2/25/03 Out of the blue
My wife Mary, a Star-Bulletin editor, called on the cellphone. "There's a mandatory staff meeting at 4 p.m.," she said, which was about a half-hour away. "No way," I said. "I'm doing a story on the other side of the island."
These mandatory meetings stir up memories that are long-buried, but still right below the surface. They are rarely good news. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin has been scratching for existence since 1993, when it was offered up for sacrifice by the Gannett newspaper chain. Thanks mostly to Gannett's ham-handed hubris, we managed to hang on and eventually become part of David Black's small but smartly run newspaper empire. Still, the economy has been tough on newspapers during the last decade.
Mary called back a few minutes later to report that competitor Honolulu Advertiser was also having a mandatory meeting at exactly the same time. "Oh my god," I blurted. "David Black is buying the Advertiser!"
Let's call that an informed guess. Since launching a Honolulu newspaper war a decade ago, Gannett had spent hundreds of millions in Honolulu in an all-out effort to create a one-newspaper town that they could milk dry. They had not succeeded, and now, in the late 'Aughts, Gannett was property-rich and cash poor. It was an open secret that the Honolulu Advertiser was on the market.
Also an open secret — David Black loves presses. Gannett had spent something like $80 million on a state-of-the-art press on Oahu that they were only running a few hours a day. Black might like to acquire the Advertiser, but he'd LOVE to get their press. That was my guess.
At the moment I was watching the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center get knocked down into rubble, and clouds of dust were stinging my eyes, making them run. The visitors' center opened the same month I began work at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1979. A sign?
At a few minutes after 4 p.m., Mary called back. Black was indeed buying the Honolulu Advertiser. Details forthcoming. OMG.
2/26/03 The devil of the details
The plan, as outlined by Black and Star-Bulletin and Gannett officials at the mandatory staff summonings, is this: Black Press is buying the Honolulu Advertiser. The Star-Bulletin is being offered for sale to please the Justice Department anti-trust lawyers. If no sale occurs — and given the current economic climate, that seems likely — the two newspapers will merge into a new corporate entity. MidWeek, Black's other Oahu publication, is unaffected, but Black also acquires the small community publications scooped up by Gannett during the years they were trying to kill us.
Essentially, after creating this situation in Honolulu, Gannett is grabbing all the cash it can and leaving the islands.
Advertiser management will be taken over by a third party to operate the newspaper until it no longer exists, likely some time in the summer.
What will happen to the staffs is still up in the air. There are certainly going to be layoffs, despite what a Gannett exec assured the Tiser employees during their meeting.
Television news folks are having trouble understanding the story. One station reports the Star-Bulletin's circulation as 64,000 weekly. No, that's daily, and that's a larger reach than three of the four local TV stations.
* A preprinted Q&A answering general questions was distributed.
* David Black gave some background to his reasoning in a Star-Bulletin column:
* And here's the boilerplate story that gives the details on the sale.
* Here's the Advertiser's package:
2/27/03 We make waves? But not this big!
There's nothing like a tsunami scare to bump newspaper-sale news off the front page. Even if we weren't assigned a particular story, many of us at the Star-Bulletin had our cameras recharged and ready should something happen. But the state lucked out. This time.
* It looks like the state attorney general will review the newspaper sale, but at a distance.
* And a Q&A with David Black revealed his commonsensical approach to newspaper publishing.
2/28/03 One voice or no voice?
The Star-Bulletin editorialized the merger will help keep at least one editorial voice alive in Hawaii.