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My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Friday, September 15, 2000

Star-Bulletin still
here, despite it all

A year ago, after a sleepless night of rumors and corporate mystery, the owner of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Rupert Phillips, called the staff together in the newsroom.

It was true. After 117 years of publication, after helping Hawaii achieve statehood, after supporting the non-white citizens of Hawaii in war and peace -- we're still the most racially integrated news staff of any American newspaper -- and after continually shedding light in the dark corners of Hawaii politics, Phillips was going to put the paper down like an old dog.

He was frank about why. Although he was making a tidy return on his investment, he wanted more money now. He didn't want to wait. Gannett, the owner of the Honolulu Advertiser, was willing to pay him millions to walk away from the newspapers' joint operating agreement. In exchange, Gannett would control the sole statewide source of printed daily news and advertising.

Since Gannett had hand-picked Phillips as its JOA partner when it sold the Star-Bulletin and bought the Advertiser in 1993, it was a sweet deal for both. Too sweet, and too incestuous, at least for those who keep an eye on antitrust activities.

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years

Bulletin closing archive

For those of us who have devoted a good part of our professional careers to making the Honolulu Star-Bulletin the best paper it can possibly be -- and we have a wallfull of awards to prove it -- the news was a punch to the gut. Gannett and Phillips are absentee landlords, so this little transaction was just business to them.

But a newspaper is more than a business. It is a public trust, part of the democratic process. It is a friend you invite into your home every day. It is a mirror to the stream of everyday life. It is family. Most newspaper people don't work at this business because they can get rich; it is a kind of mission.

And while the staff faced imminent unemployment, there was also the shame of feeling we'd let down our readers.

And there was a sense of horror at Gannett's cavalier violation of this public trust. Here is a corporation that publishes newspapers, actively trying to kill a newspaper, and claiming it had a constitutional right to do so. It may be hyperbole, but it's the same feeling the Poles must have had in 1939, when the Nazi stormtroopers came across the border in violation of all rules of civilized behavior.

Phillips promptly disappeared, leaving the dirty work of newspaper-murder to Gannett. Since the Star-Bulletin's managers work directly for Phillips, there wasn't much they could do to save the newspaper. Gannett began the process of dividing and demoralizing the Star-Bulletin's staff, culminating in a series of bogus job interviews.

Even worse -- for journalists -- the newspaper itself became news. We discovered we're not good at giving snappy quotes and factoids to other media, because, frankly, we save the real news for our own newspaper.

BUT then a miracle happened, and even more surprising, it was a direct result of Gannett greed.

Perhaps trying to force advertisers to stay on board through the holiday season, Gannett kept the newspaper alive for another six weeks, which gave supporters enough time to rally. What happened since has been well covered, but keep in mind that, without the Hawaii Newspaper Guild and the Communications Workers of America channelling citizen outrage into litigation, we would now be history. You can thank Save Our Star-Bulletin.

In the last 365 days, we've been declared dead a dozen times. But we're still here.

The stormtroopers have been halted at the border. But they're still there, too.

Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin feature writer.

My Turn is a periodic column written by
Star-Bulletin staff members expressing
their personal views.

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