Media

Another Newspaper Gutted, This Time in Hawaii

As the destruction of America’s daily newspapers accelerates due to the spread of COVID-19, one state’s largest paper will cut its staff by 50%. While papers have cut staff in dozens of cities, this is one of the worst such incidents.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the largest newspaper in Hawaii by circulation, will chop its news staff by half as part of a more significant wave of firings at the property. The editorial headcount reduction includes 31 people. Other sources put the count at 29.

The union, which represents the editorial workers, proposed other solutions, which included lower pay.

The union and outsiders pointed out that the paper’s management has made a decision that would badly damage the ability to cover important issues, which include the local government. This kind of coverage has been undermined at paper after paper, as political coverage has been part of the effect of downsizing.

Many newspapers nationwide have lost more than 10% of their revenue in each of the past two years. Advertisers have moved from physical papers to online marketing. Many subscribers have dropped the physical paper, either to read online or stop reading altogether. The erosion of print revenue has not been made up of digital dollars. Very few papers have convinced the reader to pay more than a few dollars a month for access to online editorial content. And the numbers of online subscribers also have been too small to make much of a financial difference.

The spread of COVID-19 has cut advertising revenue by 50% year over year at many papers in the first quarter. Retailers and restaurants, in particular, having lost their customers, in turn have cut ad budgets to zero.

One theory about the inability of papers to get online subscribers is that past newsroom cuts have sharply eroded the quality of the papers. This, in turn, has made them less attractive to readers. That cycle has been accelerated by the huge layoffs this year.

Very few newspapers have been able to keep digital subscriptions high and, in many cases, increase them. Among these, The New York Times is the prime example. It has over 6 million paid digital subscribers, a figure that rose by 587,000 last quarter, even as it saw ad revenue drop.

The primary reason people subscribe to The New York Times is high-quality content supported by a newsroom of 1,700. No paper in the country can come close to matching it. A second newspaper that has been able to increases subscribers is The Wall Street Journal, which also has kept a newsroom count well into the hundreds of reporters, editors and production people

The other small set of papers that has largely avoided cuts are those owned by billionaires. This includes the Washington Post, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. This list also includes the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Hundreds upon hundreds of papers have neither the content nor the deep pockets to hold staff at least year’s level. Some of the papers will completely disappear or have already. The number of “news deserts” in America, where there are no papers at all, is rising quickly.