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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, July 27, 2000

Local news has
highest priority

EUGENE L. Roberts is a sort of Mark McGwire among newspapers editors. He home-runned for 17 Pulitzer prizes for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the eight years (1983-91) he was its executive editor. We in Hawaii still are waiting for our first one.

Thus editors and others listened up carefully when he asked in a recent speech at the East-West Center here:

"Can a newspaper be responsible if it ignores international news when the nation, the people, the economy are more tied to the world than ever before? Can citizens discharge their responsibilities if their newspapers abdicate their international obligations in a world in which nations are becoming ever more intertwined?"

This came under his speech topic: "American Newspapers: Turning Their Backs to Foreign News in the Age of Globalization." He detailed dramatic cutbacks in overseas staffing and in coverage of the State Department.

He said only four U.S. newspapers give international news the attention it deserves -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. The first three operate wire services that, along with the Associated Press, are the principal suppliers of international news to all other American newspapers. Newspaper chains, he said, are too focused on profits to do the job right where world news is concerned.

Roberts, now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, has his facts right but I am not sure that it can be otherwise, or even should be.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin is a paper I know something about. We run lots of ads, but Monday through Friday we daily devote the equivalent of 22 full pages to editorial content, apportioned according to the best judgment of our editors.

Our editorial budget is $8 million a year -- no slouch. Within it, our editors have to use their space and staff to best advantage.

They might be tarred and feathered if they eliminated our comic page, sports section, business and same-day stock reports, weather reports, entertainment/family pages or editorial commentary.

Since they don't dare, our space for general news tightens considerably and comes down to a space competition among local, national and foreign news. Local stories are by far the most expensive to gather because we have to staff them ourselves. Wire news is cheap. We could fill our paper several times over every day with news service stories and save millions a year.

BUT we know our readers can access scads of foreign news elsewhere. USA Today and the Wall Street Journal have wide same day availability here. The weekly news magazines have considerable depth. TV and radio overwhelm us with their channels. The Internet becomes more of a factor every day.

The result: We focus on local news, an area where we have no peer except possibly the Honolulu Advertiser. We perform a public utility function in offering data too detailed for the others to handle -- stock listings, sports standings, entertainment program data.

Our many ads themselves convey news of great local interest, conveniently available. TV, radio and the other guys just can't match us.

Our biggest challenge is to do better with the resources we have. We DO offer a daily full international and national news page plus whatever stories may rate page one, plus international commentary on the editorial pages. We aim to deliver the out-of- state stories that mean the most to our readers.

It's far from perfect but we don't have the budget of the giants and never could. I think our choices are mostly wise.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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