The alternative newspaper Honolulu Weekly, which has published for the last 23 years, closed this week. The closure robs readers on Oahu and the rest of the state of a voice and that differed sharply from other local publications.
“I am sorry to say that this will be the last issue of the Weekly that we will print,” stated a note from owner/publisher Laurie V. Carlson in the June 5 issue. “I am sad about closing but I see no way that we can maintain our revenue stream and our fiscal health. Things have gone from manageable with great stress to bleak. We have worked tirelessly during the last few months to bring in more advertising revenue. Our efforts have yielded minimal success. At the same time we signed up new advertisers, we lost existing advertisers. I chose to close now, while there is still money to meet our debts and obligations.”
Along with MauiTime, Honolulu Weekly was a member of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), a nationwide group of publications dedicated to providing readers stories that they won’t find in the daily papers or TV news programs. The Weekly’s closure comes at a time when the entire media world is changing.
The rise of the Internet has trampled the business model of many papers, mainstream and alternative, leading to all sorts of closures and consolidations. Combine that with an uneasy economy, both nationally and locally, and you’ve got an environment that can be terribly unforgiving.
“There are a lot of things going on in the market,” Carlson told me in a phone interview after the last issue hit the streets. She mentioned all sorts of factors that led to the closure: the closing of big companies like Borders, the loss of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (which she said led to a more “aggressive” Honolulu Star-Advertiser) and continuing hardship for the local small businesses that made up the heart of the Weekly’s advertising clients.
“Our largest revenue issue ever was in April–our Sustainability Issue,” Carlson said. “We brought in $45,000. But our stable of advertisers has diminished. Last October was fabulous. November, December were horrible. Summer is a tough time, and I’m exhausted.”
Carlson’s exhaustion is understandable, especially given how forthright the paper has been about its financial troubles. Last year, the paper–a for-profit corporation–even began running ads asking readers to donate money so they could raise $20,000 or so to pay impending bills. The effort seemed to work last year, and was starting again this year when the paper folded.
“If you’re begging for money, something’s not working,” said Chad Blair, a reporter for Civil Beat who wrote for Honolulu Weekly from late 1997 to early 2004. “But I have to give her credit: she ran a business for 23 years.”
Of course, the paper even back then was very different from its current form, which in the last few months typically ran issues between 20 and 32 pages in length. “When I was there, I don’t remember lean times,” Blair said. “I remember issues of 48, even 56 pages. It felt good in the hand. I guess 23 years ago, when it started, alternative weeklies were at their peak. They were breaking a lot of good stories, and they were very influential. But since then the whole media landscape has changed dramatically. For a free weekly to survive is very difficult.”
Carlson may be out of the picture (she said she’s considering a return to the food co-op world, which is where she worked before she started the paper), but former staffers say they want to gather investors and relaunch the paper, perhaps in the fall. What such a paper would look like is, of course, unknown.
For much of its life, the Weekly focused covering land development, environmental degradation and food production–important issues, sure, but not exactly sexy. It was also different than most AAN-style weeklies, which (like MauiTime) tend to be mainly a calendar paper with some news thrown in. Honolulu Weekly, however, seemed to focus on being a news-oriented paper with some calendar listings.
Given that we’re talking about Honolulu, which includes a sizeable population, insane number of bars/restaurants/night clubs, military presence and status as the state capitol should be more than enough to sustain a healthy alt weekly at least twice the size of MauiTime. Hell, there’s probably enough strip club business alone to sustain a good-sized glossy pub dealing just with those establishments.
Near the end of our chat, Carlson told me she wouldn’t have done much differently over the last few years. “Sometimes I should have relied on my judgment–being green early on, I was a little intimidated,” she said. “I was trained by my editors in a lot of ways. And a lot of talented people have worked here. Other publications know that if a person has worked at the Weekly, they work hard and are worth hiring.”