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June 2, 2000

The nation's newspaper business is in the throes of wrenching changes. Several dailies with long pedigrees have vanished in major U.S. cities and others are barely staying alive, even with resuscitation in place. For instance: The Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, two competitive dailies that serve the idyllic Hawaiian Islands, are fighting for survival. Both circulate throughout the Hawaiian chain. It's of special interest to me because of the two years I spent during World War II as a copy editor and reporter on the Mid-Pacific edition of the Army's daily newspaper, The Stars & Stripes. Our offices were on the third floor of the Advertiser's distinctive stone and brick building situated on Kapiolani Boulevard between downtown Honolulu and the playground known as Waikiki Beach. I used to read the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin each day.

The Advertiser was (and still is) a morning newspaper and the Star-Bulletin was (and is) published in the afternoon. In recent years many afternoon papers have folded after suffering huge losses of revenue from both circulation and advertising, frequently because local and network TV programs have weaned news junkies and others away from the printed page. As circulation figures and advertising linage dwindled, the papers fell on hard times.

To offset that trend and other stressful economic issues, newspaper business leaders have come up with a number of creative, even desperate, measures to restore stability and profitability for the owners and stockholders. Nothing new there. Every industry, big and small, has to be adaptable in ways that once were thought to be impossible. The alternative to that flexibility is usually bankruptcy. Such has been the case in a free economy since the dawn of doing business. Survival of the fittest, it's called.

One of the new devices is known as a Joint Operating Agreement, or JOA. Relatively few cities still have more than one daily paper to attract readers. The JOA makes it possible for competitive newspapers to survive by sharing staff and facilities, including printing equipment and business offices. They thereby reduce costs and that is a major factor in the scramble to exist. In cities where papers use a Joint Operating Agreement, readers are still witnessing fierce battles in the news and advertising business. Competition from many directions has created this necessity. Television has its splashy, sometimes sophisticated formats at 6 o'clock and 10 for local newscasts. Then there are the morning and evening shows produced on a daily basis by the national networks. All these have made things uncomfortable for the poor overworked, underpaid and ink-stained wretches who have to deal with mundane newsprint and coldly undramatic presses. New York City once had a half dozen or more daily papers. These days you can count them on two or three fingers. The Honolulu Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin have a Joint Operating Agreement, but it has not staved off what appears to be the inevitable demise of one of them. The Star-Bulletin is expected to flame out one day soon. Like any good paper, it will be missed by its readers and journalism in general.

Hawaii is usually regarded as an Elysian garden, tranquil and serene, except when our enemies turn it into a holocaust, a la 1941. Today the lovely islands are the backdrop for a bitter struggle by two long-time rivals battling for survival. Their conflict serves to underscore the death pangs now threatening other papers. The newspaper business, it is a-changing.