Saturday, October 2, 1999

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years

‘I Accuse’

Why Honolulu soon will be
a one-newspaper town

Shutdown announcement

By Phil Mayer
Special to the Star-Bulletin


I write this with great sadness and greater anger.

Because this is probably the most important piece I will ever write, allow me to call it "I Accuse," which was the headline on the best known letter to the editor ever written. It was by novelist Emil Zola and would never have been published if Paris had been a single-newspaper town on July 13, 1898.

That letter set a standard for the journalism of conscience still venerated throughout the world.

Unless something is done, what is going to happen in Hawaii by Oct. 30 will be as bad as sending the subject of Zola's piece, Army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, to Devil's Island.

Some 100 Honolulu Star-Bulletin staffers as well more than 50 other Hawaii Newspaper Agency workers will be laid off. I know most of them. And I know they have done their work loyally and well.

How do I know that? For 35 years, from 1958-1993, until I retired, I worked among them as a writer and editor as well as an unpaid, elected representative of Hawaii's newspaper unions -- the Newspaper Guild, the International Typographical Union, the Photo-Engravers, the Pressmen and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In addition, if nothing is done by Oct. 30, the Honolulu Advertiser will become Hawaii's only statewide daily newspaper. This would deprive Hawaii and its people far more than residents of practically any other state in which a newspaper closes because there may be no other state in which there is only one major daily.

For example, even if both San Francisco's dailies -- the Chronicle and the Examiner -- went out of business, there would be existing dailies in San Jose and Sacramento that would extend their operations to San Francisco. What's more, the many other Northern California dailies already provide -- and will always provide -- other views, other news and other advertising opportunities not offered in San Francisco.

Indeed, it was the prospect that Hawaii's people would have only a single statewide newspaper and have to content themselves with the decisions of a single set of journalistic and commercial policy makers that prompted the formation of the joint operating agreement which, in 1962, saved the undistinguished and insolvent Advertiser by linking its finances to those of the thriving and respected Star-Bulletin.

The prospect that Hawaii will become the nation's only state in which there may be only one major daily newspaper is a money-driven outrage that would inflict capital punishment not only on Star-Bulletin workers but also on everyone else who lives here or visits Hawaii.

Capital punishment?

Yes, punishment -- degradation of the way we live and are informed -- triggered by the withdrawal and non-replacement of the capital that currently allows full employment in daily journalism in Hawaii and protection overall from the intellectual anthrax of single-paper journalism.

"I Accuse" the Gannett Co. of arranging the death of the Star-Bulletin by first bringing a front man to Hawaii in 1993 to buy the Star-Bulletin (which Gannett had owned since 1971) from Gannett so that Gannett could buy the Advertiser from its local owners whose fortunes had been resuscitated by 31 years of sharing both papers' profits.

Then, after six years as owner of the Star-Bulletin, the mystery man was called back from Florida and was told that Gannett would reward him by giving back to him everything he had paid Gannett for the Star-Bulletin -- and more -- if only he would take his money, go home and not allow anyone to even try to buy the paper.

In other words, Gannett is paying the Star-Bulletin's owner to kill his own paper.

"I Accuse" local businessmen of not having taken steps to do what an earlier generation of businessmen did 37 years ago when the Advertiser was about to die and newspaper workers were about to be laid off.

Those businessmen first organized the purchase of the Star-Bulletin, then the joint operating agreement.

But that agreement included an outrageous provision that gave complete control of the editorial and opinion pages of the Sunday Star-Bulletin and Advertiser to the Advertiser.

Because the soul of every newspaper is its editorial pages, I protested loudly that unlike the Star-Bulletin, the Advertiser lacked the standing and sense to be trusted with such responsibility even one day a week.

But the unions, including my own, thought the editorial pages arrangement was unimportant so I was told to shut up. I did so when I realized that no one in Star-Bulletin management was interested in preventing what I now believe set the stage psychologically for today's outrages.

All this happened in 1961 only a few months after the Star-Bulletin's "old" management had required all of us who worked for the paper to attend a dinner at which it was proclaimed that the Star-Bulletin would never be sold and "you better believe it."

"I Accuse" those same local businessmen who saved the Advertiser of more than saving it. Soon after the merger, when the Star-Bulletin's circulation was about 120,000 and the Advertiser's 44,000, they let themselves assure the Advertiser's prosperity by making it almost impossible to receive a home-delivered Star-Bulletin anywhere on the neighbor islands.

Until then about half the Star-Bulletin's circulation was made up of papers home delivered on the neighbor islands. Instead, the Advertiser became the only state-wide newspaper one could have at home on the neighbor islands. Thus the Star-Bulletin's neighbor island circulation was stolen to benefit the Advertiser.

That this happened was not discussed on Oahu and, of course, not on the neighbor islands because if you were a neighbor island lawmaker or businessman, would you want the owners of the only statewide newspaper angry with you?

"I Accuse" the current managers of the Star-Bulletin and the Advertiser of not keeping their readers current with developments in San Francisco in which the Hearst Corp., owner of the San Francisco Examiner, has bought the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Examiner will be closed by Hearst if no one wants to buy it within two weeks to six months. However, Hearst promises no matter what happens there will be "no involuntary layoffs" at least until 2005 unless such layoffs become the subject of labor- management negotiations in 2001.

Hearst also says that if a non-Hearst buyer turns up, it will be allowed to hire any of the Examiner's 217 editorial employees, and those Examiner employees not offered jobs with the new owner "would automatically get jobs with Hearst in San Francisco."

I think newspaper executives here think the above is too complicated for us to understand and might be too relevant.

Finally, "I Accuse" the Advertiser, before it was rescued by the joint operating agreement, of being a paper with such lousy, elitist attitudes that I would have done nothing to save it had not so many Advertiser jobs then been at stake. I admit that I had not yet come to understand how important having more than one paper in Hawaii is to all of us.

How bad was the Advertiser? Consider the case of "Hawaii" author James Michener who, with his wife Mari, a mainland-born nisei, moved here in 1961.

Among the contributions they soon made to their chosen state was the gift to the Honolulu Academy of Arts of a collection of priceless Japanese prints.

But when the Micheners were not allowed to buy the house they wanted in the Bishop Estate's racially restricted Kahala, they left Honolulu for good. Yet before they left Michener politely explained why: He could not live where his wife was not welcome.

In response, the Advertiser -- noting that a New York Post article about the incident was headlined "Refugee from Paradise" -- insulted him in print saying, "Do us a favor Jim, keep the title."

How are things at the Advertiser now? The Advertiser's latest championing of Bishop Estate outrages, by snubbing the distinguished islanders who tried to bring the estate's current failings to the newspaper's attention, is the same damn thing all over again after all those years in which the Advertiser is supposed to have redeemed itself.

So don't expect much from the Advertiser and its alarming friends. The better paper is not being saved.

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