I was sorting through some of my father’s belonging recently and came across the 1941 souvenir edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Jan 8, 1941), “The March of Hawaii.” Its lead story was the reorganization and strengthening of the Pacific Fleet and the appointment of Admiral H.E. Kimmel to head it.
My father acquired the paper while stationed in Hawaii with the Army Air Corps. Eleven months later the U.S. was at war, with Kimmel taking heat for having the bulk of his capital ships anchored in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.
I was reminded of the find this week while reading the news that Gannett has agreed to sell the Honolulu Advertiser to the Star-Bulletin. The two have a 130-year history of competition, somewhat muffled until they escaped their relatively difficult marriage in a joint operating agreement between 1960s and the millennium. Now the smaller paper is buying the bigger paper, if it can comply with or skirt antitrust provisions.
We are now in the last throes of consolidation of the newspaper industry, brought on by audiences shifting to television, cable channels, and the Internet for news and information, and advertisers following audiences. The consequence is the newspapering has become a monopoly business in more than 1360 cities and towns and big city papers—even when they are monopolies—are having difficulties competing for advertising dollars. Only two percent of cities have competing dailies.
This change calls into the question the traditional view that a competing press is the foundation of democracy. If competition among perspectives on news and information is necessary for democratic functions, we have to think of it beyond the printed press and begin recognizing the important functions provided by other providers of news, information, and commentary.
Rather than constantly challenging their abilities to carry out functions in the same way as the press once did, we need to find ways to support and improve their activities—whether they be broadcast or Internet based. And we need to find ways to ensure that the papers remaining in place reevaluate their democratic functions and find ways to provide service to the spectrum of observations and ideas that has been diminished by the newspapers monopolies that now dominate our land.