Post Mortem

Though not unexpected, the death of the Houston Post was still a surprise. Even more surprising was how little truth got out about how and why the paper perished.

"Let facts be submitted to a candid world."
The words of Thomas Jefferson, as they appeared near the entrance to the former Houston Post building.

When the end came, there was no time for sentiment, no time to say goodbye, no time to mourn the city's loss.

No time to explain.
This was simply business.
Ernie Williamson, the Houston Post's executive editor, whose employment at the paper dated back to the Hobby family's ownership, had gone to the third-floor management offices of the Post late on the day of Monday, April 17. Since the afternoon of the previous Friday, rumors had been swirling fast inside and outside the Post building that the newspaper was about to be sold -- or closed. Williamson wanted some answers, preferably ones that would quiet the concerns of his editors and reporters on the fourth floor.

We have nothing to say, he was told.
Later that evening, Williamson returned home to find a phone message from Ike Massey, the Post's publisher. This is it, Williamson thought as he returned the call. But Massey just asked Williamson how that night's operation had fared, whether the newsroom had busted any deadlines in getting the paper to press. Everything went fine, Williamson told him.

Good, said Massey.
Anything else? Williamson asked.
No, Massey replied.

Williamson arrived at work on mid-morning Tuesday to find Post vice president and editor Gerald Garcia telling a gathering of newsroom employees that the paper was indeed closing. In fact, the Post was already in the past tense when Garcia made his announcement. Ming Cheung, a 16-year Post veteran, was in the paper's computer room on the second floor running time cards when his department head called him with the news. "I can still see the clock as clear as anything: 9:15 a.m," Cheung remembers. As he watched the clock, he heard his boss say, "They finally did it to us. You are no longer an employee of the Houston Post as of right now." Features writer David Kaplan had arrived at 7:30 a.m. to finish a story for Wednesday's paper; he learned of his fate when he heard Garcia turn the key to his office and declare, "It's over." James Duncan, who had been a production employee at the Post since 1951, had worked until 2 a.m. Tuesday and was awakened with the news by his daughter, who called him at home after hearing it on the radio.

The Tuesday edition that Williamson and Duncan put to bed was to be the last in the 111-year history of the Post. It carried the banner headline "JSC engineers face mass transfers," a bitter irony to the 1,000 full-time employees who would be given until 5 p.m. that day to clean out their desks and lockers. By mid-morning, blue-blazered security guards from the downtown office of the Houston Chronicle could be spotted in the Post parking lot, directing uniformed guards who were keeping the employed media and other interlopers off the premises and, according to one, ensuring that angry Post workers didn't trash and loot the building.

The security personnel were to be the only visible public presence of the Hearst Corporation that day. There would be no press conference by representatives of Hearst or the Chronicle, and executives of both the New York-based corporation and its Houston newspaper would not be available for interviews, employees of the Chronicle's promotions department would tell inquiring reporters.

Inside the Chronicle newsroom -- filled with many reporters and editors who had found a safe haven there after working at the ever-shaky Post -- the usual "need to know" atmosphere prevailed: there was no gathering of the troops, no official explanation from higher-ups. All that would be forthcoming from the Hearst Corporation redoubt at 801 Texas Avenue was a two-page press release, issued on behalf of Hearst CEO Frank Bennack and Post owner William Dean Singleton, announcing that "the Post had published its last edition today and that it had sold certain of the paper's operating assets to the Hearst Corporation, owner of the Houston Chronicle." It quoted Singleton blaming the skyrocketing costs of newsprint for his paper's demise and Bennack acknowledging the Chronicle's "increased" responsibility to the city. In a perhaps fitting coda to the demise of daily newspaper competition in Houston, the very same press release was issued by Singleton's office in Denver.

The next morning's Chronicle bore the headline "Post closes; Hearst buys assets." Which apparently was technically true, as far as it went, but hardly the headline that such a devastating loss to a city demands. The semicolon managed to put the Hearst Corporation at a discrete distance from the carnage (as if Singleton would have closed the Post had Hearst not agreed to buy it); the paper's coverage was as dry and perfunctory as its dispassionate page-one headline. All in all, it was not an auspicious dawning of the one-daily newspaper era in Houston.

Within 24 hours, the Post's shuttering was blown to the back of the Chronicle and off the local television news by the tragedy in Oklahoma City. As the paper's former employees -- some of whom had worked there 40 years or more, some of whom had been there two weeks -- tried to plan for a future with few immediate prospects, many questions about the death of the Post remained unanswered, not the least of which were: who killed the Houston Post? Did it really have to die? And what does its death mean for Houston?

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