Sale yet another sign of changing media landscape Bulletin owner buys Advertiser
By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer
The sale of The Honolulu Advertiser and its possible merger with its rival newspaper sent shockwaves across the local media landscape yesterday, with few news industry observers surprised that more change was occurring.
"Clearly it's a very tough time to be a journalist in traditional media and it's not going to get any better," said Floyd Takeuchi, an independent media consultant.
"The whole media market has been changing just dramatically in the past few years."
Hawai'i's news business has been rocked by consolidation and dozens of layoffs over the past two years as a brutal economic downturn and changes brought on by the Internet took their toll on advertising and audiences.
Last year the broadcast business was shaken when KGMB9, KHNL and K5 television stations announced they were merging operations. The stations, responding to a loss in ad revenue, combined their newsrooms to produce mostly simulcast news programs. About one-third of their staffs were cut in the process.
Yesterday, Oahu Publications Inc., the owner of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, announced it had reached an agreement to buy The Advertiser. The agreement calls for Oahu Publications to attempt a sale of the Star-Bulletin and for it to merge the two operations if a buyer cannot be found.
Observers believe Oahu Publications will have a difficult time finding a purchaser for the Star-Bulletin because of the economy and market for newspapers, a mature business that has been on the wane.
They believe a merger of the two papers will result in layoffs and that the amount of journalism done in the state will suffer a setback.
"What troubles me more than the loss of competition is the declining number of working journalists which is happening here and around the country," said Gerry Keir, who worked at The Advertiser for 27 years, rising to become its editor before leaving the company in 1995.
He said that has a bearing on how well democracy works because fewer reporters and editors means less information is available to voters about how their society and governments are functioning. Losing print journalists also is notable because newspapers are traditionally a better medium for longer pieces that explore complex issues.
But both Keir and John Simonds, a longtime Honolulu journalist who once was the Star-Bulletin's executive editor, said the disappearance of one of the city's dailies had been expected. They said there had long been a belief that Honolulu would become a one-newspaper town.
"We were fortunate to have the situation we had," Simonds said. "If you look around the Mainland you don't see that in too many big cities."
Simonds said he believed local television news had slipped in recent years because of cuts to the business. He said TV news isn't as strong of a competitor as it once was in Hawai'i.
"It doesn't seem to have the caliber that it used to have," Simonds said.
All of this is a concern to Chris Coneybeare, president of the Honolulu Community Media Council. Coneybeare has been among the leading critics of the recent merger of KGMB9, KHNL and K5.
"The implications of losing another editorial voice in our community are really bad," he said. "I think you need a diversity of opinion and information."
Coneybeare said he will lead an effort to delve into the transaction to make sure there is transparency as the deal moves forward.
However, there are those who see media diversity exploding as more news sources pop up on the Internet. Perhaps there has never been a time when Hawai'i residents have had as much access to national and international news given the wealth of information on the Internet.
The situation is such that a technology group is holding an event in Honolulu to explore how the media and society are being transformed by the changes that are occurring. The event, NewsMorphosis 2.0, was scheduled well in advance of The Advertiser's sale news, but is set to explore issues of consolidation and decline with traditional media and the rise of online reports, mobile platforms and video on the Internet.
There also are a number of local news sites and blogs that are popping up and carving out niches, such as Hawaii 24/7 and a blog written by former Star-Bulletin reporter Ian Lind. In the next few weeks a highly anticipated site, Peer News, is set to launch backed by eBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar.
That for-profit venture is being headed by John Temple, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor. Temple is also the former president and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that closed after almost 150 years of operation. Its departure left Denver as a one-newspaper town.
FACING 'ROCKY RIDE'
The pending debut of Peer News has attracted interest from across the country given Omidyar's track record with eBay and his funding of the venture. But questions persist about the uneven quality of some of the news produced for online-only consumption — while some of it is first-class, other items generate questions about the motives or political leanings of their authors.
Moreover, there's the issue of finding a profit model that can support a dedicated crew of journalists to produce content.
"It's nice to say people don't have to get their news from print, they have to get it online," Keir said. "But there has to be some revenue for the journalism to get done."
Hawaii 24/7 editor Baron Sekiya said his Big Island news site is gaining interest as Neighbor Island newspapers suffer cuts, but acknowledged it has yet to turn a profit.
"A lot of people talk about the death of the news media, but it's really just the medium," said Sekiya.
Takeuchi, who worked for a number of news outlets here, said he doesn't see the upheaval for newspapers, television, radio or magazines ending.
"It's going to be a rocky ride," he said. "This is happening just about everywhere and it's not going to stop anytime soon."