September to December, 1999
The Year of Living on the Edge
A Surprise Attack and an Unexpected Defense
Dispatches from the Front by Burl Burlingame
|8/20/99 In his daily fit of pique, Hawaii governor Ben Cayetano announced that he doesn't care if there are one, two or no newspapers in Honolulu. Perhaps Gannett took this as a covert signal to act. By this time, wheels were in motion -- and have been since 1993.|
|9/12/99 Gannett editors filled up the Advertiser Sunday editorial pages
with a statement of Gannett's recently derived ethical standards,
"Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way"
"Serving the public interest"
"Exercising fair play"
"Maintaining independence" and
"Acting with integrity"
Before the week was out, all of these simple standards were violated by Gannett.
|9/13/99 On this day, Gannett labor-relations experts debated how best to destroy the Star-Bulletin's news staff. A proposal to absorb the entire staff was scoffed at, and instead they decided to take a token number to lure Star-Bulletin readers to the Advertiser. They also decided that Hawaii's citizens are too dumb to understand the importance of an independent press and will not react at all to closure of the 117-year-old newspaper. This decision winds up costing Gannett millions in legal fees and alienating their reader base in Hawaii.|
|9/14/99 Hawaii Newspaper Agency maintenance workers pulled the Star-Bulletin sign off the front of the News Building and threw it into a dumpster. It was retrieved by a shocked printer.|
|9/15/99 Although Star-Bulletin executives were informed of the impending closure, they decided not to share this information with the staff. The Star-Bulletin staff instead learned of their planned demise on TV news.|
|9/17/99 A Hawaii-based buyer for the Star-Bulletin appeared and offered
to write a check immediately for $50 million. Gannett -- curiously,
now handling Phillips' financial affairs --refused. We also learned
that the they intend to work us until Oct. 30, in order to cash
in on the lucrative holiday ad-buying season. We had six weeks
Gannett immediately tripled the number of uniformed security guards on the building, with orders to watch the employees rather than visitors. It's a clumsy psychological tactic, but it contributes to a bynker mentality.
Not many know that, within two hours of the closure announcement, our union representatives of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild and the heads of affiliated unions demanded an audience with Gov. Cayetano to protest the loss of the Star-Bulletin. Cayetano, as shocked as they, assigns the state's Attorney General to look into the matter. The Justice Department, stung by newspaper closures across the country and on an anti-trust kick under the Clinton administration, also become quietly interested.
|9/18/99 We were highly annoyed to discover that Honolulu Advertiser stories
about the closure were being doctored by Gannett editors over
protests by their own staff. The spin insisted that Gannett is
innocent, the Star-Bulletin staff should have known better and
that closure was inevitable.
|9/20/99 The Honolulu Advertiser let it be known that they would take a token amount of the Star-Bulletin staff, a lifeboat that seats a dozen being swamped by a hundred. Gannett editors Jim Gatti and Jim Kelly -- we call them "The Jims" -- began interviewing Star-Bulletin employees for the few open positions. It's a deliberatelly demoralizing, divisive and inconclusive process. Some reporters are offered cookies by The Jims, others aren't. What does it all mean?|
|9/21/99 The Jims spiked a legitimate Honolulu Advertiser business story about customer reaction to closure, because their reporters were unable to find a single businessman pleased to pay same high rates for fewer circulated newspapers. Despite this incident and occasional sanitizing by Gannett editors, Advertiser reporters' coverage of the closure in the weeks to come is aggressive, thorough and in-depth. They have a lot to prove.|
|9/22/99 Gannett began yanking Star-Bulletin newstands from Oahu neighborhoods.
They've been slow about stocking them for years, and HNA production
managers are chronically late in printing the Star-Bulletin, bad
habits that played havoc with circulation numbers, but now it
began to look like an ongoing effort to deliberately sabotage
the Star-Bulletin's readership base, which was certainly a violation
of the JOA.
Star-Bulletin subscribers also began getting calls from Advertiser circulation boosters, claiming that "The best way to help the Star-Bulletin employees is to drop the Star-Bulletin and take the Advertiser."
