Advertiser publisher makes his case


POSTED: Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The newspaper industry's woes imperil our very democracy, says Lee Webber, president and publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser.

Speaking yesterday to the Rotary Club of Honolulu at Oahu Country Club, Webber said that due to the economy, burdensome debt and loss of advertising revenue, newspapers are shutting down, shedding employees, filing for bankruptcy and going online-only. That means fewer journalists to observe and report on news that people need to know, and fewer editors to scrutinize reporters' work.

Without mentioning the 150 or so recent job losses at the Advertiser, or Monday's furlough and pay-cut announcement by parent company Gannett Co. Inc.,Webber delineated the demise and decimation of several mainland daily papers The company saved $20 million that way in the first quarter and paid bonuses of up to $2 million to its top executives.

The Monday announcement had no local impact, said Marsha McFadden, Advertiser managing editor for content, to whom Webber deferred your columnist's question.

“;We're not included and we're just keeping our fingers crossed,”; she said.

Webber's theme was “;Communications: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”; He described the Newseum in Washington., D.C., and its displays showing “;everything from stone tablets to modern technology.”;

He noted the compression of time between transitions from stone tablets to paper, quills to ball-point-pens, computers to laptops and the Internet, which some partly blame for the industry's woes.

“;It is a critical time not only for newspapers, but it is a critical time for our nation and our democracy,”; Webber said.

In an area with a newspaper, the political incumbent has less advantage than a place without the peering eyes and probing questions of professional journalists, he said, citing a study by Jessica Trounstine. The study measured the correlation between newspaper closure and engagement in democracy.

He quoted Washington Post Associate Editor Robert Kaiser: “;A great news organization is difficult to build and tragically easy to disassemble.”;

Writers John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney observed in an online essay, “;that disassembling is now in full swing.”;

Webber believes newspapers and books will survive the burgeoning Internet, though he downloads the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times onto his Kindle electronic reader each morning.

Newspapers' circulation- and advertising-supported business model is broken and the future depends upon monetizing online content.

“;The whole industry's grappling with it and no one has found a solution that is totally workable, although we're working on it.”;


Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Reach her by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).