Happy Hearst

The Chronicle's publisher gives a pep talk, and looks to expand

The past year has been a rough one for the Hearst Corporation, the people who own the Houston Chronicle. There was a tough strike against the chain's Seattle paper; there was a very messy, embarrassing and expensive brouhaha in San Francisco as the company dumped its longtime paper and bought the competitor.

No, wait -- the past year has been a marvelous one for the Hearst Corporation. At least it was according to a ritzy package of promotional materials sent out to Hearst employees.

Employees may not get end-of-the-year bonuses ten months from now, but it was Christmas in February as the goodies piled up: There was a glossy booklet on all the wonderful charity work that Hearst does; there was another glossy booklet on all the wonderful journalism and entertainment Hearst provides to a grateful public; there was a videotape in which Hearst executives told viewers how wonderful Hearst was; there was even a CD-ROM in case you wanted to get your pep talk on the computer instead of the VCR. (Initial hopes that the CD was actually a collection of inspiring songs about Hearst were, alas, mislaid.)

Hearst wouldn't say how much all this cost to manufacture and distribute, but we're sure it was money well spent. How else could employees learn that Cosmopolitan is very, very popular in Russia? ("10 Guaranteed Ways to Please Your Man!!" no doubt include waiting in line four hours for bread.)

Newspapers got somewhat short shrift in the pep-talk package. "As audiences fragment and competition grows, we do not want to create undue concentration in newspapers or any other single line of business," longtime Hearst CEO Frank Bennack said. "We'll likely continue to be an acquirer of newspapers, but in a measured way as we also grow our other major media categories."

There were some ominous signs for Houstonians, however. Amid all the pap and happy talk in the booklets, there was one paragraph that stood out. Like some dinner-party guest who suddenly becomes ballistic at the mention of some innocuous-sounding subject, Bennack went off on a mini-rant about how Hearst is being prevented from owning TV stations in cities like Houston.

"Our well-established presence in local newspaper markets will be a major advantage once the Federal Communications Commission relaxes its outmoded rules preventing cross-ownership of television and newspaper business in a single market," he wrote. "Once these virtually useless prohibitions fall, there are going to be additional exciting growth opportunities in local markets -- with few companies better positioned to take advantage of them than Hearst."

"Outmoded" and "virtually useless": Yep, that about sums up the thinking on those FCC rules. If you happen to be CEO of a giant media corporation.

Many media experts expect the Bush administration to loosen the rules that Bennack is bitching about. Companies like Hearst, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Knight-Ridder, Gannett and Belo all are looking to cash in by making deals that would have been barred under the current regulations.

But the administration already has been in office for nearly a month, and there's been no action yet. Hey, c'mon FCC -- get with it! We here in Houston are salivating at the prospect of a TV news operation that could make our city even more of a media-monopoly victim! No, wait -- we're salivating at the thought of an exciting, aggressive TV news operation that would bring the dynamic, lively Chronicle presence to the tube. (We're sure the word "synergy" should be used somehow, but we'll leave that to you.)

We need a TV station with the vision of the Chron. Lots and lots of newspapers and media outlets have done comprehensive looks at the death penalty as it's administered in Texas and Harris County, but only the Chron had the guts to wait until this month, when George W. Bush is safely in the White House and District Attorney Johnny Holmes is retired!

Lots of newspapers rerun old news pieces as they celebrate important anniversaries, but only the Chronicle has the sensitivity required to run one that makes light of beating up women! (From the February 3 Chron, a reprint of a 1950 item "From Our Files": "A 21-year-old attractive brunette, billed as the 'Exotic Dancer,' appeared at police headquarters Friday, sporting a bruised lip and probably regretting that she gave the boys a free show Thursday night. In jail is handsome Geno Sarbo, a 22-year-old bellhop charged with aggravated assault….'Gosh, he sure did beat me up,' she said.")

So get your meddling Big Brother hands out of the way, FCC. Let the Hearst Corporation bloom!

Picture This

Things are getting tense over at Fox Channel 26, according to one anonymous insider. General Manager D'Artagnan Bebel is letting his staff know that he's not happy with their sweeps-month output.

How can that be so? Just look at what the station gave us February 8: the first of a two-part investigation into… which photo-developing companies are best.

In a very lengthy report, one of the members of the "Fox Investigates" team slowly took us through the step-by-step of their detective work. They got a professional photographer. They got a point-and-shoot camera that the typical Houstonian uses. Then they shot pictures of the reporter, whose name we didn't capture.

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