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January 2001

The Year of
Savage Counterattack
Black at the End of the Tunnel

Dispatches from the Front by Burl Burlingame
1/3/01 The American Journalism Review article by Lucinda Fleeson FINALLY -- from our point of view! -- made it online. Despite some errors, it gave a sobering overall impression of the situation. Unlike Editor & Publisher, AJR spelled my name right! Also, unlike E&P, Gannett ain't painted like the good guys, and the Star-Bulletin staff as starr-eyed dopes.
1/4/01 One of the those little deals that journalists routinely make fell apart spectacularly as the Advertiser reneged on a promise made to, of all people, Vicky Cayetano, the governor's wife, and a pretty savvy business lady. She and Washington Place director Jim Bartels had this vision of turning the Governor's home into a museum devoted to Queen Liliuokalani, and they wanted to break the news at a press conference. In exchange for getting thorough background material, both newspapers agreed to a 12-hour embargo on the story. But the Advertiser broke their word and published before the press conference. My own reaction was a shrug -- I'd have been tempted myself, since their print cycle worked against them, but then I wouldn't have agreed to it in the first place -- but mainly because our version blew theirs out of the water, and included QuickTime VR views of the palace, an idea I had at the last second and which webmaster Blaine Fergerstrom -- bless him -- made possible. But Cayetano and Bartels were absolutely mortified, and Cayetano wrote each of us a letter apologizing for the Advertiser's behavior. Here's a copy of the publisher's letter from Ian's website. It's worth framing. Later, Bartels fell on his sword and blamed himself for the "mix-up," which is exactly what I'd expect from a smart guy who has to work with both newspapers in the future.
1/5/01 It was the final night for the Columbia Inn, the next-door tavern that was, by default and by design, the journalists' hangout in Hawaii. Mary and Nancy and I went next door that evening to raise a final toast, and the place and the place was wall-to-wall with "potbellied reporters," as the Advertiser called us. ('Tiser people are notorious for only drinking bottled water.) More than anything else, the closing of the Inn was a slap in the face, a reminder that things will never be the same. Columbia Inn was a victim of business forces beyond its control, even though the landmark restaurant was turning a profit. Journalists from both the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Gannett Advertiser crowded inside to say good-bye, to shed a tear, shake hands and to toast the passing of an era.
1/9/01 A couple of days after the SOS site went bye-bye, a situation developed that fit it perfectly. Several distribution people tendered their notices to HNA, indicating that they intended to work for Black, but would continue serving Gannett as long as they were needed. Instead of being thanked, they were promptly tossed out on their ears! The subtext, real-world part of the message was clear: Don't let HNA know if you plan to quit. Don't give notice. Once again, HNA did something so dumb that they bit themselves in the ass.
1/10/01 The "HNA Four" were immediately hired by Black and went to work. All HNA had done is make sure their competition got a head start. One of the Four, Charlie Tindle, reported that HNA supervisors were completely dumbstruck by the move. They never imagined anyone would quit the company, much less four at once. "Plenty more where we came from, too," said Charlie. Fisch's spin on the event minimized the effect, stating that only a few hundred papers were affected. The four managers actually covered the prime areas of Honolulu's urban core.
1/11/01 It's getting like "Hogan's Heroes" around the office. Imagine this bizarre scenario -- staffers meet quietly, make sketches and lists of what needs to be done when the paper changes hands. Then a lookout hisses, "He's coming!" -- meaning Portner, the Sgt. Schultz stand-in -- and there's a wild flurry of activity as papers and documents are quickly hidden, as if the capos are coming into the stalag for a surprise inspection. When Portner does appear, people whistle tunelessly and stare blankly off into space with exaggerated casualness as if there's nothing on their minds. Of course, this doesn't really happen ... does it?
1/13/01 A couple of hundred applicants turned out for Black Press' "Job Fair," including some HNA employees -- and also some HNA managers taking their pictures! Several HNA employees met secretly with Black personnel to avoid being harassed at work. Black's man Don Kendle said he was pleased with the turnout.
1/14/01 There would be a major announcement tomorrow. It wouldn't be a surprise, given the circumstances. It just made me wonder what HNA is telling its own employees. They need a serious reality check. If they kill us, HNA will lay people off. If they don't kill us, HNA will lay people off. If it's a stalemate, they'll trim expenses to the bone -- and lay people off. Doesn't sound like job security over there is going to be too secure.
At the Saturday "Job Fair," a young fellow showed up with a list of questions that he claimed were from a relative who was too shy to attend the fair, and he wanted Black executives answer them, complete with figures and statistics. After the first question, it was apparent that the guy was doing clumsy intelligence for HNA, and was shown the door.
