Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Houston Post, 10 years after

William P. Hobby: bought The Post in 1939
The Houston Post died 10 years ago today, just one in a long line of city dailies in the U.S. to go out of business.

This is not good, but it's a trend that won't change, given the declining economics of daily newspapers these days.

Even so, the advent of the Web holds promise that the daily newspapers that have managed to survive will not go unchallenged so far as the expression of opposing opinions is concerned. Someday there will viable Web-only newsgathering organizations in major cities to challenge the remaining dailies. I guess.

But today I wanted to talk about The Houston Post.

I went to work there in November 1980 and stayed til it went out of business. It's the paper I grew up. I wasn't so much interested in the news portion of The Post as a kid, but I paid close attention to the sports section. Wow, wouldn't it be great to be sportswriter, I thought. You go to baseball and football games and write about them. So I grew up on the columns of Mickey Herskowitz, Clark Nealon, John Hollis and Jack Agness, and read the game stories.

I was the sports editor of my high school newspaper, The Gander Gazette, for two years.

Then, in college, I went wrong. I got interested in the news. Big mistake. Oh, I'm just kidding, sort of. Sports went out the window and news reporting replaced it. What would life have been like had I pursued the sportswriting thing? By now, I'd probably hate sports, so everything probably worked out as it should.

Before I made it to The Post, I spent three years at the Wichita Falls Record-News (which went out of business, sort of, combining with the town's afternoon daily for a single daily edition) and a little over a year at the San Antonio Light (which was closed by the Hearst Corp. after it bought out the rival daily Express-News.)

My first job at The Post was as its man in Galveston. It was a one-man bureau, which suited me fine. I covered Galveston County and they pretty much left it up to me to decide what was news and what wasn't news.

Then, it was on to Houston. By then, the Hobby family had sold the newspaper to The Toronto Sun. (William P. Hobby, who had bought The Post in '39, died in '64; his widow, Oveta Culp Hobby, who was known for wandering around The Post building turning off lights that were unnecessarily left on, passed in '95.)

The Canadians put a big red box on the front page to contain The Post masthead, and jazzed up the graphics and coverage. Everyone was afraid they'd make it a tabloid, which they probably should have done to further differentiate it from the Chronicle. Now, some broadsheet newspapers around the country are considering doing just that -- going tabloid, which evidently doesn't carry the low-end stigma it did in the '80s.

The Canadians installed Peter O'Sullivan as editor. He would send reporters overseas, virtually unheard of in the Hobby days, and tried to expand the paper's horizons. The mood of the paper was upbeat and a handful of reporters defected from the Chron -- Pete Brewton, Dan Grothaus and Olive Talley. This was definitely a change.

Unfortunately for the Canadians, they bought the paper when Houston's oil-based economy was bad, so they sold The Post to William Dean Singleton and his MediaNews company. Singleton was known for buying failing newspapers and saving them, or at least trying to save them. He also was known as a cost-cutter.

When the Canadians cashed out, the heady atmosphere grew more wary. The bombastic Dave Burgin took over the editorship. He was combative and volatile, but fiercely competitive and not above taking on the Chron in a public way.

The economics of the paper, though, began to take its toll. Pay raises dried up and the Chron began raiding The Post's staff. Morale plummeted when Singleton brought in a new editor, Gerald Garcia, whose reputation as an editor who guided newspapers through the last stages of death infected the staff with a sense of doom. More Post staffers jumped ship to the Chron or other newspapers. We're going down!

After the paper folded, I caught on with the Chron. I already had interviewed with them before The Post gave up the ghost.

In comparing the two papers, the biggest difference was the atmosphere of the newsroom. At The Post, it would not be uncommon to see a rubber band battle break out between reporters on the city side, or a few paper airplanes fly through the air. "Xerox art" of people's heads superimposed on wire photos decorated computer terminals and walls. It was pretty loose. With a staff that hadn't had pay raises for five years or more, I guess we figured, what the hell, what're they gonna do -- NOT GIVE US A RAISE?

