Star Advertiser, it’s all about the people

A few weeks back I wrote a short posting called “We buy, and work, with our hearts.” Those thoughts have often come back to mind in recent days as newspaper journalism turned a page within our island history.

It has been interesting to follow Hawai‘i community reactions to the new Star Advertiser, which just published its inaugural edition this past Monday, proclaiming “Welcome to the future” as its first editorial. When you study and teach value alignment as I do, certain current affairs pique interest because they so plainly illustrate what values are actually in play versus those we will say ring true. This has been one of those times.

For those who may not be aware of our current turn of events, Honolulu became a one-newspaper town this past week, when The Honolulu Advertiser said goodbye with a final edition to a 154-year history of daily morning dominance, and its long-suffering second (in total readership) became the  Star Advertiser. There are other newspapers printed on the neighbor islands, but Honolulu is noteworthy as our capital city, dwarfing all others in population density. Neighbor islanders will read the Honolulu daily pretty religiously, whereas the vast majority of Honolulu residents have never picked up a neighbor island paper, or bothered to look for it online.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (that Honolulu “second” to the Advertiser) was founded in 1882 as the Evening Bulletin, publishing its first edition on February 1 of that year. The name would play out as a self-fulfilling prophecy, for Hawai‘i residents have mostly thought of the Advertiser as the daily morning paper, and the Bulletin as the evening edition; older news of the day, even when untrue and they’d broken a story first. The Bulletin was a paper you read when you had extra time to spare and it happened to be easily at hand, and it didn’t even dominate the evening: The six o’clock evening news on television did. If you didn’t get around to reading the Bulletin you didn’t feel the loss, a hard hurdle for any business to overcome, much less one hawking the news.

From an outsider’s and customer’s viewpoint, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin was all but throwing in the towel in recent years even though the floundering and radical cost-cutting at its rival was plainly apparent. Prior to the merger, the Advertiser published in the more dignified broadsheet format while the Star-Bulletin published in tabloid format. In some fast-food establishments the Star-Bulletin was given away for free, which is rarely a good sign. So in the emergence of the new Star Advertiser, you could say the underdog somehow prevailed. Might the true story be that the Bulletin was actually run better for long-term business survival? Even if true, it is not the story we bother to hear, or pay attention to.

“The Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin have a long and tangled history together, but in the end, each paper was better for having the other as a sparring partner.”
— from the About Page now up at www.StarBulletin.com

Maybe so, and the oft-quoted reason many still hope our run as a one-newspaper town will be short-lived, but for now, we are focused on how that sparring is causing some pain.

Now a single paper, the publishing team has wanted Hawai‘i residents to think of the new Star Advertiser as a merger between the two journalism institutions, and a stronger reinvention. Burl Burlingame recaps the business deal which occurred here: Honolulu Star-Advertiser – About Us, where he truthfully, and matter-of-factly starts with,

“The histories of Honolulu’s two primary newspapers do not run on separate tracks. Like a maile lei, the branches are woven together in a flowing tangle, with events happening over the years due simply to circumstance, coincidence and — often — bad blood and raw emotion.”

And there’s the rub: People are remembering the “bad blood and raw emotion” of the past while they simultaneously magnify any aloha-less actions within this merger of the present. Community focus has been on just about every action taken or not taken in the transition with a notable exception: Actions taken with the actual quality of the journalism.

The biggies have been jobs, workplace aloha and gainful employment:

“The deal [the sale of the Advertiser to the Star-Bulletin owner, and subsequent merger] will result in the loss of more than 400 jobs, making it one of the largest mass layoffs in Hawai‘i in recent years.”
— final edition of The Honolulu Advertiser

While the merger now stands at 54 more ex-Advertiser employees on payroll (265 as compared to the 209 Star-Bulletin staffers retained), that final edition of the Advertiser made a point of illustrating the layoff numbers: 315 were laid off from the Advertiser’s Goliath, and 91 from the Bulletin’s David. Local media coverage and much blogging has collaborated in the commiseration, and I’m not surprised.

Much as we logically understand that businesses have other survival needs to care for as their nonnegotiable basics, we hate that they have those instincts. We hate having our feelings about its people minimized, ignored, or relegated to reasons smacking of “we had no choice.” We never believe it, always feeling there must be a choice deferring to human decency. We want to love only those businesses we feel truly care for us on a basic human level, and we see ourselves in the faces of that business’s people. If you don’t care for your own people, how can you possibly care for us?

Quality journalism alone will not cut it for the Star Advertiser no matter how much we might yearn for it, especially since “quality journalism” is subject to so much opinion. We don’t much want to hear from the ‘business’ at all: We want the word-of-mouth assurances from our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and community watchdogs that the staffers are okay. When they’re okay we’ll be ready to be accepting customers, but not until then.

It has amazed me that the leadership teams involved in all three newspaper entities have largely ignored this when it is so obvious to everyone else. In their ‘journalism’ of this ‘news event’ they have all three written of the business deal facts with a more eager show of transparency, when they should have shared much more of what they have done to care for their people: We don’t care about the business deal, that’s your problem. On the other hand, your people, whether laid off or retained with survivor guilt, can become our problem too. We care about them a great deal more than we care about your reporting of the news.

As a result of not knowing more about any care taken with staffers, the public is left to conclude that each business simply has not done enough. We’ve listened to the more vocal complainers, and we’ve believed them, because they’ve been brave enough to share their emotions, whether right or wrong.  Worse, business deal done and put to bed, we fear the Star Advertiser will simply wait out our memory of fresher pain. Ask go! Airlines how well that has worked for them, for they are still blamed for Aloha Airlines demise despite all we now know.

A business is usually faceless; it’s a ‘thing.’ As it gets to be a bigger thing, it becomes even less human, a monster we fear lurks in our bedroom closet. No matter what we know about any business entity and its strategic objectives or innovation, what we feel about that business is all about the people involved, and how we feel about them. That’s just the way it is, and will always be.

Star Advertiser, I wish you well, I sincerely do. Far as the news reporting goes, I have been impressed with your first few issues. However you must know that your monopoly isn’t going to help much in this day and age where technology makes ‘news’ pretty easy to come by. Any early support you are receiving is support for the people you still employ, for we, their neighbors, understand that they need you as an employer way more than we need you as a newspaper. I didn’t have a ringside seat, but as a blogger formerly writing Say “Alaka‘i” for the Honolulu Advertiser I wasn’t in the nosebleed section either, and it’s time for you to manage with way more aloha. Please call me if I can help.

Ho‘ohana Community, what are you learning from this case study? What do you think your community feels about how you treat your staffers, and how does it affect your business?