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September 2000

The Year of
Stalemate and Sitzkrieg
Stopping Them at the Border

Dispatches from the Front by Burl Burlingame
9/1/00 The "deadline" for interested parties to submit bids to purchase the Star-Bulletin passed as the staff said goodbye to employees Lori Tighe, Peter Wagner and Suzanne Tswei. Despite the best efforts of Gannett to paint the newspaper as unsalable, several offers were received. The employees themselves filed a note of complaint about the process and said they are open to working in partnership with other bidders.
9/2/00 Detroit newspaper unions complained bitterly to Gannett union negotiator John Jaske that Gannett's Detroit News lied about ongoing negotiations. "Frankly, it appears that your objective is still to make war and kill off the unions instead of making peace," concluded the complaint.
9/4/00 Los Angeles weekly publisher Hadland Communications also bid on Honolulu Star-Bulletin. They own five weekly newspapers in the Los Angeles suburbs, adding up to a combined circulation of more than 70,000 in locations like Culver City, Santa Monica, Westchester and Playa del Rey.
9/8/00 Although Black is laying low and keeping a hands-off attitude toward the ESOP committee, there was considerable oomph coming from Kauai, where newsletter publisher Peter McClaran announced he had submitted a bid along with Cec Heftel and Kauai developer Jeff Lindner, described as his primary financial backer. It wasn't clear whether Heftel had also jumped on board, or whether that was wishfull thinking on McClaren's part. The ESOP committee had met earlier with both groups, and we found that Heftel's interest was genuine, if a bit academic, and the McClaren and Lindner were just plain goofy and way out of their league. The Gannett Advertiser, in coverage of the ongoing bids, wasted lots of space on the Kauai boys and the dumb things they said. The idea, I guess, was to give readers the impression that all the bidders were goofy, or to improve McClaren's chances of actually acquiring the Star-Bulletin. Gannett could then crush him at their leisure.
9/13/00 Taking advantage of federal judge Barry Kurran's extension of deadlines to refine fuxzy bids -- a not-unexpected step, given Gannett's refusal to divulge substantial financial data -- Gannett's Honolulu Advertiser once again paints a false and gloomy picture, including faraway "experts" speculating on the Star-Bulletin's life expectancy, that the bidders are violating (Gannett-ordered) stipulations, that the citizens behind SOS are unruly "activists," that the bidders are uniformly "deficient," and suggesting that the judge's handling of the process is confused. In a busy election season, this deliberate propaganda is the lead story. Word also gets back to the Star-Bulletin newsroom that Advertiser staffers feel they are the true victims in this process, and they are angry at the Star-Bulletin staff for dragging this out. Boo fucking hoo!
9/15/00 A year ago, Liberty and Gannett conspired to kill the Star-Bulletin the following day. Despite their best efforts, the newspaper is still here, serving the citizens of Hawaii.

9/16/00 The one-year anniversary of the closure announcement threatened to pass unremarked by both newspapers, so I knocked out an opinion piece. The reference in it to invading Poland in 1939 struck a raw nerve on both sides of the hall, and Gannett Advertiser editor Jim Kelly was heard to curse my name, and he muttered that he had never been called a Nazi before. I guess he thought he was just being a good German.

Star-Bulletin still here, despite it all

A year ago, after a sleepless night of rumors and corporate mystery, the owner of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Rupert Phillips, called the staff together in the newsroom.

It was true. After 117 years of publication, after helping Hawaii achieve statehood, after supporting the non-white citizens of Hawaii in war and peace -- we're still the most racially integrated news staff of any American newspaper -- and after continually shedding light in the dark corners of Hawaii politics, Phillips was going to put the paper down like an old dog.

He was frank about why. Although he was making a tidy return on his investment, he wanted more money now. He didn't want to wait. Gannett, the owner of the Honolulu Advertiser, was willing to pay him millions to walk away from the newspapers' joint operating agreement. In exchange, Gannett would control the sole statewide source of printed daily news and advertising.

