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?

Those are questions a community has a right to have answered when it suffers a loss of such magnitude. But Houston's elected officials and its other so-called leaders remained silent, other than to issue predictable "what a shame" eulogies for the Post. And if Houston searched the Chronicle for the questions -- much less the answers -- it searched in vain.

In a small story tucked in the back of the business section of the January 7 edition of the Houston newspaper he owned, Dean Singleton was quoted as saying "... we have no interest in selling the Post."

The story was occasioned by the previous day's visit of the Reverend Pat Robertson to the Post building. According to a Robertson spokesman, the televangelist had been there for "preliminary discussions" regarding his possible purchase of the Post.. But according to a statement attributed to Singleton, which appeared in his paper and others, Robertson's tour of the premises was simply a courtesy extended because of his "stature in American politics." (Singleton, in a phone interview with the Press six days after closing the Post, claimed the statement was issued while he was in Switzerland and should have read that the paper was "not for sale to Pat Robertson." It was Robertson who had inquired about buying the paper, Singleton says, and "we subsequently gave him every opportunity to make an offer, and he did not.")

Whatever the case, the statement attributed to Singleton turned out to be just one of a number of publicly stated untruths and evasions that preceded the Post's death. The joint statement issued by Singleton and Bennack on the day Hearst bought the Post's corpse revealed that Singleton's Consolidated Newspapers Inc. had retained a broker to try to find a buyer for the paper late last year. But no buyer could be found -- at least according to Singleton. The cost of newsprint -- which has risen almost 50 percent in the past year -- "made it impossible to see viability for the city's second newspaper," he said, leaving him no choice but to shut the Post down.

And there was this from Singleton: "We very much appreciate the effort and dedication of our employees and the tremendous support of the Houston community through what has been a very challenging operating environment. It is unfortunate that we all must face the loss of a great institution."

Unfortunate for whom?
Certainly for Post employees, whose effort was so appreciated by Singleton that he gave them no advance notice of the closing and extended their health and insurance benefits for 11 whole days after the closing. And certainly for the nation's fourth-largest city and longtime Post readers, whose support was so appreciated by Singleton that he refused to allow the paper -- which he had billed as "Houston owned, Texas proud" -- to publish one final time, explaining that he finds such farewell editions "sad" and wanted the paper to be remembered "for what is was rather than its corpse."

But how unfortunate was the Post's demise for Singleton, the baby-faced mogul who's built a compartmentalized newspaper empire on debt and other people's money?

It's impossible to say for sure how Singleton emerged from the deal, given the secrecy surrounding it and the lack of immediately available public information. But Singleton was a winner the day in 1987 that he purchased the Post from the Toronto Sun Company -- he could squeeze what he could from the paper and in the meantime be sure that, if he couldn't turn it around, the Hearst Corporation was there to take it off his hands.

Singleton, as you might expect, says that's not so.
"I don't know that I've seen anybody buy a second newspaper because they thought they could make money selling it to a competitor," he told the Press.. "We believed that over time we could reach parity and beyond. We realized early on we couldn't. We felt for at least five years that we couldn't win the marketplace. The last five years was, 'Let's keep a positive cash flow and keep the paper alive as long as we can.'"

In keeping with their commitment to submit facts to a candid world, Hearst and Singleton refused to reveal the dollar value of their transaction -- the widely reported $120 million valuation of the paper's assets appeared only in a Justice Department news release announcing the federal government's approval of the Post's closing. The Justice Department also said that the stockholders of the Post -- that is, Singleton and his partner in Consolidated Newspapers, whose sole asset was the Post -- would not realize a profit from the sale. But Consolidated Newspapers' own scripted "Questions and Answers" sheet revealed that it would report "a gain" on the deal.

That helped fuel speculation by some of the people Singleton had put on the street that he might have come away from the deal with $30 to $50 million. In his interview with the Press, Singleton didn't go out of his way to discount that possibility.

"I would like to hope I'm a good businessman," he said. "Clearly, we're dispersing an awful lot of money to employees to make their lives and transitions as easy as possible. Hey, I certainly don't think it's a sin to make money. I certainly would not apologize for making money."

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.

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.

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.

"The Chronicle is going to have to step up now -- they're going to have to cover this community like it's never been covered before," he says. "This is a diverse city, and we can't just defer to the Post anymore."

Maybe there's no reason to worry about that, because maybe it doesn't matter much. Maybe saying that a little bit of a city dies when a daily newspaper dies is to indulge in an outdated and overly romantic notion, like pining for a rebirth of Main Street or wishing for a return of the Rice or the Shamrock hotels. Maybe no more should have been made of the loss of 1,000 good jobs than was made of the layoffs that recently struck employees of Continental Airlines and Texas Commerce Bank.

After all, nobody would ever have mistaken the Houston Post for a great newspaper, although on any given day it might be a good newspaper, or at least as good as its competitor. Near the end, though, those days were few and far between. And throughout its modern history -- even after the Hobbys unloaded it and the paper passed through the hands of two out-of-town owners -- the Post still paid deference to the city's ruling establishment and never really made much of its oppositional role to the Chronicle. It did provide a counterpoint to the relentlessly negative coverage of the administration of Mayor Fred Hofheinz and the early days of Mayor Kathy Whitmire that the Chronicle, under the ownership of the Houston Endowment, purveyed. But it had pretty much abdicated that role in its final days, when it was left to the Hearst-owned Chronicle to provide the few critical appraisals of Mayor Bob Lanier's administration to appear in the local daily media.

Then again, when you consider Lanier's amazingly candid comment on the death of the Post, it really brings home how much it does matter. Lanier, a onetime journalist who mistakes uncritical unanimity and passive consensus for signs of civic health, said this:

"Actually, two newspapers may produce a climate that's a little more negative. With one newspaper, they don't have to respond and outdo each other."

In other words, Lanier -- whose complaint to the Chronicle about a recent front-page story led to its killing between editions -- expects to find the climate hospitable in a one-paper town.

And consider the comment made to Channel 13's Deborah Wrigley as she buttonholed Chronicle employees outside the paper's building on the day the Post ceased publication. Few would offer any comment on the end of a decades-long war in which they had been foot soldiers because, as one of them explained, management had asked them not to.

Why? asked Wrigley.
"They want one voice," he explained.

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