1/15/01 Publisher John Flanagan resigned to go to work for Black. Follow the white rabbit as we go into Wonderland: Star-Bulletin executive resigns from Star-Bulletin to become Star-Bulletin executive. But it's actually quite good news for us and for John, who was placed in an impossible position under Liberty. The Black Ops crew are gaining someone with extensive Hawaii experience, while we're hanging on to someone who knows the product and the staff, and Gannett will be facing someone who knows how they think. OK, it's not such good news for Gannett.
1/16/01 Staffer Rod Ohira announced, after months of not-too-secret negotiations, that he was going to work for the Gannett Advertiser after 31 years at the Star-Bulletin. "I gotta take care of my family," said Roddy. Decisions like this are always highly personal, and I wish him well, but his presence in the newsroom made some staffers uncomfortable -- now that he had thrown in with the Dark Side of the Force! It's never fun to show a family member the door. Things would get similarly sensitive if others defected in the coming weeks. Roddy's decision to give notice and continue working at the Star-Bulletin for several weeks before moving over might have been business-as-usual in the past, when the two newspapers were in a non-aggression pact, but it didn't play well in the new reality. On a larger scale, it's painful to realize that Gannett is not only threatening our livelihood and independent editorial voices, but that the company is forcibly breaking up deep friendships of many years' standing.
1/17/01 Rod Ohira is giving up his seniority by going over, and he will be the first laid off if Gannett downsizes the 'Tiser staff, which they certainly will do if they don't drive us out of town quickly. And he'll have to start all over again on a pension plan under Gannett, which takes five years to be vested. Good luck!
1/18/01 Gannett's Arizona Republic, following a trend at other Gannett papers, is adding front-page ads. It will be interesting to see how long before Gannett insists on the same thing in Honolulu. And over at the Indianapolis Star, Gannett is weeding out the writers with experience with a series of messy firings. At both places, Gannett managers have stepped on their privates in public. For a company in the media business, they're not too media-savvy. In Honolulu, they've done incredibly dumb things, almost as if they're in denial of the public trust. Like Gannett exec Bill Bogert's boneheaded move in pressure-washing senior citizens off the front steps in an SOS press conference, and locking customers inside the building, violating city-county fire codes. Sheesh! With enemies like these, who needs friends? On a more massive level, the situation in Honolulu is entirely self-inflicted upon Gannett. The corporation is already losing millions of dollars and is creating a situation in which they only have a market share, instead of de-facto control of the entire market. They did it to themselves. If they'd done nothing, continued to pay off Liberty and sit back, they'd be in the chips today. Gannett stockholders should be very concerned about high-level financial incompetence like this. Will any stockholders bring it up at a stockholder meeting? The last one attended by Star-Bulletin members who were stockholders featured questions about the wisdom of spending money on Al Neuharth's endless quest for self-glorification, and the members were ejected from the meeting.
1/19/01 A story appeared in the online edition of Canada's National Post concerning David Black's upcoming battle with Gannett. A week or so previously, the reporter had been directed to me by Star-Bulletin management as a "typical staff member." I gave the guy suitably warlike quotes and he used the most bloodthirsty. Over the top, lads! Give 'em cold steel and hot lead! He makes the point, however, that what's occurring in Honolulu isn't happening in a vacuum -- journalists across the country are watching to see if we can stand against the tyranny of corporate news.
1/22/01 The staff and members of the Black team met in the new offices at Restaurant Row, and sized up the site and each other.
1/23/01 This guy at the right is typical of the strange people we had wandering through the newsroom in late January. They're architects and designers who are busy mapping out what to do with the Star-Bulletin's newsroom space as soon as we vacate the News Building, where we've worked since the early '60s. These guys tramp around with cameras and tape measures and check lists and walk across our desks while we're working and, although they're polite enough, it's rather like getting measured for your coffin before you're cold. When Gannett bought the historic News Building in 1992, they promised renovations and restorations, none of which happened. The only repairs done to the structure have been at the insistance of OSHA. On the Star-Bulletin side, rainwater falls directly on computers, shorting them out. On the Advertiser side, the staff refuses to drink from the building's plumbing and has bottled water delivered daily.
1/24/01 Generic blank application forms were handed out with instructions to be in by Friday. People like Bud Smyser, who's been there for 55 years, even had to reapply for his own position. It's annoying, but understandable; Step #1 in creating new personnel files. About half the blanks were useless under the present circumstances, and statements that had clear liability issues -- like a waiver of rights for urinalysis testing -- went down the wrong way.
1/26/01 Staffers Bud Smyser, Trini Peltier and Helen Altonn, representing 147 years oif Star-Bulletin experience in Hawaii, gave everyone pizza and cake. Folks like these ought to be declared a national resource.