Over at the Chron newsroom, decorum reigned. There was a hush across the newsroom. They dressed better. They spoke in quiet tones. It was like an insurance office, or what I imagined an insurance office to be. But they received regular pay raises and had better benefits. They were fat and happy. Well, maybe not happy happy, but secure. But it didn't seem as if they had as much fun.

For $120 million, Singleton sold The Post to the Chron, giving the Chron a monopoly in the country's fourth-largest city. As Lynn Ashby pointed in the column to which I linked last Friday, The Post was still making money. Singleton, in a press release, alluded to the rising cost of newsprint, as a major reason for selling the newspaper.

One can't help but think that with Houston's more diversified economy these days, its continued growth, its low cost of living (including relatively cheap housing compared with the rest of the country), and the relocation to Houston of so many Fortune 500 companies, that The Post could have made a go of it if Singleton had hung on.

To me, he's the villain in the story. Hearst was just doing what any businesses do -- making a decision that maximizes profits. Singleton just took the money and ran. OK, that's another "business decision," but one would like to think the role of a newspaper superscedes such economic decisions. One would be naive to think that, it turns out.

The Chron, to its credit, had the good sense to add some of The Post's dismissed staffers to its payroll. Mary Flood, Dan Feldstein, Leigh Hopper and Matt Schwartz are crackerjack reporters on the city side, Clifford Pugh and Hoffy Hoffman are in features and Kappy Kaplan and William Tecumsah Hensel are in business; Herskowitz is a Chron sports columnist, and there also are a host of talented former Post copy editors and management types whose bylines you never see that now call the Chron home.

The funny thing is, I never detected any joy among Chron staffers about the death of The Post. They knew what it meant for them. No one to measure themselves by, except themselves and the expectations of their management. For a newspaper reporter, there's zero gratification in beating TV on a big two story. Newspapers and TV are two different animals. Apples and oranges.

But when there were two papers in town, if The Post beat the Chron, or the Chron beat the Post on a story, even if it just meant getting some relevant details or angles on the same story that the enemy didn't, well, that made you feel good. You felt like you earned your pay that day.

Too bad those days of Houston journalism are over and done with, starting 10 years ago today.

William Dean Singleton: known as "Stinky" to former Post employees


cacafuego said...

I used to like the Post a lot. In particular, I used to read Bob Claypool's rock and roll reviews. man, that guy was a fixture at every watering hole in Houston that had a stage for a band. He loved live music and his wiritng showed it. I also liked Eric Gerber's stuff. It was nice having a two paper town sniff..

Anonymous said...

And me I'm still on the road, headin' for another joint, we always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view tangled up in blue...

(harp riff)

Cut to the cheap seats, where our hero looks like an angry bit of lent.

(longer harp riff) a mime with croooooop
tangled up in soooouuuuuppp

H. Brute
Sharpstown, TX

Felix said...

Nice job, Banjo. I remember the rubber band fights, and the football tossing, and the Lady shaking his hair as he contemplated Thursday nights at Molina's. I also remember altering Dan Feldstein's astronaut refer poster, and hanging around those great Houston "gentlemen's establishments" before the law pulled out the rulers and started measuring - unlike those old days when it was the dancers measuring. But I'm here in SoCal now, hanging with the artificially enhanced and, well, so it goes.

Anonymous said...

The raises, no retirement,writing's on the wall.. NO future. Bergin, Garcia, nuts. Better writers, editors, photographers...the END. Staff parties. Memories.
The Chron...raises, retirement, future. Pederson, Loftis, Ernie...boring writing. No staff parties, no airplanes, no football...NO FUN. Gotta MOVE on, FORGET it...Let it GI. SCREW it.

Anonymous said...

OOPS. That last line should read.NO FUN. Gotta MOVE on, FORGETit...Let it GO, etc.
Hell, when the Canadians owned the paper it was kinda like Lou Grant with travel, etc. Even though the SUN guys took $2,000,000 of the overfunded retirement fund.