Since Gannett had hand-picked Phillips as its JOA partner when it sold the Star-Bulletin and bought the Advertiser in 1993, it was a sweet deal for both. Too sweet, and too incestuous, at least for those who keep an eye on antitrust activities.

For those of us who have devoted a good part of our professional careers to making the Honolulu Star-Bulletin the best paper it can possibly be -- and we have a wallfull of awards to prove it -- the news was a punch to the gut. Gannett and Phillips are absentee landlords, so this little transaction was just business to them.

But a newspaper is more than a business. It is a public trust, part of the democratic process. It is a friend you invite into your home every day. It is a mirror to the stream of everyday life. It is family. Most newspaper people don't work at this business because they can get rich; it is a kind of mission.

And while the staff faced imminent unemployment, there was also the shame of feeling we'd let down our readers.

And there was a sense of horror at Gannett's cavalier violation of this public trust. Here is a corporation that publishes newspapers, actively trying to kill a newspaper, and claiming it had a constitutional right to do so. It may be hyperbole, but it's the same feeling the Poles must have had in 1939, when the Nazi stormtroopers came across the border in violation of all rules of civilized behavior.

Phillips promptly disappeared, leaving the dirty work of newspaper-murder to Gannett. Since the Star-Bulletin's managers work directly for Phillips, there wasn't much they could do to save the newspaper. Gannett began the process of dividing and demoralizing the Star-Bulletin's staff, culminating in a series of bogus job interviews.

Even worse -- for journalists -- the newspaper itself became news. We discovered we're not good at giving snappy quotes and factoids to other media, because, frankly, we save the real news for our own newspaper.

But then a miracle happened, and even more surprising, it was a direct result of Gannett greed.

Perhaps trying to force advertisers to stay on board through the holiday season, Gannett kept the newspaper alive for another six weeks, which gave supporters enough time to rally. What happened since has been well covered, but keep in mind that, without the Hawaii Newspaper Guild and the Communications Workers of America channelling citizen outrage into litigation, we would now be history. You can thank Save Our Star-Bulletin.

In the last 365 days, we've been declared dead a dozen times. But we're still here.

The stormtroopers have been halted at the border. But they're still there, too.

9/17/00 Deeply concerned that one of the potential buyers has received positive feedback from advertisers, HNA president Mike Fisch sent out a form letter containing a veiled threat to the top 100 advertisers -- everything that they're hearing is speculation, and if they're interested in another publication, HNA might not give them such a good deal in the future. Marketing vice-president Mark Adkins also ordered HNA's ad-sales staff to pretend that true competition is not around the corner.
9/18/00 Save Our Star-Bulletin members fed Star-Bulletin staffers an anniversary cake in appreciation for us hanging in there, despite the odds.
9/26/00 After a week in limbo while the bid process went forward -- by federal court order -- Judge Kurran planned to meet with the primary buyers.
9/27/00 David Black was nominated by Judge Kurran as the sole qualified bidder for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The goofy McLaren group, the financially troubled Hadland group and the only semi-interested Heftel group were cut, and the Star-Bulletin's own ESOP bid never was seriously considered. The Gannettoids were shocked, yes shocked, that their sweet deal was evaporating befiore their eyes, and due solely to their own greed and incompetance. Their spin in the the Gannett Advertiser's coverage was typical: "The order marks a significant but still inconclusive step in the bid to keep alive the 118-year-old newspaper that Gannett and Liberty Newspapers have said would not be profitable if published independently." And they sniffily painted Black as a foreigner right in the lede.
9/29/00 Even Honolulu Magazine, always eager to be snotty, noted that Gannett Advertiser editor Jim Kelly threw his own newspaper's awards in the trash the previous May. Honolulu also proudly pointed out their own awards for some decidedly addled coverage of Bishop Museum.
NEXT! October 2000
The Battle Takes to the Streets

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