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.

The secrecy and haste with which the killing of the Post was carried out managed to obscure a simple bottom-line truth about the deal: the Chronicle had finally gobbled up the last of its daily rivals in Houston, three decades after it had snapped up the second-to-last casualty of the newspaper war, the old daily Houston Press. But in order to satisfy the legalities imposed by the federal government, the Post had to first close as a "failing firm," thus allowing the Chronicle to move in and assume the assets, but not the debts, of its rival, unchallenged by the Justice Department on antitrust grounds.

One of the requirements that the Post had to satisfy to meet the "failing firm" test was that its owner had made a "good faith" effort to find a buyer who would have kept the paper open. The Justice Department said those efforts were "extensive and thorough," but many former Post employees question just how thorough and extensive that process was. According to one Chronicle source, the deal with Hearst was to be announced the previous Friday, but was delayed at the last minute when the Justice Department demanded a signed affidavit from Singleton that he had made a good faith effort to sell the paper.

In addition to Robertson's interest, it's known that the cash-flush A.H. Belo Corporation, owner of KHOU/Channel 11 and the Dallas Morning News, had inquired about purchasing the Post. In fact, it's an article of faith among many former Post hands that Belo at one point made Singleton an offer of $75 million for all or part of the paper and resurfaced as a potential buyer just prior to the closing of the deal with Hearst. A Belo stake in the paper, former Post business executives reason, would have immediately bolstered the paper's skimpy help-wanted and national advertising by offering a linkage of the Dallas and Houston markets. Belo executives did not respond to calls from the Press, and at least one middle-level manager at the Morning News derided the reported offer as "bullshit." Singleton declined to discuss any potential buyers for the Post, saying only that he "didn't receive any offers at any price from anybody."

"It's not as if anybody made a proposal that wasn't high enough," he added. "We didn't get any proposals from anybody at any price that withstood going through a definitive contract."

Without confirming that Belo had shown interest, however, Singleton acknowledged that "if there's anybody in the world who could have made a go of the Post, it would have been Belo. But even Belo would have had to face losses."

Perhaps the Belo scenario was just a wishful fantasy conjured up by Post employees and embellished as it spun through the rumor mill, as it did for several months. But there's at least one elected official who would like to know a little more about how the Post died, and, as you might guess, he's not from Houston. Carlton Carl, a spokesman for U.S. Representative John Bryant of Dallas, says the congressman may question the Justice Department about the sale, although Carl acknowledges that the possibility of any action resulting from Bryant's inquiry is remote.

"He would like to get at the process [behind the sale], to make sure what happened was the last resort, not the initial goal," Carl explains. Among the questions Bryant would like answered are whether there actually was a serious effort made to find a buyer for the paper, and whether the Post really qualified as a "failing firm."

"It seems to me there a lot of questions," Carl say, "the biggest one being whether there was any action that was not taken that could have preserved a competitive daily in the biggest city in Texas."

While Dean Singleton administered the Kevorkian needle that killed the Post, the long decline of the paper began under the stewardship of Oveta Culp Hobby, the civic icon who inherited the paper from her husband, former Governor William P. Hobby, upon his death in 1964.

The elderly Mrs. Hobby and her son, Bill, the former lieutenant governor and a onetime executive at the paper, were conspicuously silent when the Post sign finally came down off their former property -- save for a short, maudlin op-ed piece by Bill Hobby in last Sunday's Chronicle. Instead, they left it to Paul Hobby, a son of the former lieutenant governor and head of Hobby Media Services, to speak for the family.

The younger Hobby -- who was 22 when his family unloaded the paper -- says the writing was on the wall for the Post as far back as the 1970s, when the Post and Chronicle were close in circulation but his family was turning its attention to buying into the more profitable medium of television. That decade was bracketed by a series of shrewd responses by the Chronicle to a shifting market, beginning with its move toward dominance of the classified advertising market in the mid-1960s and culminating with its decision in 1979 to go head-to-head with the Post by publishing a morning edition. The Hobbys, meanwhile, erected the turreted "Fort Hobby" complex at U.S. 59 and Loop 610 that now belongs to Hearst.

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