|9/23/99 I was infuriated by the completely defeated attitude of one of our government reporters, a guy who's usually cocky and on top of things. I just wanted to slap him. In order to boost folks' fighting spirit, I wrote an "anonymous" letter and posted it on the bulletin board. It's cathartic to sort out my feeling this way. I was thinking of the sort of patriotic speeches you heard in movies like "Casablanca," when the world was unprepared to meet the fascists but was determined to stick it out. Oddly, many co-workers were spooked by the tone. Others thought it simply nutty. It's a valuable lesson in how frightened the staff was of Gannett:|
|10/1/99 The Hawaii Newspaper Guild has been furiously busy behind the scenes organizing a legal challenge to the closure. There was a piece of luck: the Guild had joined the Communication Workers of America the previous year and the resistance funds were greater than we would have had with the Guild. As the Star-Bulletin guild rep, I'm involved in the planning, but we had to keep things secret, otherwise Gannett will create legal countermeasures. This rubbed some of the staff the wrong way, as they viewed any measure to stop the closure as pointless. Wayne Cahill, the Guild executive, was forced to give fuzzy pep talks when the staff wanted hard promises. Even so, the upcoming legal challenge leaked out.|
|10/5/99 The interview process was long over, but Gannett editors at the
Honolulu Advertiser decided to let nervous Star-Bulletin employees
swing a while longer in the wind -- in retaliation for the threatened
The lawsuit was announced in the afternoon. Save Our Star-Bulletin, or SOS, is the citizens' group joining forces with the Guild and the Hawaii State Attorney General's office in filing a legal challenge to the closure. An injunction is granted to keep Gannett from harming the Star-Bulletin's ability to do business or destroy the newspaper's sale prospects.
By this time I had been drafted to maintain SOS' web site. Much of the material in this journal is taken from my periodic updates of the SOS site.
|10/7/99 Advertiser editors began calling the lucky few at the Star-Bulletin with job offers. Choices started with management and followed a predictable Gannett demographic party line. Star-Bulletin staffers referred to the process as Schindler's List.|
|10/8/99 Star-Bulletin employees continued to sit by their phones, hoping to get a call from rival Gannett editors in lieu of sudden unemployment. So few positions were offered that tension rode high. The choice is likened to going immediately into the ovens or being a concentration-camp capo. "This is the most humiliating, degrading experience of my professional life," blurted out one staffer. "It isn't like going from the major leagues to a bush league," said another. "It's like hoping to go from the World Series to Little League."|
|10/12/99 By this point, Gannett editors had spent nine days to contact only19 Star-Bulletin staffers about possible future work at the Advertiser, nearly a month after starting the interview process. All of the rest of the staff were left hanging, despite public promises to the contrary. In retrospect, it's clear that the interview "process" was simply a cynical ploy to gain intelligence about Star-Bulletin operations. The local word for it is "shibai." The Advertiser immediately began lame copies of successful Star-Bulletin features.|
|10/17/99 A weekend rally drew another couple of hundred people. SOS bumper stickers and buttons started to make an appearance.|
|10/18/99 Gannett editors appeared before the Honolulu Media Council for a discussion of how they mangled their Bishop Estate "Broken Trust" coverage. The audience is hostile. Despite excellent Bishop Estate reporting by Advertiser writer Sally Apgar and others over the last two years, it was apparent that public sympathy for the Star-Bulletin was boosted by initially breaking the story when the Advertiser refused to do so.|
|10/20/99 Although the court agreed to expedite Gannett's appeal, the 9th Circuit in San Francsico denied Gannett's request to lift the injunction. This certainly meant that paper would continue publishing past Oct. 30 as the legal case rolled onward. Hawaii Newspaper Agency retail advertising salespeople spontaneously bought pizza and soft drinks for the entire Star-Bulletin staff as a gesture of solidarity. While this occurred, the Honolulu City Council passed a resolution to stop closure of the Star-Bulletin. Although several community and labor leaders spoke to the council on behalf of the newspaper, Gannett could not dig up anyone to speak on behalf of Gannett.|
|10/21/99 The employment-assistance room, created by HNA to help Star-Bulletin staff find work elsewhere, was placed off-limits to Star-Bulletin staff by Gannett.|
|10/24/99 Star-Bulletin Managing Editor David Shapiro -- who, with publisher John Flanagan, would get a handsome settlement from Gannett upon the paper's closure -- ordered the removal of staff-job-wanted links from the Star-Bulletin website, plus links to investigative reporter Ian Lind's Shutdown Diary. Both Shapiro and Flanagan, long-time Gannett executives prior to the sale to Liberty, had been essentially invisible in the fight to save the newspaper. On the other hand, they could easily be be fired by Phillips and replaced with Phillips' relatives and henchmen if they speak out. I don't believe they're acting on their own. Both Shapiro and Flanagan were screwed badly by Gannett in the 1993 sale.|
|10/25/99 He's due, but he don't show. Gannett labor negotiator John Jaske didn't reuturn to Honolulu as promised to resume negotiations. Instead, incredibly, he spent his days enriching himself with insider-trading on Gannett stocks before news of Gannett's legal problems reached stockholders.|
|10/26/99 Gannett advertising executives were shocked -- yes, shocked! -- to discover a half-page ad on both newspaper op-ed pages from the Hawaii Government Employees Assocation lambasting Gannett's determination to kill the Star-Bulletin.|
|10/27/99 Gannett filed their appeal with the 9th Circuit, again citing a First Admendment right to kill newspapers. Several
media chains disappoint us mightily by signing on their approval,
including the Associated Press, whose own mission statement includes
the directive "The AP seeks no special privilege beyond free access. It believes
that the more journalistic voices the world hears, the better
informed it will be." Money talks, ethics walks. However, several large media organizations
don't fall for this hooey, even some in JOA agreements with Gannett.
