he’d lost $100 million on the Star-Bulletin.
What hasn’t been mentioned enough in his purchase of the Advertiser and sale of the Star-Bulletin is that Midweek, his weekly publication that goes to essentially every residence on Oahu, must have helped make up for those losses. It’s hard to believe his overall numbers in Honolulu over the past 10 years aren’t much different than a $100 million loss. I’m sure his accountants can figure out a way to show a $100 million loss for the Star-Bulletin, but that doesn’t mean the number represents the underlying situation at Oahu Publications, which included the Star-Bulletin and Midweek.
The most important thing Black did in this deal was to keep Midweek, so that any potential new owner of the Star-Bulletin wouldn’t have access to its revenues or the ability to compete with his new paper.
If you don’t believe me about why he kept Midweek and didn’t lose $100 million on his overall operation, listen to what Black told his own newspaper for Sunday’s edition about why Hawaii is an attractive place for a single newspaper publisher.
“You don’t have interloping papers, so whatever available revenue is all yours and doesn’t get siphoned off.”
Imagine thinking of competitors as “interlopers.” Black was allowed to form his print monopoly when the Justice Department let him keep Midweek while selling the Star-Bulletin. Midweek will dominate the weekly arena. The Star-Advertiser will dominate the daily arena. And his commercial printing operation will be able to raise rates, just the way his daily and weekly will be able to raise advertising rates. (By the way, I’m not saying he’s unusual in liking a monopoly. Gannett, which sold the Advertiser to him, thrived for years based on its focus on owning markets where there was no other print competitor. That’s how it funded USA Today.)
Black and his team deserve credit for hiring so many journalists from the Advertiser to join his Star-Bulletin team. What he has done in keeping 28 journalists from the competing paper is highly unusual. I thought Dean Singleton did well, given the circumstances, when he brought 10 journalists from the Rocky Mountain News over to The Denver Post. In Seattle, the Times was hurting so badly that it didn’t bring one journalist over from the Post-Intelligencer. So kudos to the ownership for going far beyond the norm.
The spin about itself by the only newspaper in town has already begun. Sunday’s lead story about the deal in the Star-Bulletin said the new publication will have a newsroom staff of 117, the “largest news-gathering and reporting staff in the state, and larger than the staff of 111 at the Advertiser on May 1.” That may be true, but earlier stories in the Advertiser said the staff was bigger, and even in its last edition, the Advertiser said it had “120 editorial staffers.” As the headline on political columnist Jerry Burris’ last word said, “The news didn’t get smaller, the papers did.” Ain’t that the truth.
Just as I did in Denver, I wish the people at the surviving paper well as they try to carry on alone in print. It’s important for this community that Black lives up to his word that the preservation of democracy is the most important role of his newspaper. I wish his team success in fulfilling that mission.
But as you look out to the future and wonder what journalism will look like in the 21st century, I think it’s safe to say that print newspapers aren’t the place to look. We’re in an era of experimentation — Civil Beat is just one such experiment. There are many indications in Hawaii of why a more decentralized and open approach to producing news and information will be the shape of the future. Everything from the valuable service the legislature provides citizens with its website — access and information that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago — to the websites of nonprofits and businesses about their areas of expertise and the work of individuals or small groups of individuals in speciality areas, such as politics, science and the environment.
The death of a newspaper doesn’t just touch the 400 or so people who lost their jobs this weekend. It touches their families and others in the community who might provide them goods and services. People. That’s where it hurts most. That’s what I think about most. It’s going to be hard for those people to wake up tomorrow morning and have nowhere to go. And it’s going to be hard for their loved ones.
Finally, there is no promise in the First Amendment that we as a society will have the necessary amount of journalism to maintain and build our democracy. Nobody knows what that total would be. It’s important in assessing the loss of a daily newspaper to also recognize that we live in the most exciting period of innovation in the news business ever, in my view. The Internet and mobile technology are game changers. We are a strong community and a strong nation and it is up to us to support and do the work that we believe is essential to the state and country we love.