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Friday, March 3, 2000

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years

Court motion
claims newspaper
lawsuit moot

The city's daily papers say
they'll 'be compelled' to close the
Star-Bulletin some time
in the future

By Rod Ohira


Tentative plans to amend the existing joint operating agreement between Honolulu's two major newspapers may make the Star-Bulletin more attractive to potential buyers, says a college law professor.

A motion to dismiss the state lawsuit blocking the shutdown of the Star-Bulletin was no surprise, says University of California at Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett.

"I expect the court to grant the motion," Barnett said, referring to a May 15 hearing before Judge Alan Kay.

"I also expect (the owners) will wait a decent interval before signing a new termination agreement. The key difference this time will be that they will make an effort to sell the Star-Bulletin on a model of what Hearst is doing in San Francisco."

In the motion filed in federal court yesterday, attorneys representing Gannett Co. noted:

"The economic forces bearing down upon the daily newspapers in this community will continue to drive the Star-Bulletin further into its downward spiral.

"As a result, defendants will be compelled again to attempt to terminate the JOA and in the future to negotiate a new written termination agreement."

Any future JOA amendment would probably contain terms "materially different" from those being contested by the state and Save Our Star-Bulletin in an antitrust lawsuit against owners of the two newspapers.

Barnett views the action as a temporary reprieve.

"In the long run," Barnett says, "the Star-Bulletin's survival depends on finding a new buyer.

"It's not a question of if there's a market. There are people who will buy it for reasons beyond the economics. It may be for good citizenship or for the welfare of the community."

In September, Gannett, owner of the Honolulu Advertiser, and Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership, owner of the Star-Bulletin announced they had entered into an amendment and termination agreement to end the JOA.

That amendment set a Dec. 23 deadline for the termination of the JOA. But the deadline passed with the JOA still operating because of the lawsuit by the state and Save Our Star-Bulletin.

"By reason of these litigations, the amendment was not implemented, and it accordingly became 'null and void and of no effect' as of Dec. 23, 1999," says the motion filed by Gannett and Liberty.

The motion argues that since "a claim is moot if it has lost its character as a present, live controversy," the federal courts do not have jurisdiction to render opinions about moot questions or abstract rules of law.

A state deputy attorney general declined comment. Attorney Jim Bickerton, representing the group Save Our Star-Bulletin, is not surprised by the owners' filing.

"I haven't seen the motion, but I don't expect they're saying anything new," Bickerton said. "I don't think it's a moot issue."

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