Blaine Fergerstrom photo
1/27/01 At the same time the Western Council of the Newspaper Guild were having meetings in Waikiki -- with special notice given to SOS' efforts to save the Star-Bulletin -- Black Ops head Don Kendall and wife Theresa threw open their new house to gather together MidWeek, Star-Bulletin and brand-new staff members. It was not only a pleasant party, it was the kind of team-building exercise the Gannett Advertiser stumbles so badly at.
1/28/01 Gannett Advertiser complaints about one of our photographers might result in a hard decision soon. One of our guys is also a stringer photographer for Associated Press, and Tiser photo editor Seth Jones is bawling about the "conflict," although neither the AP or the Star-Bulletin had any problem with it. The ironic thing is that the Advertiser is throwing the AP out of the News Building as well, and they'll be roomies with us down at Restaurant Row.

Black appeared confident and reasonable in a television interview taped some time ago by KGMB, unlike the glassy-eyed, sweaty sound bites HNA execs tend to give.

Rod Ohira's first story for the Advertiser appeared in the Sunday paper -- which also goes to the Star-Bulletin Sunday subscribers -- and had a little bio of him that crowed about his expertise at the Star-Bulletin. No wonder subscribers are confused! He referred to his 31 years at the Star-Bulletin as "training."

The Sunday Gannet Advertiser also announced a partnership with KHON TV News, an organization that's desperately scrambling to stay on top. Although KHON has dominated local TV news for more than a decade, their ratings have slipped to the point where the next sweeps period, in February, will likely see KHON neck-and-neck with KITV for the first time. This kind of cross-pollination makes sense, however, and isn't unusual in Mainland communities of our size. We probably have similar plans in the works, but can't implement them for months, while the Tiser can do what it can to hurt us immediately, and in both direct and indirect ways. So much for the court injunction.
1/29/01 Another letter of dismissal arrived from Liberty Newspapers. This was something like the fourth time we've been fired in the last year. Here's a look at Ian Lind's letter.
1/30/01 Interviews got under way with the staff, with the expected due-diligence question up front -- Do you want to keep working at the Star-Bulletin? Most questioning seemed pro forma, although a couple of reporters were grilled.
NEXT! February 2001
Black Ops

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