HONOLULU—No one saw this coming. It was a regular Thursday afternoon until both staffs got the news: Honolulu Star Bulletin owner David Black had inked a deal to purchase The Honolulu Advertiser and the Star Bulletin had been put up for sale. A week after the announcement, many of the 900 combined employees who work for the papers are still in shock. Many know there will be substantial job losses by the time this is over—and for some reports, the sale may well signal the end of their careers.
Black has said that he will consolidate both dailies if the Star Bulletin doesn’t sell by the expected summer date the Advertiser sale will complete—and the consolidation looks likely. With MidWeek and the best printing assets not included in the offering, plus the constraint of a short time frame, Black appears to have already set in motion a plan to make a hybrid paper inevitable.
Hawaii Newspaper Guild head, Wayne Cahill, believes Black is disingenuous in suggesting the Star Bulletin could be sold. “I would argue Black hasn’t really put it up for sale,” Cahill says. “He hasn’t engaged a broker to help him sell it—if you structure the sale in a certain way, you’re really structuring the sale so you don’t intend to sell. He wants to close it.”
Cahill says staff feels like they’ve been stun-gunned.
The fate of Honolulu’s newspapers and the future of journalism in Hawaii may be sealed, but the real question is: Who cares? A decade ago, Black was considered a hero by many responsible for the Save Our Star Bulletin campaign to keep Honolulu a two-paper town. Now while some again ask whether another SOS campaign might be brewing, the world of print media has irrevocably changed.
Many papers nationwide have ceased to publish or are foundering; PR software company, Vocus, found 293 newspapers went under in 2009 according to its State of the Media 2010 report. Younger generations may prefer news via screens: TV and increasingly online. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, although most people feel local TV gives them the best news, a significant number, 25 percent, still think local newspapers provide the best coverage.
The public has also seemingly warmed to media consolidation. That possibility highlights the need for the kind of journalism that doesn’t necessarily come from bloggers and citizen journalists, says Gerald Kato, journalism professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“It’s a bedrock belief of democratic government that there be competition, diversity, and localism in the news media, and the more the better,” Kato says. “The idea put out by media companies here and on the mainland that we’re going to do more with less is false. What you get with less is less.”
Kato stresses that less—less news, fewer trained journalists, and less money to pay them—won’t help to create a well informed public. More reporters on the street getting and making sense of information is the only way to face a complex future, he says. For Kato, the matter is not just academic: he’s married to Sandra Oshiro, managing editor for new media at the Advertiser.
So who, really, will buy into this argument aside from those immediately affected by it? Chris Conybeare, president of Media Council Hawaii, agrees with Cahill that there needs to be more transparency about the Advertiser sale before anyone can take action. Few details about the sale are known. Neither current Advertiser owner Gannett Co. nor Black has yet divulged the purchase price, although the Bulletin’s publisher says much of the financing for the sale will come from Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. of Toronto. The exact amount of the investment has not been made public.
“Our community has a good, proud history of rising to the occasion on some of these issues,” says Conybeare. “Nobody thought the SOS effort 10 years ago would work. People write off those of us who are complaining about television consolidation and yet we’ve attracted a lot of support and have gotten attention nationwide. Once this sinks in there are a lot of people who will try to put something together. Don’t count them out yet.”
Even if community leadership marshals a newspaper-saving effort, success or failure will still depend on the viability of the newspaper business model. Black has said he thinks it’s not so much the business model that has killed newspapers as it was their heavy debt service and effects of the recession. No question that both factors have compounded and hastened the end of many long published papers, but Cahill, Conybeare, and Kato also agree that another, newer business model might make the difference in keeping current papers alive or allowing new ones to start. Community ownership and nonprofit partnerships may be the way of the future.
Meanwhile Cahill is still trying to get answers to help staff at both papers face the uncertainty of the next few months. “Black wants to put well upward of 100 people out of work by what we can learn of his plans, but he won’t even tell us his plans,” Cahill says. “He has some responsibility to the community and to the newspaper and journalism profession. Newspapers have a responsibility to the community as well as the bottom line.”
We’ll see if the community thinks it also has a responsibility to the newspapers.
The entire interview with Wayne Cahill, Gerald Kato and Chris Conybeare can he heard on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.