Blood on the Floor

The Chron's cutbacks mostly spare the newsroom

The dust has settled -- for now -- at the staid headquarters of the Houston Chronicle, and newsroom employees are coming back in from the ledge. For now.

Publisher Jack Sweeney informed readers September 6 that the Chron had slashed 5 percent of its workforce -- 127 positions -- with most of those coming through voluntary buyouts.

Sweeney's good news for readers: The personnel moves placed the Chronicle firmly in league with the nation's best newspapers. "The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, for example, also have cut jobs," he wrote.

Sweeney's bad news for readers: "In spite of having to go through a reduction in work force, we can and will continue to maintain the quality and completeness of our news product." The italics are ours, indicative partly of our giddy relief that things will stay the same as ever at 801 Texas. Improving the quality and completeness of the news product apparently remains just as much a pipe dream as ever.

Sweeney says eight newsroom positions were eliminated, none through layoffs. For now the ax seems to have fallen heaviest on the paper's other departments, but reporters and editors who remain aren't so much relieved as they are holding their breath for the next round of cuts, which may hit them harder.

No really big names took the buyout (for better or worse). Those who did were forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement that said they would forfeit their benefits if they talked about them. Chron pooh-bahs apparently were able to draft that news-censoring agreement even as they were furiously patting themselves on the back over their valiant First Amendment fight to lift the gag order in the Andrea Yates murder trial.

One reported highlight of Layoff Week: Folks who took the buyout got a free lifetime subscription to the Chronicle.

Among the harder hit edit-side sections was Sports, which finds itself as shorthanded as it has been in quite a while. Neal Farmer, the Rice football beat writer, took the buyout just as the season started; his departure comes amid a flurry of other nonlayoff departures.

Motor-sports writer Terry Blount left two months ago to take the race-car gig at The Dallas Morning News; tennis writer Jody Goldstein is leaving to work at her dad's law firm; two copy editors also have left.

The hit that readers will feel most, however, is the loss of the section's investigative reporter Danny Robbins, who's moving to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was the best investigative reporter left at the paper, period, and he's done some great stuff, not only on the usual recruiting violations and athletes with bogus transcripts but on how high school coaches across the state have been allowed to skate by sexual-abuse violations.

Robbins, who came from the Los Angeles Times seven years ago, works out of the Fort Worth area, and he says he decided to take an offer from the Startlegram. "I just thought it might be interesting to work for the paper in the area that I live in, to be able to walk out the front door and pick it up and see the stories I wrote," he says.

As for his former colleagues, he says simply, "That's a lot of people to lose. I hope they maintain the quality as best as they can."

The investigative-sports beat is one that a lot of papers don't bother with, for both financial reasons and the fact that it tends to piss off alumni who are subscribers. Don't look for anyone to fill Robbins's shoes at the Chron anytime soon.

No News Is Good News

The much-vaunted law banning open containers of alcohol within reach of the driver went into effect September 1, and Channel 13's Elma Barrera was there to report on it.

Or at least to try to. She drove along with a suburban cop who was shown pulling someone over and writing a ticket for…not wearing a seat belt. Then another driver was pulled over.

For not wearing a seat belt.

A third driver was pulled over and his face was intentionally obscured by the cameraman -- surely this meant Barrera had hit the jackpot, right? Nope, another seat belt ticket.

Of course, the fact that she didn't capture any video of someone getting an open-container ticket -- even by driving along with a cop obviously primed to give one out -- didn't stop 13 from airing the piece, at great length.

KTRK-TV also had equally bad luck with an on-line poll about the mayoral race. Its report showed Mayor Lee P. Brown getting 6 percent of the vote, while Councilman Chris Bell -- who had quickly notified his e-mail network of supporters about the poll -- got almost 50 percent. The results might have been close to what a poll of the Chris Bell household would be, but nowhere near what reality is.

The station's report that night noted that the poll was unscientific, which was kind of like putting a disclaimer on those ads for Cleo the Jamaican tarot card reader. Brown's people complained about the poll and the news item, and the station's Web site ran a second version, with slightly better results for the mayor.

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