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.

Any sense of common purpose at the paper had long since dissipated, Kennedy says.

"I'm still a fool enough to believe that a place like this operates best when its like a family here," he says. "It's like they [the Singleton-era management] didn't really want to become family. They didn't really care about us as people. [It was], 'Thank you and screw you.' More often than not we didn't get any thank yous."

Adds another ex-newsroom employee, one who worked on contract, "When you don't get raises for five or six years, and there's no benefits to speak of, and you have Singleton, Massey and Garcia as your management, you have no hope. You're living on borrowed time."

The death rattle of Post under Singleton could be heard clearly last summer, when the Chronicle imposed the first of three planned advertising rate hikes and struck a deal to distribute what had been the last remaining coupon insert in the Sunday Post. Given its paltry classified advertising and editorial product, a Sunday Post without coupons wasn't exactly a bargain, even at 50 cents cheaper than the Chronicle for street sales. More recently, the Post began offering subscriptions for its Wednesday through Sunday papers for one dollar a month. Although the final circulation figures reported by the Post showed its circulation at 316,000 on Sunday and 287,000 daily (compared to 606,000 and 412,000 for the Chronicle), a Chronicle source says that Hearst found the dead paper's daily home subscription circulation was actually less than 200,000, and 70,000 of those were for the dollar-a-month special.

So who killed the Post? Was it the Hobbys for letting the paper slide and then passing it on, burdened with debt? Was it the Canadians for failing to reposition it as a distinctive alternative to the Chronicle? Or was it Singleton, for paying too much for the paper at the outset, then letting it waste away to the point where it wasn't viable?

Singleton acknowledges that maybe it was a little bit of all of the above.
"We were there when it died, so we certainly can't escape part of the responsibility," he says. "From my standpoint, its time just ran out, and when its time ran out, as reasonable business people we had an obligation to make the best deal we could to wrap it up. I don't know that you have to put blame on anybody. It happened ... and it's not the first place it's happened."

And so the future belongs to the Chronicle.. One essential feature of that future, according to local executives in the advertising industry, is that it will cost advertisers more. A lot more. Rich Klein, a partner in Fogarty Klein & Partners, the largest advertising firm in Houston, says that while the Chronicle will pick up subscribers, the cost to advertisers to reach them will increase over what it cost to place ads in both daily papers.

"I believe within a year the average advertising rate in Houston will be at a higher cost per thousand [readers] than it was with the Chronicle and Post combined," says Klein. "I think it will be a disadvantage for most advertisers."

Scott Black of Black Rogers Sullivan and Goodnight predicts the Chronicle will exercise its new monopoly by raising its advertising rates by 15 to 30 percent.

"I don't expect it tomorrow. But when the Times-Herald closed in Dallas, within weeks it went up 18 percent" in the Dallas Morning News, Black points out.

The impact will be felt most acutely by smaller retailers. "Their rates now will be significantly higher per readership, and most don't have those kind of dollars," says Black. "Unless the Chronicle really does a better job with their rate cards and subdivides the city into greater pieces, I think many smaller advertisers are going to have a difficult time finding some place to go."

Less certain is how the Chronicle will react journalistically. The paper has said it will not expand its news staff, although it has indicated it will hire a few ex-Post workers to fill existing openings. Beyond quantity, however, is the question that should most concern the city: whether stories that might have made their way into the Chronicle when the Post stood ready to print them will now be deemed too sensitive or offensive to the powers-that-be to appear in Houston's only daily paper. Although the situation is nothing like it was in the days of the ownership by the Houston Endowment, when the Chronicle shamelessly used its front page to shill for its friends and gun for its enemies, the paper is still reluctant to rock certain boats. More recently, it has allowed itself to be cowed by the perceived demands of political correctness and the fear of offending people it had flat-out ignored for many years.

James Campbell is a former Post police reporter who jumped to the Chronicle and later became the first African-American on the paper's editorial board (it has since added a second). Speaking as president of the Houston Association of Black Journalists, Campbell underscores the responsibility his paper has to the city, now that the checks and balances of a daily competitor is gone.

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