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.

Paul Hobby says it was difficult for the Post to overcome the competitive advantage the Chronicle enjoyed in being owned by the Houston Endowment, the non-profit foundation established by Jesse Jones, the paper's former owner. Federal tax law required that the foundation sell the paper, and, despite the best efforts of U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen and others to delay the inevitable, Hobby says his family knew the Chronicle would end up in the hands of a deep-pockets owner. So they sold first.

"When [the Chronicle] was sold," says Hobby, "we knew it would be sold to someone like Hearst, with massive resources. You had a bad situation that was gong to get worse. Was it any easy decision [for the Hobbys to sell]? No. Should you spend your life reexamining your decisions? You've got to move on."

The Hobbys moved on in late 1983 -- four years before Hearst would purchase the Chronicle from the Endowment -- when the family sold the Post for approximately $100 million to the Toronto Sun, an upstart newspaper company whose feisty Canadian tabloids were known for pugnacious columnists and bikini-clad "Sunshine Girls" on page two.

The arrival of the Canadians did initiate a brief era of serious news competition between the Post and the Chronicle, with the Post unleashing investigative reporters such as Pete Brewton and Mary Flood to pursue stories that never would have seen the light of day under the Hobbys.

But the Toronto Sun also immediately altered the look of the paper to resemble what Singleton-era editor Dave Burgin would later call a "Hawaiian shirt," with a new red masthead, large color pictures and thick, ugly headline type. The changes were jarring to many longtime readers. And there were other miscalculations. For years, the Post had maintained a loyal following in rural areas around Houston and among the many rural East Texans who had migrated to the city for jobs; much of the paper's appeal to them rested with folksy columnist Leon Hale. But one of the first moves the Canadians made was to run Hale off to the Chronicle. Respected music writer Bob Claypool and a steady stream of other newsroom defections to the Chronicle followed.

The Canadians never really developed a feel for the local market, and it was under their ownership that the Post saw a precipitous widening of the Chronicle's lead in circulation. Scott Black, CEO of the advertising firm Black Rogers Sullivan Goodnight Inc., represented the Post a decade ago when it was the relatively healthy property of the Toronto Sun. He believes that the Canadians didn't go far enough, that they failed to reposition the paper while there was still time.

"There were studies that told the paper there needed to be more of a distinction, other than editorial, between the two papers, and there really never was," Black says. The Canadians purchased the Post with the expectation of making it more like a tabloid, "and that would have been a product differentiation. But they didn't do it!" Circulation continued to go down, costs went up, and the Chronicle's dominance steadily increased. "Just looking at the employment, the classified sections, it was just an incredible difference," Black recalls.

After less than four years, the Canadians sold the paper to Singleton, who at the time owned the now-dead Dallas Times Herald. The reported price tag was $150 million. Some ex-Post employees say in retrospect that Singleton, in trying to become a big-time newspaper player, paid way too much for the paper, burdening it with a massive debt that would never allow it to become a viable enterprise. (Singleton told the Press that he bought the Post for $100 million and a $50 million conditional note to the Toronto Sun, which in 1990 was converted to a warrant that could be exercised for 49 percent of the paper. When the paper closed, he said, his obligation to the Canadians was less than $25 million. Bruce Jackson, the Toronto Sun's vice president for finance, deferred all questions about the sale to Singleton.)

In Nicholas Coleridge's 1994 book Paper Tigers, a study of modern-day press barons, Singleton's five-step "cut and slash philosophy" toward newspaper ownership was described as: "1. Buy newspaper 2. Cut staff 3. Cut quality 4. Cut objectivity 5. Hike advertising rates." Singleton hewed to that philosophy in running the Post, ending the paper's contribution to employees' 401(k) plans and cutting the full-time work force. In 1992, he installed Gerald Garcia, whose reputation rested solely on his abilities as a cost-cutter, as the paper's editor.

Longtime Post columnist Tom Kennedy knew his newspaper was in serious trouble when he learned that an unpaid college intern had been assigned to cover the police beat.

"I had problems with that," says Kennedy. "You feel like any minute in this city the police beat is going to produce a blockbuster story. And you've got to have somebody down there who at least is getting medical insurance."

In fact, in its final days the Post was relying more and more on inexperienced interns and contract employees, and many of its older, experienced reporters had long since defected to the Chronicle. "When you started to add up all the years of experience stacking up over at the Chronicle [compared] to the Post, it was like a bar graph," says Kennedy, who had watched old colleagues such as Bill Coulter and Jane Ely depart for the downtown rival.

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