Advertisement - Click to support our sponsors.

Thursday, November 9, 2000

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Canadian newspaper publisher David Black: "I enjoy the
business of newspapering, figuring out how to compete, how
to position the paper, how to make it successful."

A shrewd,
disarming new
Bulletin owner

David Black loves the islands,
dislikes racism of any kind, and
is a proud family man

Bullet Challenges be easy for new Bulletin
Bullet Bulletin sold to Canadian David Black

By Cynthia Oi

There is something disarming about David Black. This man, the owner of about 80 newspapers in Western Canada and Washington state who bargained hard to add the Star-Bulletin to his stable, is poking through a basket of sweets like a boy at Christmas.

Yet beyond the goofy charm of his grin and the soft, modulated voice, his blue eyes measure and take note. They hint at the shrewdness of the formidable businessman who revels in making deals and matching wits against others in the publishing world.

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years David Holmes Black was born April 9, 1946, in Vancouver, the son of Adelaide and Alan Black, now in their 80s. When he was in grade school, his parents moved him and his two sisters to Toronto. In college, he studied engineering, then took a master's degree in business administration.

Getting into the newspaper business wasn't part of his plan.

"It just sort of happened," he says as he sits in his Waikiki hotel room where rumpled newspapers are piled on the floor to make room for visitors. A calculator peeks from under an address book on the desk. A well-used tan vinyl carry-on bag leans against one desk leg, a plain black attache against another.

Black "didn't know much about newspapers" when he began work as a junior analyst at the Toronto Star in 1973, he says. As he advanced in the company, he was sent across North America, picking up training.

"Then one day I had a chance to buy this little paper and that was great. Got to be my own boss."

He has been his own boss ever since, growing his holdings and his company, which is what he likes to do most.

"I dabble in different sports and I'm not good any of them. I golf a bit, sail a bit, ski a bit. But the last 25 years, I've been working. I guess I've always been busy, I've always been a builder. I like to get things accomplished."

Black and his wife of 30 years, Ann Elizabeth, nicknamed Annabeth, raised four children -- twins Fraser and Alan, 28; Morgan, 26, and Catherine, 24.

Fraser and Alan have played in a rock band for nine years. Black can't remember the band's name. "They changed it recently.

"They're actually pretty good," he says.


Headlines speak
a thousand words

The twists and turns of the Star-Bulletin's 'shutdown' saga are reflected in these front pages over the past year:


Bullet Oct. 13, 1999: About a month after the announced closure of the newspaper, a federal judge puts it on hold.


Bullet Nov. 16, 1999: Community support and a strengthened legal ruling keep the Star-Bulletin open.


Bullet April 22, 2000: Under court order, the newspaper is put up for sale.


"Got some CDs. Now they hold down real jobs and do that nights and weekends."

Fraser writes for an alternative newspaper in Vancouver, one of his dad's. "He went to journalism school and he's a good writer," Black says.

Alan builds houses, Morgan is a marine biologist and Catherine is a teacher.

Black describes himself as "rich enough," but says he isn't overly acquisitive.

For one thing, "I don't have a lot of cash. When you're building a business you never have any cash, you're always reinvesting it."

His aloha shirt, printed with pink palm trees and yellow islands, is about 25 years old, bought during a visit to Maui.

"Well, it hardly ever gets worn. You don't wear aloha shirts in Canada," he says.

He doesn't spend a lot of time in suits and ties. Instead, he wears "typically, cords and sweaters, casual shirts" because he usually works from his Victoria home.

Home is a turn-of-the-century mansion called Riffington, valued at about $4 million, a contrast to the family's first dwelling, which he bought for $4,000.

"It wasn't much of a house. It was a tiny little place that was sort of condemned," he says.

His two Jaguars -- one a two-year-old sedan, the other an old E type -- are "just things. Jaguars are wonderful cars to drive, and beautiful to handle and beautiful to look at.... I've always had Jaguar sports cars. In the first few years, I bought wrecks and fixed them up."

Because he lives in Victoria, Black identifies with island life.

"Islanders are different than other people," he says. "It's a bit of being a little careful of outsiders, being very protective of what you've got there and working together to try to improve it."

He finds it difficult to deal with racist attitudes.

"That's something that really riles me," he says. "I've always gotten along with people and I don't see why some people don't get along because of cultural differences or skin color."

He dislikes political correctness.

"I've never been one to be politically correct. I don't like doing what happens to be fashionable because it's fashionable, even though I don't believe in it. Fortunately, now in life I don't have to do that."

He is close to his father, whom he will often call and use as a sounding board.

"My dad's always been a wise, patient person, an easy father for a son to like. He never told me to do things. He'd always ask me a couple a questions and let me figure out what to do."

His family fully supports his bid for the Star-Bulletin. He tells a story about a TV reporter who asked him why a Canadian businessman would want to buy a business in Hawaii.

"I looked into the camera and said, 'Are you nuts? Hawaii is heaven to a Canadian.' "

Although he isn't part of an organized religion, Black says there are codes he lives by.

"I believe in the Golden Rule. I try to be nice to people, hoping they'll be nice to me."

About 6 feet tall, loose and lanky, Black says he works out "a little bit. Not much." He tries to eat healthy, but doesn't cook except for making coffee -- which he takes black, naturally -- and scrambling eggs. "But I can microwave," he says.

He's "big on hot dogs" and Thai food, and owns "a hopelessly pampered pet" called "Eddie," a purebred golden retriever, whose sire's name Black can't remember except "it was wonderful, like "Waterfall' or something."

