To Our Readers

By John Flanagan

Saturday, September 18, 1999

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years

Six years of sunshine

An' I say, "Aw come on now,
You must know about my debutante."
An' she says, "Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want."
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end...?

-- Bob Dylan

MY wife has a theory: People read the Advertiser because they have to. They read the Star-Bulletin because they want to.

By Halloween, tragically, the correct phrase will be, "They used to read the Star-Bulletin."

The news of the Star-Bulletin's Oct. 30 closing flashed through the News Building last Wednesday. Fact, rumor, speculation and fear zipped through the computer networks, over the phones and out on the street before we could call a staff meeting for early next morning. They converged into shockingly accurate reports, complete with video and taped interviews, that led all the 10 o'clock Honolulu TV news reports.

At two on that afternoon, Rupert Phillips, the almost-invisible, absentee general partner and CEO of Liberty Newspapers arrived in my office to tell me and managing editor, Dave Shapiro, that his partners had decided to pull their money out of the Star-Bulletin and close it. Just minutes later, a staffer walked in and asked me if the rumors were really true.

"What rumors?" I asked. She told me. They were.

For six and a half years, Phillips provided the Star-Bulletin a green light, total editorial freedom. Under the provisions of our joint agency agreement with our rival -- the Gannett-owned Advertiser -- we were privileged to print as we saw fit. The only stipulation was we couldn't overspend our reasonably generous budget.

The result was a free press, free to a degree Hawaii has perhaps never seen and may never see again. We were not beholden to advertisers, political parties, corporate policies or oligarchic agendas; we reported the news as we saw it.

It took time to find our voice. Journalists who become newspaper editors are tractable, sensible folk. Shapiro and I qualified. We knew we had the freedom to practice journalism, but after the shock of the 1993 sale of the paper by Gannett to Phillips' group, it took months to really stretch our legs, learn to walk and then to run.

In fact, almost three years passed before we sat down with editors Diane Chang, Mike Rovner and Frank Bridgewater to compose a shared vision of what the Star-Bulletin could be. We decided editorial independence was clearly a competitive advantage. We would be responsible, but we would take the gloves off.

We'd offer readers investigative reports, consumer news, in-depth political coverage, frank sports coverage and business news that was fair, complete, accurate and written to serve readers, not sources or customers. We'd save up our precious news columns -- our allocation was set by Advertiser-run Hawaii Newspaper Agency -- and use them for special reports and eye-riveting illustrations.

We'd give our reporters, editors, photographers, page designers and artists room to exercise and develop their skills, to grow professionally.

IF you read us regularly, you know the result. We published investigative series on government secrecy, the Dana Ireland murder, gasoline and milk prices, UPW leadership, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a rash of police shootings and Hawaii union power. Our editorials and columns became controversial, edgy and decisive. We had our moment in the sun.

We offered special sections on Niihau the "Forbidden Island," Hawaii's economic crisis, local prisoners in Texas, Hawaii's brain drain and ancient hula on Kahoolawe. Our readers found pull-out posters on the Battleship Missouri, the Hokule'a's voyage to Rapa Nui and Hawaii history up to the millennium. We sent reporters to Hong Kong, New Zealand and the Philippines and hired a Washington correspondent to provide exclusive coverage of news of special relevance to Hawaii.

Our web site,, includes an archive of "Specials." Click on that link to refresh your memory.

The online edition itself was an innovation yet to be matched by our competition. Begun in 1996, it is a vast, immensely rich store of information, soon to be closed.

One question we always wanted to answer is, "Why do things cost so damn much in Hawaii?" To find out, we gathered the data, compiling prices for specific products and services at specific stores with both mainland and Hawaii outlets. Readers saw a two-day, eight-page report called "What Price Paradise?" detailing how some places charge up to 200 percent more in Hawaii while others charge the same everywhere.

THE fateful intersection of Star-Bulletin editorial freedom with Hawaii history was the "Broken Trust" essay. First offered to the Advertiser, its five authors brought it to us in frustration. Chang and Shapiro recognized the power of this indictment of the Bishop Estate trustees' management of the estate and the politically tainted trustee selection process. They knew publishing it was consistent with our commitment to journalistic integrity.

The essay appeared in the next day's paper and changed the course of land, power and politics in Hawaii.

The state owes Rupert Phillips a debt. His disinterested, hands-off management positioned the Star-Bulletin to make a difference -- to make some waves. For six years we brought the power of information, style and substance to bear on events in Hawaii. In the process, our peers in the Society of Professional Journalists and Hawaii Publishers Association heaped awards on us.

As you read this, assistant managing editor Rovner and graphic artist David Swann are in Copenhagen to accept three awards from the international Society of Newspaper Design.

Now, it's almost over. Mike Fisch, Advertiser publisher, says the Star-Bulletin has "raised the bar" for the surviving morning daily. He predicts his paper will substantially improve, bolstered by an influx of resources, expanded coverage and about 25 talented Star-Bulletin veterans.

IN the end, it was the economy, stupid. Knowing that at a mainland newspaper their investment could grow at two or three times the rate of return that HNA provided, Liberty's partners asked Gannett to buy them out in return for closing the paper. Facing an unprecedented, six-year contraction in local advertising revenue, Gannett agreed.

In the 1930s in Bangor, Maine, my grandfather, John P. Flanagan, lost his job when the Bangor Commercial folded. Two generations, a continent and an ocean away, another newspaper closes on another Flanagan. Aloha.

It all seems so well timed.
An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again?

-- Bob Dylan

John Flanagan is editor and publisher of the Star-Bulletin.
To reach him call 525-8612, fax to 523-8509, send
e-mail to or write to
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802.

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