What it Means to be a One-Newspaper Town

I'm getting used to the fact that Honolulu is a one-newspaper town. Just like I did in Denver, after the Rocky Mountain News closed.

And I can't say I like it anymore here than I did in Denver.

That's not to say that the good folks at the Star-Advertiser haven't tried to step up and produce a bigger — and better — newspaper than either of the city's two previous titles. But the new reality has disturbing implications for the city's journalism, commercial vitality and public life. There's something depressing about not being able to compare the coverage in two competing papers to try to understand what's going on in a city.

Let me give you a small example from Thursday's paper.

The black front-page above the fold headline in the Star-Advertiser said: "Veto of civil unions bill is not group's position." The italic sub-headline said, "The Business Roundtable clarifies its statement, reacting to internal dissent and other pressures." The article was on Page B3. The headline on the B3 article was fine, but the lede (the first and most important paragraph) was flat-out wrong. It read: "The Hawaii Business Roundtable clarified yesterday that it has not taken a position on a civil unions bill, responding to internal dissent and under pressure from gay rights advocates for urging Gov. Linda Lingle to veto the measure."

The Roundtable has taken a position on the civil unions bill. What it hasn't taken a position on, it now says, is the concept of civil unions. The group wants the governor to veto House Bill 444 because it believes there are "administrative challenges to the implementation of H.B. 444 in its present form."

So, the Star-Advertiser struck out on this one. That's bound to happen to the best news organization and the best reporter, and the one on this story, Derrick DePledge, clearly is one of the hardest-working at the paper.

What does it mean for journalism, though, when there's only one paper reporting such an important development? We know that TV and radio news often uses what the newspaper reports as the basis for their stories. At worst, they basically read the newspaper story on the air. At best, say Hawaii Public Radio, they may use the newspaper stories for background or as a tip service. The same goes for the Associated Press, which picks up articles from the Star-Advertiser and shares them with the world. Newspaper still can be important sources for all other news organizations. The new reality, though, means there's less pressure on the paper to get it right. It also means that the likelihood of anybody knowing the paper got it wrong is smaller.

If the Star-Advertiser deigns to correct an error, you'll find it on the bottom left corner of Page B2. Not on the front page.

Commercial Vitality

There was a letter that said it all in the latest issue of the Honolulu Weekly.

"The Star-Advertiser is not the only place to look for the news and I hope the people of Hawaii look in other places for their news and advertising," wrote Sally Tucker-Martinez of Honolulu. "A monopoly may be good for David Black, but not for the rest of us."

Exactly. Competition between papers is good for advertisers. It results in lower advertising rates, more opportunities to reach potential customers. Basically, more commercial vitality. Black is ideally positioned with his ownership of the weekly MidWeek, along with the Star-Advertiser. I say Black, because the names of his local partners are no longer listed in the Star-Advertiser, the way they were in the Star-Bulletin. He's going to raise ad rates. He has to right his financial ship. That's going to take money out of the pockets of businesses and put it in his pocket.

I believe that newspaper competition essentially subsidizes business.

Not anymore in Honolulu.

The consolidation also is having an effect on printing. We can see it in the publishing schedule of the Weekly, which has a much longer delay now between when the paper is sent to the press and when it hits the street.

And I haven't brought up the loss of jobs. Hundreds of people are on the streets, which has a ripple effect.

Public Life

A newspaper can be the center of a community's conversation. They are the place where people can learn what others in their community are thinking, and why. That's why Letters to the Editor sections are so well read.

One of the best things the Star-Advertiser has done is add a third editorial page. And it has a commentary section on Saturday, which the old Advertiser didn't. So there's an admirable commitment there. It's also great to see that the paper has already dropped the ridiculously huge Views & Voices flag on the first page of its commentary section. The thing took up a quarter of the page. Now the flag is much more reasonable, which allows for more content.

But what you're not seeing in the paper is enough local views and voices, the very thing the flag promises. The Advertiser had the stronger editorial page, at least in the time I've been here. But most of us don't care that much about the editorials. We want to read what others in the community with special knowledge of a subject have to say.

Thursday in the Star-Advertiser we got three wire columns that you could get in any other paper in the country, plus one locally written column. But that column was about North Korea. The day before, there was also just one local column, and it was written by a veteran staff writer.

The paper can be an important part of the public life of the community. But it could be doing a lot more than it is to bring in differing voices, including voices in opposition to its own editorials.

A single paper has a different obligation when it comes to editorials. The Star-Advertiser would do well to put opposing views on its editorial page, and to emulate USA Today, which publishes them concurrently with its own editorials on a subject.

Enough for today.

What being a one-newspaper town means is going to be a long-running conversation in Honolulu.

I'll have more thoughts to share, and I'm interested in hearing what others think.

Next Thursday at 5:30, we'll be holding a Beatup at Civil Beat headquarters where I'll talk about the subject. (My background is in newspapers. I was the editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News for 12 years, before it closed in February 2009. I also served the paper's owner, the EW Scripps Co., as vice president of news for the newspaper division.) We'll post more details soon but mark your calendars now! This Beatup will be open to full members (each full member may also bring a guest). To RSVP or for more information please email beatup@civilbeat.com. I hope to see you there.


DISCUSSION: Have you already seen any difference in Honolulu journalism after the city became a one-newspaper town? Share your thoughts on the new reality and the new newspaper.

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