It all comes down to Sunday.
That’s where the war for our hearts and minds is fought. That’s where newspapers make or break their year.
So what did we learn from the first weekend editions of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser? I’m going to focus on what those papers told us about the journalism we can expect from the newspaper.
First, the paper seems oriented toward “conceptual” front pages, using photo illustrations to create impact rather than to using news articles and photography to reflect real life in this place.
Those concept stories are hit and miss, at best. “WAC Cracked” was the front page headline Saturday. OK, sports fans know what the WAC is. But The Wall Street Journal has a good rule: If you’re going to use a term, explain it. If you can tell me which teams are in the WAC from the front page article, please let me know. I couldn’t.
Enough already with repeating that the staff is “award-winning.” The publisher of the Star-Advertiser promised in his full-page ad/column Sunday that he’s “committed to continuing the award-winning journalism that has been the hallmark of both papers.” I’ve been the editor and publisher of a major metropolitan paper, and I hate to say it but almost any journalist who can breathe can call himself or herself award winning. Journalism has too many awards. Who cares, unless you’re talking extraordinary, nationally-recognized effort? Show me how good your are by what you did for me today. That’s a humbling aspect of daily journalism.
You’d think that editors would have had time to prepare a real humdinger of an article for the first Sunday front page. The merger of the two papers wasn’t a surprise to them. What we got instead was a screaming headline: “Fresh Costs” over a weak story that told us that fruit and vegetable distributors over the past six months have spent about $300 a week in unexpected expenses to bring in short-handed inspectors on overtime. The story told us that “Hawaii consumers are paying more for fresh produce because of state cutbacks.” Let’s do the math: $7,800 in extra costs. Spread over food for 1.3 to 1.5 million people (I like to count tourists as consumers), is the number really material? I don’t think so. Would it be material if they had to spend it every day? I don’t think so given that the Star-Advertiser told me that the state imports about 250 to 300 million pounds of fruit and vegetables a year, say 150 million pounds in six months. The paper would have sent a better message if it had taken on a tougher subject. How about the shipping monopoly that really does drive up costs here? Instead it sent the message that it was going to inflate a small issue into a big deal. Who needs that?
Look, I have sympathy for the folks in the Star-Advertiser newsroom. They deserved a day of rest after their first week. You could tell they worked hard last week. But this is the newsroom that the publisher says has more journalists than all other local media combined. I think it’s reasonable to expect a lot based on that claim.
My hope as a reader is more local news. Instead, it’s clear that we’re going to get a lot of wire stories in the new Star-Advertiser. I can find those anywhere. And more timely and better ones. There were at least 21 in the main section of the Sunday paper. If I’m being really generous, I would say there were 15 local stories in the A section and the Local section combined, plus a number of brief items. New on the scene was a “money” section, replacing the military section in the former Advertiser. That section had three local stories. It added the Sunday Wall Street Journal to the Honolulu mix, though.
Finally, let’s look at an interview with Mayor and governor-wannabe Mufi Hannemann on page B11. I hope the interview doesn’t answer the question whether the Star-Advertiser is going to be asking tough questions. The good mayor tells us that if the civil unions bill on Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk is “tantamount to institutionalizing marriage, then I can’t support it, but I don’t know the answer until I actually get in there.” Excuse me. Why can’t he? The bill is readily available to the mayor, as is all the testimony on it. There’s nothing secret in the governor’s office that will give him the answer. The executive committee of the Hawaii Business Roundtable felt informed enough to take a position on it at the last minute. You’d think somebody with the mayor’s intelligence could do the same thing. The paper let him off easy. As for rail, last week the mayor decided not to accept money from a Pittsburgh fundraiser. But it was never discussed in the interview or a related article on the candidates’ support for rail.
We lost the Advertiser’s Focus section, replaced by an Insight section that will be familiar to Star-Bulletin readers. Perhaps the most potentially interesting story in the paper was on the front page of the section. It was about what’s known as teacher tenure. But again, the toughest issue was never addressed. The state didn’t “dismiss” a single teacher with tenure in the 2007-2008 year, the paper reported. But that was it. It didn’t take a step further and ask how that could be possible. Here’s what the chairman of the Board of Education, Garrett Toguchi, told the reporter about the power of principals: “They do have the authority to decide who is going to come to work at their school and who is going to stay. They evaluate and then either recommend or not recommend.” So why was not a single teacher fired? The Star-Advertiser, despite all its resources, never told us.
Which brings me to my final two concerns.
First, I sure hope the editor follows the example of former Advertiser Editor Mark Platte and writes a weekly column opening the window on his operation and his thinking as he runs the paper. That’s an important part of the job of an editor today, even if those columns can sometimes be self-serving. At least they let readers know that there are human beings running the paper and facing real issues, where answers aren’t always easy to come by. Or maybe the paper should hire an ombudsman to write about its journalism.
Second, it’s clear after a week that the web is an afterthought at the new Star-Advertiser. Let me know if you can find anything interesting in the paper telling you about the services you’ll find on the web or for your cell phone. The names of the leaders of the newsroom are listed on page 3 of the Sunday paper. There’s nobody there with responsibility for the web. On page 2, where the paper lists its corporate executives, a director of digital media is listed. That’s telling. It has a business guy for the web. But no top editor dedicated to it. The decision just reinforces my impression that right now owner David Black needs to focus on revenue and nobody in newspapers has figured out how to make real money on the web yet. Better to focus on print for the time being, perhaps, but kind of shocking in this day and age. The new paper essentially limits web references to printing the url of the paper’s website at the top of its sections. Note to Black: If I’m running Hawaii News Now, the other media gorilla in town, I know the barrier to providing the news you’d typically find in a newspaper has been removed. It’ll be interesting to see whether the TV station steps up its game and slugs it out with the paper online.
That’s all for now. In the end, I’m glad to have a paper to read with my coffee every morning. And I appreciate how big the Star-Advertiser is at such a difficult time for newspapers. I can tell you that based on my travels, Honolulu — at least at the moment — has a pretty generous news offering. Now if only…