The end of a rich history Advertiser writes final chapter in 154-year story
Today's final edition of The Honolulu Advertiser marks the end of a most unique narrative, told in daily installments, chronicling 154 breathtaking years in the history of our Hawai'i community.
It is a story authored not just by the hundreds of reporters and photographers whose bylines have appeared on these pages, or by the thousands of editors, designers, artists, copy editors, production workers, salespeople, delivery drivers and others who have toiled behind the scenes, but by eight generations of readers who have participated in a grand community dialogue inspired by the American journalistic tradition and distinguished by the singular intersection of who we are, where we live, and how we live together.
The first edition of The Honolulu Advertiser rolled off a used Washington handpress in a small, wood-frame building on Merchant Street on July 2, 1856. It started as an upstart alternative to an existing government-sponsored paper and evolved into a mouthpiece for the city's business elite.
And for the past half-century, under family and later corporate ownership, The Advertiser has been an inclusive forum for debate, an advocate for social justice and Hawai'i's recognized newspaper of record.
Like any good story, the history of The Honolulu Advertiser is full of colorful characters — the powerful and the obscure, the impetuous and the complacent, the righteous and the wrong-headed — all offering their own first drafts of history amid a swirl of social, political and cultural forces greater than the ability of any single narrative to contain.
AN EAST COAST INFLUENCE
By the time the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, as it was first called, entered the local market as a once-a-week publication dedicated to "commerce, agriculture and whaling interests in the Pacific," Hawai'i was already well on its way to establishing a rich and diverse market for newspaper journalism, one that would reach its apex during the reign of David Kalakaua, when more than 100 different English and Hawaiian-language newspapers were produced for a populace that for a time was the most literate in the world.
As noted by historian Helen Chapin in her seminal study of Hawai'i newspapers, "Shaping History: The Role of Newspapers in Hawai'i," James Jarves' The Polynesian, first published in 1840, married religious and secular American interests, eventually becoming the official voice of the Hawaiian government under Kamehameha III and Kamehameha IV.
In 1849, Dr. Gerrit Judd, adviser to Kamehameha III, arranged for the Polynesian to retain the services of Henry Whitney, the son of missionaries on Kaua'i, who was working at the prestigious printing house Harper and Brothers in New York.
Whitney spent his first years back in Hawai'i working for the government print office and serving as Hawai'i's first postmaster. After two unsuccessful bids to wrest control of the Polynesian, he set out to establish his own newspaper in the image of the East Coast papers to which he'd been exposed.
The Pacific Commercial Advertiser drew its name from the New York publication The Commercial Advertiser, and initially consisted of four pages — three in English and one in Hawaiian.
Whitney proved to be a fresh and formidable presence. Recognizing the commercial value of being the first to report news from the United States and Europe, he personally set out in a news boat to intercept arriving ships, ensuring that he was the first to get foreign newspapers.
THE ADVERTISER CHANGES HANDS
Whitney was outspoken about his moral convictions. He was fluent in Hawaiian and was one of the first to advocate tourism to Hawai'i, yet he just as rigorously railed against the practice of hula, which he viewed as morally offensive. He lauded the development of the sugar industry in Hawai'i, but vehemently opposed the contract labor agreements that bound imported Asian workers to the rising sugar plantations, likening the situation to slavery.
In response to The Advertiser's searing exposes on inhumane conditions aboard immigrant ships, the planters organized an advertising boycott in retaliation and threatened to start a competing newspaper. Soon after, Whitney sold The Advertiser to James Black and William Auld.
(Whitney later established a bookstore most notable for the bulletin of news and gossip that Whitney posted each day. James Robinson eventually bought the rights to the bulletin, which he developed into the Evening Bulletin newspaper. In 1912, the paper merged with another daily, the Hawaiian Star, to become the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.)
In 1876, editor Henry Sheldon bought The Advertiser, quickly and forcefully advocating for Hawaiian independence and progress. For Sheldon, that included resisting the massive influx of Asian workers, whom The Advertiser referred to in an editorial as "pagan cockroaches."
Sheldon would sell the paper back to Black, who in turn sold it to Walter Murray Gibson in 1880.
In his 1998 book "Presstime in Paradise," longtime Honolulu Advertiser editor George Chaplin said The Advertiser's editorial policy soon "entwined with the aims and actions not only of Gibson, but of King Kalakaua and sugar king Claus Spreckels."
The paper faltered under a succession of undistinguished editors, and a falling-out between the king and Spreckels led to the government negotiating a buyout of The Advertiser.