Were they approached?
Here's a readable version of the appeal document.
|10/28/99 Department of Justice agents were quizzing major Honolulu advertisers about Gannett business practices. Since ad rates are influenced by subscription numbers, and it is revealed that the Advertiser's 60,000 subscribers aren't that much more than the Star-Bulletin's 53,000 subscribers (the rest of the numbers are based on unreliable street-sale figures) this could be crucial.|
|10/29/99 Security guards at the New Building were caught by surprise when told that the Star-Bulletin wasn't ceasing operations the next day. Up to last second, they had been told differently. Which begged the question -- if Gannett had been ordered by a federal judge on Oct. 13 to stop "tampering" with Star-Bulletin and Hawaii Newspaper Agency operations, why did Gannett continue to intimidate workers with an army of extra and unecessary guards?|
|11/1/99 Although the Feds have decreed that the Star-Bulletin must stay in operation past this date while investigations are conducted against Gannett and Liberty, many Honolulu residents didn't receive their Star-Bulletins -- because Gannett distribution executives have cancelled their subscriptions anyway.|
|11/2/99 A Xerox employee opened fire in the company's Honolulu office, killing seven, the largest multiple homicide in Hawaiian history, and then escaped for several hours before being boxed in by police. The Star-Bulletin's web site had photographs of the situation online before television stations can broadcast their signal, and several editions of the newspaper were issued through the day to anxious readers. The irony is that the Star-Bulletin was supposed to have been dead by this point. Although Honolulu Advertiser coverage of the incident was excellent, it didn't appear until nearly 24 hours later.|
|11/3/99 Gannett editor Jim Kelly mounted the steps of the Advertiser library and screamed "We're kicking their ass!" at his staff, apparently in reference to the newspaper's wall-to-wall coverage of the Xerox massacre. Many Advertiser staffers were appalled at Kelly's glee in the wake of this tragedy. He later sent out a staff-wide message claiming that the Star-Bulletin is so lame that it will be reduced to comparing the price of hibiscus flowers on the front page. At any rate, the next day the Advertiser ran a story about Bishop Estate in which, once again, the primary source was the Honolulu Star-Bulletin earlier coverage.|
11/5/99 Despite efforts by Gannett management to paint supporters of the Star-Bulletin as marginal troublemakers, they include many prominent people in the community, all of whom are beating the bushges for help. Here's an example from the minutes of the November 4, 1999 meeting of the McCully-Moiliili Neighborhood Board. The SOS person, Jean King, is a former Lt. Governor and member of the Legislature, and one of the plaintiffs in the SOS lawsuit against Gannett and Liberty Newspapers.
|11/8/99 A New York Times story on Gannett's efforts to monopolize Hawaii
newspapers noted that the "scrappy" Star-Bulletin was able to
out-point the Advertiser on coverage of the Xerox massacre despite
losses to the afternoon paper's staff caused by Gannett's actions.
|11/9/99 Gannett editors at the Honolulu Advertiser held a meeting at the luxurious Kahala Mandarin Hotel for secret planning sessions, trying to figure out what to do in the wake of this public-relations disaster. In the meantime, few if any, Star-Bulletin newstands had been returned to the street.|
|11/15/99 On what was supposed to have been the last day of paid work at the Star-Bulletin, many staffers had by this time cleaned out their desks and cubicle walls of personal belongings and files, for fear that Gannett would suddenly lock the doors.|
|11/17/99 While Gannett editors assured the staff of the Advertiser that "it's all over," Gannett filed another appeal. It appeared that Gannett editors in Honolulu are kept out of the loop. The Star-Bulletin printed another price-comparison story by Rob Perez -- part of a series that won wide acclaim from readers -- and Star-Bulletin graphic editors jokingly placed a large image of a hibiscus plant on the cover. (See 11/3/99)|
|11/18/99 In a newsletter distributed to employees, Gannett publisher Mike Fisch asked readers to be patient while Gannett filed another appeal. He also stated, "To our advertisers, we pledge to continue to provide the same value they have always received from HNA." It's not clear whether this was a threat or a promise!|
|11/19/99 The Star-Bulletin's ad agency was wooed to the Advertiser, we
discover. It's too bad, as we had a pretty good campaign going
that readily pointed up the differences between us and them. In
the meantime, banner advertisng appears on the Advertiser's web
site, while Gannett ad-sales agents made no attempt to sell similar
advertising on the Star-Bulletin's web site, a clear violation
of JOA policy despite Judge Kay's instructions to stop tampering.
