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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

An 'ohana that produced powerful work

By Gerry Keir

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

George Chaplin, who retired in 1986, led the effort to make The Advertiser more relevant and reliable.

Advertiser library photo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

George Chaplin, who retired in 1986, led the effort to make The Advertiser more relevant and reliable.

Advertiser library photo

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I was fortunate to spend most of my professional life as a journalist for The Honolulu Advertiser in the days when it was locally owned.

I looked forward to going to work just about every day and so I'm sad to see it go, and our community should be sad as well to be losing a media voice.

On this day of the true "final edition," I wanted to give you a sense of what it was like in the newsroom from the late 1960s up through the early 1990s.

The Honolulu Advertiser last faced imminent death a half-century ago. At the time, some in the community would have said, "Good riddance!"

The paper had been stridently right-wing, anti-statehood, sometimes racist, too close to the haole elite. Anti-union editorials ran on the front page. The paper once advocated tuition for public high schools to inhibit "stuffing book knowledge" into local kids.

The rival Honolulu Star-Bulletin had twice the circulation; By the early 1960s, the Advertiser was down to just a few days of operating cash.

"The newsroom lived day to day. We had to beg for paper to write our stories," recalls longtime labor writer Charles Turner, now 86.

The family-owned paper's savior was a young kama'āina, Thurston Twigg-Smith, whose uncle, Lorrin P. Thurston, had run the operation. Twigg-Smith (everyone, from governors to copy boys, always called him "Twigg"), who had spent the 1950s in the newsroom as managing editor, engineered a takeover of company stock in 1961 to oust his uncle.

He and new editor George Chaplin set about remaking The Advertiser into a modern, independent paper. Twigg stanched the financial bleeding by negotiating a joint operating agreement with the Star-Bulletin in which the papers combined advertising sales, printing and delivery functions while retaining two fiercely competitive newsrooms on opposite sides of the News Building at 605 Kap'iolani Blvd.

In 1962, there was a symbolic changing of the guard when Twigg visited industrialist and developer Walter Dillingham, one of the paper's directors, to tell him The Advertiser was endorsing Democrat Daniel Inouye for the U.S. Senate over Walter's son, Ben, the GOP nominee. "Inouye credits this as a key moment in his life and it signaled the shift from a paper alienated from the community to one in touch with it," said longtime political pundit Jerry Burris.

Twigg, now 88, was the best kind of family newspaper owner. He left Chaplin and his staff free to cover the news wherever it led. It surely made for some uncomfortable mornings when Twigg picked up his Advertiser and discovered a friend's name on the front page.

Chaplin and executive editor Buck Buchwach focused The Advertiser relentlessly on local news. Chaplin personally worked all corners of the community bon dances, Cherry Blossom Festivals, luaus not just Bishop Street. The main target was news that mattered to a mythical Kalihi reader, "Minnie Fukuda," not just the elite.

"A lot of us young local folks with public school educations got to report stories that would never have seen print in the old Advertiser," said Mark Matsunaga, a City Hall reporting veteran, later city editor.

The Advertiser crusaded against faulty school fire alarms, uncovered government purchasing scandals, spotlighted racism at the Pacific Club, got inside the secretive Family Court and shamed legislators who absconded with 'Iolani Palace office furnishings. Editorials campaigned against high-rises on Diamond Head and for construction of the USS Arizona Memorial, a new concert hall, a rail transit system (you can't win them all).

It was one big breaking story after another: Moonwalkers return to Pearl Harbor. Challenger explodes, killing local boy Ellison Onizuka. Mayor Frank Fasi feuds with newspapers. Kaho'olawe returned. Island troops fight in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan. Where else could you cover hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcano eruptions?

Many longtime newsroom people saw the 1970s and 1980s as The Advertiser's golden age. The newsroom became a real 'ohana, full of enthusiasm for the news, for trying to beat the Star-Bulletin to every story and surpass it in circulation. "It wasn't perfect; we had our spats," said Matsunaga. "But hard feelings didn't linger. Aloha really did exist, an atmosphere of tolerance and trust. We collectively benefited from the balance between Chaplin's gravitas and Buck's populist touch, even after they left."

Many staffers became household names, their bylines trusted by newsmakers and readers alike. There was Gene Hunter, who came within a whisker of a Pulitzer Prize for an expose on organized crime; editorial page editor John Griffin; cartoonists Harry Lyons and Dick Adair; cop reporter Terry McMurray, whose writing on booze sales to teens lost the paper liquor store ads; baseball writer Ferd Borsch, who never missed a Hawaii Islanders home game; business editor Kit Smith, tourism writer Anne Harpham (later one of the paper's senior editors), Tom Kaser covering education, politics editor Burris, jack of all trades Vickie Ong, courts expert Ken Kobayashi, Sandra Oshiro (most recently head of the newsroom's online operation), entertainment columnist Wayne Harada and so many more.

Columnist Bob Krauss, who joined the paper in 1951 and was still writing up until his death in 2006, helped to create a "personality" for Honolulu. "In many ways, I argue, we didn't know who we were until Krauss told us," Burris said.

Every newsroom has its characters. Crusty city editor Sandy Zalburg, a D-Day vet with a booming voice and intolerance for bad writing, once walked to the window and tossed a verbose story into the breeze in front of its stunned author. Reporter Charles Turner was passing by when the pages fluttered to the sidewalk at his feet. "I brought it back in to the City Desk and Sandy got mad all over again this time, at me," he recalled with a chuckle.

In 1988, The Advertiser, propelled by its focus on local coverage and a growing preference for morning papers, finally passed the Star-Bulletin in circulation. "Buchwach brought in champagne and pūpū," longtime news editor John Strobel remembered.

Both papers were financial successes. By 1993, when Twigg sold to Gannett Co. because his descendants weren't interested in running the paper, combined annual profits topped $60 million.

After the joint agreement ended in 2001, the independent Star-Bulletin began losing big money. Craigslist stole away lucrative classified ads from papers nationwide. The Advertiser widened its circulation lead, but here, as on the Mainland, readership declined. Turns out that in Honolulu, like most everywhere, there's no room for two profitable papers.

This year, in a cruel twist of fate for those of us who loved The Advertiser as it was and a tragedy for the talented people who produced it until today the paper was bought by the so-called "weaker" Star-Bulletin.

There will be only a small number of Advertiser journalists at the new "Star-Advertiser." Fewer reporters will serve as public watchdogs, holding politicians accountable, covering faulty school fire alarms, shoddy nursing homes and government scandals.

Civic life will be poorer. Democracy will suffer.

"I feel proud of what we did," said Chuck Turner. I do, too, Chuck.

Aloha, Advertiser. It's been a great 154-year press run.

Gerry Keir worked in The Advertiser newsroom from 1968-95, starting as a cub reporter and finishing as editor.