SUPPORTIVE OF 1893 OVERTHROW
In the wake of Kalakaua's forced signing of the so-called Bayonet Constitution by American businessmen and Gibson's political downfall, Spreckels retained control of The Advertiser and promptly sold it back to Whitney and the missionary Castle family for a mere $6,000.
The ensuing years marked the beginning of the end of the Hawaiian kingdom as American business interests aligned against newly ascended Queen Lili'uokalani. The Advertiser initially endorsed the queen but withdrew its support when rumors spread that she intended to adopt a new constitution restoring her royal powers.
The paper's loyalties were crystallized in its report on the Jan. 17, 1893, overthrow of the queen at the hands of the so-called Committee of Safety: "The people, weary of the conspiracies, usurpations, scandals and encroachments upon their rights which have marked the last years of the Hawaiian monarchy, have asserted the prerogatives inherent in every people to determine the form of their own government."
As Tom Brislin, a former Advertiser editor and current chair of the University of Hawai'i's Academy for Creative Media, said, "As history shows, as the haole commercial elite became the establishment, The Advertiser became its voice."
The newspaper remained firmly behind the provisional government of Sanford Dole and the eventual annexation of Hawai'i by the United States.
INNOVATIONS FOR A NEW CENTURY
In 1898, the Castle family, having previously acquired Whitney's share of the company, sold The Advertiser to Lorrin A. Thurston, grandson of Lorrin Andrews and author of the Bayonet Constitution.
With Thurston at the helm, the Advertiser became the dominant journalistic voice of its time, albeit with an editorial focus calibrated to Hawai'i's white elite.
Its investigative reports into illicit gambling activity reflected Thurston's aggressive, incisive style, and the newspaper's innovations (it hired its first photographer in 1902, subscribed to its first wire service a year later and introduced its Sunday edition a day later) set the standard for journalism in Hawai'i.
In the pages of The Advertiser, Thurston promoted the territory's booming agricultural industry, supported The Outdoor Circle's crusade to ban billboards in Hawai'i and pushed for the establishment of national parks at Haleakala and Kilauea.
And while his negative judgment of other cultures was hardly unique for his time, its naked presence in The Advertiser deepened the gulf between the newspaper and Hawai'i's Hawaiian and immigrant working class. Like Whitney, Thurston took issue with hula, which he called "indecent." Under his leadership, The Advertiser also ran a series of racist cartoons and editorials about the 1909 Japanese sugar workers strike and fanned the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment following World War I, calling for restrictions on Japanese-language schools.
Upon Thurston's death in 1931, The Advertiser fell to the uncertain hands of son Lorrin P. Thurston.
"Thurston was being asked to step into his father's giant footprints, but it was a demand beyond his capabilities," wrote Chaplin. "He fell short of his father's intellect, judgment and dynamism."
The younger Thurston had the misfortune of presiding over one of the only days The Advertiser failed to publish an edition.
Due to a broken gear on its press, the paper couldn't be printed. Readers were understandably irate when they awoke to empty doorsteps. They didn't grouse for long; it was the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
And so the Advertiser missed one of the biggest stories of the century. The press was soon repaired, but its inaccurate and hysterical reporting ("Saboteurs Land Here!") earned it the threat of a shutdown from military authorities. Even so, The Advertiser staunchly supported the imposition of martial law ("They did it and we liked it," one editorial read) and military censorship as the United States embarked on the war in the Pacific.
The war years provided a reprieve from The Advertiser's economic hardships. Thurston shared his father's commitment to civic involvement, his belief in Hawai'i as a tourist destination — as well as his racial bias. As the de facto voice for the white Republican establishment, The Advertiser was perceived as catering to Mainland sensitivities and prejudices, often at the expense of Asian and Polynesian citizens.
THE ADVERTISER HITS BOTTOM
The end of the war, and the subsequent scaling back of military personnel stations in Hawai'i, spelled near-doom for The Advertiser.
According to Chaplin, Advertiser circulation fell from 71,505 in 1946 to just 46,933 in 1950 — nearly 30,000 behind the rival Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Despite numerous efforts to reverse the trend, The Advertiser continued to struggle, in part because it had outraged the territory's large Japanese-American population with its snarling use of the term "Jap" in wartime coverage.
And while the paper remained popular in the business community, its alarmist linking of labor unions to communism further alienated blue-collar workers.