City editor Dan Woods left admidst leis and cakes to take another job across town. The number of staff was dwindling, and they weren't being replaced under the circumstances.
|11/22/99 As if things weren't bad enough being under assault from the biggest, most ruthless newspaper corporation in the land, the midgets were swinging at us too. Bob Rees, columnist for the Honolulu Weekly -- who never met a stupid rumor he couldn't repeat, and a shameless apologist for the rich, powerful and thoroughly corrupt -- continues to support Gannett's efforts to kill the newspaper. Unhappy with their niche as a give-away publication filled with dating personals, Weekly publisher Laurie Carlson has always insisted the Star-Bulletin should suffer a messy death, and Rees is only too happy to serve as her bootlicking winged monkey.|
|11/24/99 To celebrate Thanksgivving, the outer glass doors of Gannett's upstairs offices were quickly given a mirror-like tint to prevent the curious from seeing inside. And why not? The place was bustling with high-priced lawyers, flown in on Gannett's corporate jets as if they are Israeli commandos. The window tint probably helped them feel safe in their warren. It's a real hunker-down, bunker mentality, and gave the third floor the gray brooding flair of the Reichschancellory in 1945.|
|12/1/99 All quiet on the appeal front. Advertiser staffers, however, had been informed -- or deliberately misinformed -- that THEIR jobs are on the block if Gannett decided to cut and run. We also discovered that, within a few weeks of refusing to return to Honolulu to negotiate, Gannett labor executive John Jaske exercised options on insider trading on Gannett stocks and made a fast $450,000. It was going to be a jolly Christmas in the Jaske household!|
|12/2/99 While the rest of the News Building were busy erecting their Christmas trees, there weren't any at the Star-Bulletin. That part of the promo budget had somehow evaporated.|
|12/8/99 Gannett's lawyers asked the state to delay the hearing on the motion to dismiss that state's lawsuit, pushing it from Dec. 13 to Feb. 7. The reason? Gannett's attorneys are too busy doing other things and can't be bothered to fly to Honolulu. The State agreed, provided that Gannett didn't use this excuse as a smoke-screen to slow discovery. It also signaled a retrenching by Gannett planners from the balls-out frontal assault they'd been conducting.|
|12/12/99 Gannett began selling its Sunday Advertiser for $1 on the streets, a bargain compared to the $1.75 they usally charged for the thin publication, but not such a good deal for the subscribers who were required to pay full price.|
|12/14/99 A mysterious series of technical problems within Gannett's Hawaii Newspaper Agency continued to abort Star-Bulletin deadlines, but curiously, not Gannett's Advertiser product. The latest denied overnight sportswire coverage to the Star-Bulletin.|
|12/15/99 Gannett executives continued to reduce the news hole in both the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin for December, probably the first time in history that American newspapers lost ground in the lucrative Christmas season. The obvious reason was that Gannett hubris had alienated Hawaii advertisers with their arrogant tactics, prompting many to seek alternate markets.|
|12/16/99 A Christmas tree and decorations were finally erected at the Star-Bulletin.|
|12/22/99 Gannett lost an important union court case in Detroit and was forced to reinstate 50 employees of the Free Press.|
|12/23/99 The agreement between Gannett and Liberty to whack the Star-Bulletin expired on this date, and the Star-Bulletin management quietly buried the story as a court brief. Too bad, as this was a signal date in newspaper history, the first time a newspaper was saved over the wishes of its owner by an outporing of support from the community -- and the simple notion that Gannett violated both standing law and basic business ethics in doing so.|
|12/25/99 As Gannett executives beavered away in their bunker on the third floor on Christmas, the SaveStarBulletin.org website mysteriously crashed, the result of outside computer hacking at the server. It's down for several days. Since about a third of the SaveStarBulletin readers had "gannett.com" attached to their addresses, I guess the Gannettoids had put themselves off-limits.|
|12/31/99 I and many others were assigned to cover the New Year's celebration that might be affected by the Y2K bug. As I stood in the street in Waikiki, watching drunken celebrants stagger by, I wondered if the lights were going out all over the world.|
Managing News and Threatening Attorneys