The toothy grin stretches his face again as his talk turns to Annabeth, who will join him in the islands later this week.

"I've been very fortunate in my life. I haven't had the challenges that some people have had to face. I got very, very lucky, finding my wife ... She brings quiet to my life, focuses me less on business and more on my family.

"I miss her," he says. "She's my best friend."

He picks up the basket of goodies and paws through it, finding some cookies. He considers opening the bag, then changes his mind.

"No, I'll save it for Annabeth," he says.

Bulletin shutdown archive

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years

Challenges of
competition will not
be easy for new

Industry observers largely
agree on what the paper must
do in order to survive

By Tim Ruel

Put readers first. Offer a better newspaper than the competition. Boost circulation as high as it will go.

Observers in the newspaper industry largely agree on what the Honolulu Star-Bulletin must do to compete against the nation's largest chain of daily newspapers. But they don't say it will be easy.

After 38 years of marriage, the afternoon Star-Bulletin is about to get a divorce by ending its joint operating agreement to share business operations with the morning Honolulu Advertiser. Once the agreement is gone, the Star-Bulletin will have to run its own circulation, manage its own finances and secure its own advertisers for the first time in decades under new ownership.

The Star-Bulletin's Canada-based buyer, David Black of Black Press Ltd., runs 80 community publications in western Canada and Washington state. But only one of them is a daily, the 19,000-circulation Red Deer (Alberta, Canada) Advocate.

The Advertiser's owner, Arlington, Va.-based Gannett Co., publishes 100 daily papers nationwide and has market capitalization of $14.8 billion. In June, Gannett agreed to pay $2.6 billion for Central Newspapers, including the 440,000-circulation Arizona Republic. Three weeks before that, Gannett agreed to buy 21 dailies owned by Thomson Newspapers for $1.1 billion.

Pitted against a contender with such deep pockets, Black Press must keep its promise to increase the Star-Bulletin's circulation to about 100,000 from its current 63,500, observers say.

"(Black Press) is really going to have to deliver readership," said Jack Bates, chairman and chief executive of Starr Seigle Communications.

Circulation first, most say

As long as reader counts are high, advertisers will think they must appear in both newspapers to reach their audience, Bates said. If circulation drops, so would advertising, and possibly at a faster rate, Bates speculated.

Complicating matters, Hawaii's home news reader population is declining, said Tom Brislin, professor of journalism at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. People are moving to the mainland, and older readers -- a newspaper's strongest audience -- are passing away, he said.

Tom Brislin And home subscriptions make up the bulk of the Star-Bulletin's total circulation. In contrast, the Advertiser splits its circulation of about 107,500 more equally between home delivery and news racks.

Going after the home delivery market does not make sense, Brislin said. The Star-Bulletin must try to build its on-the-street sales at the racks, he said.

Even if boosting readership is difficult, however, it is a major key to surviving newspaper battles, said Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

His paper, formerly called the Arkansas Democrat, fought with Gannett's Arkansas Gazette between 1986 and 1991. At the end of the five-year war over advertising and subscription rates, Gannett sold the Gazette to Hussman.

Hussman estimates Gannett spent more than $100 million to slash subscription rates and beef up operations to compete with him. He said he focused on producing a better newspaper that appealed to readers.

"It is possible to get the circulation, but it is difficult. It is expensive," said Morton.

Not everyone says circulation is the No. 1 priority.

Richard McCord, a Santa Fe journalist who wrote the book "The Chain Gang," which details his and other publishers' experiences in competing with Gannett, said appealing to advertisers with attractive rates should come first.

Advertising rates skyrocket in monopoly newspaper markets, McCord said. If the Star-Bulletin were to go out of business, major advertisers around town would see their rates jump. As long as the Star-Bulletin reminds its customers of that fact, they will support the paper and keep it alive, he said.

However, other observers maintain that circulation comes first.

Strong voice is crucial

"I would expect to see more incentives to 'buy my newspaper over the other one,'" said Bates of Starr Seigle Communications. Low subscription rates are one example.

The quality of the Star-Bulletin's editorial product is just as crucial to readership as special business offers, Bates and others said.

"Our experience is, basically, if you have a stronger competitor than you are, you've got to offer an equivalent or better product than they have," said Hussman.

Sandy Davidson, a journalism professor and adjunct law professor at the University of Missouri, said readers will compare coverage in the two papers and choose one over the other because of content. The Star-Bulletin should focus on editorial, not on keeping up with Gannett by the numbers.

"Your constituencies are there, in the community, not in your competitor," she said.

The Star-Bulletin should distinguish itself by adopting an independent voice, not just in editorial pieces, but in its stories as well. Feature sections, such as travel, food and sports, can also define a paper's position in the community. Even the selection and placement of stories is telling to readers, she said.

"So many different things work to give newspapers their voice," Davidson said.

Economics is not out of the picture, though. A key question is how much Gannett will invest in the Advertiser to fight the Star-Bulletin, said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of graduate journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and author of "The Media Monopoly."

"Gannett has deep pockets. But Gannett is under pressure" to produce profits, he said.

So far, the Advertiser has added new editorial sections and announced 21 editorial staff openings. "They're bulking up right now," Brislin of UH-Manoa said.

But in the end, Hawaii is a special case, and results will have to play out over time, Bagdikian said.

"It's an interesting experiment," he said, noting that afternoon newspapers in other cities have dwindled in recent years. "There's no place like Hawaii."

Bulletin shutdown archive

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2000 Honolulu Star-Bulletin