The reformation of The Advertiser's image can be linked to two key Advertiser players: Buck Buchwach, a master of promotion and marketing who persuaded Thurston to abandon his opposition to Hawai'i statehood, and George Chaplin, whose engaging personality and commitment to racial equality and social justice would help the paper repair its relationship with the community at large.
An experienced Mainland editor who had managed Stars & Stripes in Hawai'i during the war, Chaplin was hired in 1958 by Thurston ostensibly to infuse new life into the stagnant newspaper, but also to fend off his ambitious nephew, Thurston Twigg-Smith.
Twigg-Smith, a Punahou and Yale graduate and distinguished war veteran, had worked his way through the ranks of The Advertiser and was aware both of its dwindling fortunes and rich potential. Under Chaplin, he ascended to managing editor.
"We hit it off," Twigg-Smith said. "He could see that there was no management. It was non-existent. Lorrin didn't want to do the day-to-day work. We didn't have the talent to make a go of it."
In 1961, Twigg-Smith took control of The Advertiser by acquiring a majority of the company's stock. He was aided in this effort by Chaplin and businessman Chinn Ho, who sat on The Advertiser's board of directors and later bought the Star-Bulletin.
"(Thurston) didn't believe I had the shares," Twigg-Smith recalls. "He said, 'I'll believe it when you bring Chinn Ho and George Chaplin into my office.' We walked in the next day and he realized it was the end."
Twigg-Smith quickly set out to secure The Advertiser's future by proposing a joint operating agreement with the Star-Bulletin. In 1962, the two newspapers agreed to share printing, circulation, administration and advertising expenses, an arrangement that enabled The Advertiser to invest more of its resources into improving its product.
BREAKING WITH THE REPUBLICANS
Twigg-Smith and Chaplin were already well under way with a major shift in The Advertiser's traditional editorial position. In 1962, the paper made a landmark break with the Republicans with its endorsements of Daniel K. Inouye for U.S. Senate (over challenger Ben Dillingham) and Spark Matsunaga and Thomas Gill for the House.
The move cost the paper a 50-year association with Dillingham's powerful father, board member Walter Dillingham, but provided it a measure of credibility among a burgeoning ethnic voting bloc that came of age during the Democratic Revolution of 1954.
The paper steadily improved the quality and scope of its operations while engaging the nascent state's broad diversity of cultures and ethnicities. It sent reporters to cover the Vietnam War, expanded youth and entertainment sections, devoted unprecedented coverage to Native Hawaiian issues, and engaged in in-depth investigative reporting at a time when the state was experiencing the growing pains of a rapid population boom and aggressive development.
The quality of The Advertiser's offerings was confirmed in 1971 when a Pulitzer Prize jury recommended Gene Hunter for its top investigative award for his series on local crime syndicates. The jury's decision was overturned by the Pulitzer board, which gave the award to the Chicago Tribune, leaving Hunter as a finalist. Still, Hunter's ultimate designation as a finalist for the award remains the highest recognition ever given a Hawai'i print reporter.
In 1993, Twigg-Smith, realizing the newspaper business was "an industry facing troubled times" and with no heirs interested in taking over, sold The Advertiser to Gannett Co. Inc. for $250 million.
The newspaper's profits crested just as the sale was completed. The economic downturn of the 1990s, the closure and consolidation of advertisers, rising costs tied to generous labor contracts and the growing competition from the Internet all combined to slash The Advertiser's profit margin from close to 50 percent to less than 10 percent in only eight years.
In 2001, the joint operating agreement was dissolved and The Advertiser and Star-Bulletin competed for the first time in nearly 40 years for subscribers and advertisers. The war cost both companies millions, and the recession hastened what many had expected for years: that Honolulu would end up as a one-newspaper town.
While the official history of this publication will most often be told in terms of ownership and editorial direction, the newspaper of Whitney and the Thurstons and Gannett is also the newspaper of the hundreds of thousands of Hawai'i residents and visitors whose one-of-a-kind experiences have been chronicled in these pages, and of the thousands of civic and community organizations whose events have filled our calendars, and of the untold millions who have trusted The Advertiser to provide daily doses of information, entertainment and insight.
In his introductory message to the inaugural edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Henry Whitney, so enamored with the sea and seafaring, wondered in print what might become of his new venture. His words may yet apply to the legacy of his creation:
"Thus is our little bark launched on the uncertain tide of life. What she is — whether a full clipper of the most approved model, in hull, spars, sails and rigging, whether in short she is such a craft as is needed for the trade, or not, 'tis yours, also to help freight her with the produce, the wares and merchandise which you may have to dispose of."