Lots of voices but a lot less news
By Mark Platte
A couple of hundred media people, public relations professionals, information specialists and others listened to several panel discussions on March 18 about the future of the news media at an event in Honolulu called NewsMorphosis 2.0.
As speakers waxed on about whether old media or new media would prevail, few wanted to talk about what the local news media landscape is going to look like in a few months.
Everyone agrees that the consolidation of The Advertiser and Star-Bulletin is not a good thing and that having three television news staffs instead of four limits news competition as well. But it became almost a given at this conference that online news services, bloggers, citizen journalists, Facebook aficionados and Twitterers will fill in the gaps that the professionals leave behind.
No less than Gov. Linda Lingle told Star-Bulletin owner David Black, who is attempting to buy The Advertiser, that having a single daily newspaper in Honolulu wasn't such a big deal. According to the Star-Bulletin, Black said he had wanted to preserve the unique editorial voices of both newspapers but that Lingle told him that it isn't as important as it once was.
"She said, 'You know that's not really an issue,' " Black told his newspaper. "She said, 'Think of all the editorial voices around because of the Internet.' I wasn't really thinking of it that way, but that's right. The average citizen has a wealth of editorial voices if they want to pursue that."
Yes, there are many voices out there ready to offer opinions, but there are few media organizations that do the legwork needed to find public documents, hold elected officials accountable and, if needed, file lawsuits that can turn loose information that the public needs to know. Hawai'i's public records laws are among the most dismal in the nation and government's adherence to those laws is sorely lacking.
For example, Advertiser reporter Sean Hao is the only journalist covering our $6 billion rail project on an almost full-time basis. Without his stories, readers would have little idea what is really happening with the state's largest public works project other than the press conferences and news releases issued by the mayor and his pro-rail forces or the anti-rail hui of Cliff Slater, Panos Prevedouros and others.
Politicians talk about maintaining multiple editorial voices but really don't believe it. When it looked like the Star-Bulletin was going to close in 1999, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano said, "I could care less if Hawai'i has one or two daily newspapers," a comment he now says was made in jest and followed up by his order to his attorney general to block the sale.
Former Mayor Frank Fasi, who fought ferociously with the two daily newspapers, was equally delighted with the news of the Star-Bulletin's demise. Most elected officials, as well as government workers and business leaders, would also prefer it if nobody was watching. There are resolutions in the state Legislature and at the City Council urging Black to provide enough time for a new Star-Bulletin owner to be found, but a buyer is unlikely.
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/index.php) offers a sobering look at newsgathering efforts since 2000, estimating that our industry has lost 30 percent, or $1.6 billion, of its annual reporting and editing capacity. It also concludes that 5,900 newsroom jobs were lost nationwide in 2009. Since 2001, about one-third of all newspaper jobs have disappeared with much of that reporting firepower lost in statehouse coverage, community journalism and science and arts reporting.
Online news services and bloggers provide a valuable and less expensive way of gathering news and will be instrumental in keeping the discussion of civic life going. But it won't be close to what a daily newspaper and its accompanying Web site can provide, from covering local high school sports to reporting neighborhood news. For those who believe such a loss doesn't matter in this community, ask yourself in a few months what you're missing.