When Gannett Co. Inc. announced in 1992 that it was selling the Star-Bulletin and buying the Advertiser, our staff met to explore an employee buyout.
Getting our own
Some of us wanted the meeting open to news coverage. A spirited debate ensued until one of our most senior reporters, who wanted the meeting closed, ended the discussion by bellowing, "This isn't journalism. This is business!"
Eight years later, the issue of what's journalism and what's business hangs over us again as we cover the seven-month legal battle over the attempt by Gannett and our current owner, a group led by Rupert Phillips, to end their partnership and sell or close the Star-Bulletin.
How we meet this unique news challenge is under scrutiny now and will be debated for years. Readers deserve an explanation of what we're doing.
Overall, I believe the Star-Bulletin has met the highest journalistic standards under the most intense pressure. Our unionized employees are parties to the lawsuit by the state and Save Our Star-Bulletin seeking to keep the Star-Bulletin open. Managers work without contract protection and aren't party to the litigation on either side. But naturally, we're sympathetic to efforts to keep us open. Many of our staff -- bargaining unit and management -- were offered jobs at the Advertiser before the legal limbo set in. Some who weren't offered jobs by the Advertiser resent it.
Remarkably, we've put this cauldron of conflicting interests aside and covered the story professionally and unflinchingly.
Our owners couldn't have been thrilled with our gleeful Page 1 headline when the court gave us a reprieve -- "YES...WE ARE OPEN." But that was the news and that's how we reported it. As we've covered Phillips' courtroom setbacks in king-sized type, he has never complained or tried to influence our stories.
When we reported that some advertisers were disgruntled about the deal, it ruffled a lot of feathers in our building. But it was news and we ran it.
Some disagree with me about the quality of our coverage -- even among our own staff. One online newsletter by a staffer accused us of "burying" the story. Another online newsletter commented, "Sad to say, the Star-Bulletin's own reporting on the continuing controversy has been shallow and tentative, with an awful lot of questions unasked."
They're welcome to their opinions. But to publish questions to which we don't have answers as a means of getting unverified allegations into the newspaper can be cheap-shot journalism -- especially when we as a staff have a strong personal stake. Legal proceedings in this case have been so tightly sealed that it has been impossible for anybody to get answers to the questions we all have.
The first rule of journalism ethics is to never use your newspaper as a bludgeon to advance your own vested interests. When you're personally close to a story, the only thing you can credibly do is cover it straight.
For our staff to use our stories to advance the legal case against our owners would be as wrong as it would be for our owners to use Star-Bulletin news columns to press their view that the state is illegally harassing them for political reasons. Neither side has crossed that ethical line and we should keep it that way.
As journalists, we never want to give up a story to anybody else. But with a story we're so close to, maybe there are parts of it that only other media with no vested interests can cover fairly. Our best course is to cover the news straight and leave it to others to judge who did wrong to whom.
And there are others up to the challenge. John Heckathorn wrote one of the most perceptive stories I've seen on this controversy in Honolulu Magazine and recently received a Pa'i Award from the Hawaii Publishers Association for his work.
We'll continue to aggressively pursue news about the Star-Bulletin's future and the public scrutiny of our efforts no doubt will persist. That's fine. The most objective view so far came from those same Pa'i judges who saw all of our major stories and honored our own work on this issue right behind Heckathorn's. They said:
"It was a huge story and the Star-Bulletin covered it in a masterful way. We judges were particularly struck with the unique mission the Star-Bulletin's newsroom was called to undertake: in effect, to cover itself in a complex scenario that affected the entire state. Professional discipline, accuracy, restraint and good sense had to have been close and constant companions to all the editors and writers. The entire story was covered with care and courage."
The final judgment is yet to come, but we'll take that for now.
Bulletin closing archive
David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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