Honolulu newspaper merger would mean name change, layoffs It's not first time Gannett gave up fight
Acquisition plans began in 2009 after big losses
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
If the Honolulu Star-Bulletin doesn't find a buyer, its merger with The Honolulu Advertiser will likely wrap up this summer under a process that will result in layoffs and a name change for The Advertiser reflecting the consolidation, those involved in the sale say.
But yesterday, a day after Star-Bulletin owner David Black stunned Hawai'i's journalism community with news he was purchasing The Advertiser, it was still unclear how many would be laid off and how the papers would be combined.
Two things did appear certain yesterday.
The newspaper will sport a new name but retain the Advertiser's size. Star Bulletin publisher Dennis Francis said the Star-Bulletin's tabloid size will be scrapped.
Black said that the name of the combined newspaper will reflect both dailies. "We think a combination of the two names makes sense," he said. He couldn't yet say what that combination would be.
Lee Webber, publisher of The Advertiser, said he doesn't think readers will see any changes in the pages of the newspaper because of the purchase, even after the new owners step in.
"We will continue to put out the quality product that we've been putting out," he said. "I think that will continue even after the change" in ownership.
Black "knows what he's doing," Webber said.
Webber gave Black and Francis a tour yesterday of The Advertiser's printing facility in Kapolei, which was built for $82 million and opened in 2004.
Also yesterday, more details surfaced on the year-long discussions that led up to Gannett Co.'s sale of The Advertiser to its Honolulu competitor, Oahu Publications, which owns the Star-Bulletin. In an interview, Black said he approached Gannett and "said the obvious — (Star-Bulletin) revenues are down and we'd like to restructure the market."
Black, chairman of Oahu Publications, said Gannett initially was not interested.
The financial terms of the sale have not been released.
900 WORKERS AFFECTED
Black has expressed doubt the Star-Bulletin will find a buyer. No potential buyers have come forward so far, officials said yesterday.
If the Star-Bulletin is not sold in four to eight weeks, Oahu Publications will move to consolidate the newspapers — a process expected to wrap up by late summer and result in layoffs at both dailies. The Advertiser, with a weekday circulation of about 130,000, has 600 full- and part-time employees, while the Star-Bulletin has 300.
There are about 120 people in The Advertiser's newsroom. The Star-Bulletin, with a circulation of about 60,000, has about 75 editorial employees.
Francis said yesterday he couldn't estimate how many people will be laid off at either newspaper if the two are consolidated.
He also said that once the sale of The Advertiser to Oahu Publications closes — in approximately six to eight weeks — the company will be able to get more information on the newspaper's employees.
"Until we get a chance to interview people and find out exactly what their responsibilities are, we can't really determine the numbers that we're going to need," Francis said. "That will ... be determined probably after the close of the sale."
Black also would not estimate how many employees at the newspapers could face layoffs, saying it's too early to tell how many workers a consolidated newspaper would need.
"Down the road, we'll be able to get into The Advertiser and start talking to folks and then figure out how we'll integrate things, if it comes to that," he said yesterday.
Francis added that the work of combining the newspapers can't start yet, since it's unclear whether the Star-Bulletin will be purchased. If it is, he said, any work to coordinate a merger would have been a waste. "We'll continue to operate" normally, he said.
PLANS STILL UP IN AIR
Representatives from the Hawai'i Newspaper and Printing Trades Council, which represents Advertiser and Star-Bulletin employees, met yesterday to form a plan on how to move forward. The council also met with Advertiser management yesterday, and is seeking a sit-down with Star-Bulletin management to get more details on potential changes.
"There will be layoffs. One of our goals is to make sure we preserve all the jobs we possibly can," said Wayne Cahill, spokesman for the council and administrative officer of the Hawai'i Newspaper Guild. He added that employees at both newspapers have little information on how secure their jobs are and when they'll be told of potential layoffs.
He also said there are continuing questions about benefits and wages. "We just don't have those answers right now," he said.
Francis said that Star-Bulletin employees have expressed "mixed emotions" about the sale. "They feel very excited. They're concerned," Francis said. "There's no conclusion as to where it's (the Star-Bulletin) going to end up."
Webber, The Advertiser's publisher since 2007, said he isn't sure what he'll do when the newspaper's sale is complete. He said he may retire, but is also looking at other options.
If the Star-Bulletin and Advertiser merge, Honolulu will become one of a growing number of American cities with only one newspaper — a future many have fought against. In response to those concerns, Francis said that if it weren't for Black, Honolulu would have become a one-newspaper town years ago, when the Star-Bulletin was near closure.
"I guess nothing lasts forever," Francis said.
Black purchased the Star-Bulletin in 2001.
Since then the newspaper has struggled, shedding employees, freezing wages and converting to a tabloid format to save money. The Advertiser, though on firmer financial footing, also has been hit hard by the recession and decreased ad revenues and has reduced staff, cut pay and shrunk the size of its newspaper to cut costs.