Hearst 1, Baylor 0

The Chron's owners hire (gasp!) an outsider to run things

When Houston Chronicle editor Jack Loftis made noises about retiring this year, most people at 801 Texas assumed things would go pretty much as they had in the past -- everyone would move one rung up the ladder and the so-called Baylor Mafia of editors would continue their tepid, gray reign.

The Hearst Corporation had other ideas.

The media conglomerate had been rather hands-off since purchasing the Chron 15 years ago, letting the paper promote from within. But in a move that has just about everybody at the paper wondering what their futures hold, Hearst announced May 1 that the new editor of the Chronicle will be Jeff Cohen, editor of the Albany Times Union.

Very publicly passed over for the job was Chron executive editor Tony Pederson, who is not expected to stay at the paper. It's hard to say whether he was just one more victim of Enron -- the Chron has gotten plenty of bad publicity nationally for its hapless coverage of that story -- or whether, as some Pederson supporters claim, he was a bit too vocal in protesting staffing cuts mandated by the chain.

At any rate, the Hearst move means the company definitely wants to shake things up here. And Cohen is the man to shake them up, according to current and former employees of the Times Union and Albany insiders. Whether the results will be an improved paper depends on who you talk to.

The Chron's announcement of its new boss emphasized his local roots -- Cohen went to Bellaire High School and worked at the defunct San Antonio Light -- and noted that the Times Union won best-paper honors in its circulation class three of the last four years in a statewide contest.

But Cohen is hardly your stereotypical Texan, and the Times Union, about one-fifth the size of the Chronicle, gets mixed reviews from some New Yorkers. Cohen, 47, has been at the helm there since 1994.

As for being a local, Cohen is one, albeit one who likes to wear bow ties, one who keeps a special teapot in his office for his brew, a tidy if not anal guy who one day marched into the Times Union library to order down posters he thought were tacky (memo to Chron folks: clean up those desks.)

Cohen admits to wearing bow ties "occasionally" (although for most men, bow ties are an either/or proposition) and to playing squash. He says the teapot in his office cost less than five bucks, and that he is definitely not the "yuppie prick" one anonymous reporter labeled him in an article in an Albany weekly. (He also, let it be said, is willing to talk to the Houston Press.)

"He fancies himself to be quite dapper," one Times Union staffer says. "He's not exactly a 'man of the people' -- a lot of the old-school reporters here, the ones with just a high school degree, the blue-collar kind, didn't get along with him at all."

That probably shouldn't be too surprising, because some of those old-school vets found themselves moved out of their slots, people at the Albany daily say.

"He came in and hired a lot of younger people," says another staffer. "It used to be that this was not your first newspaper you worked at or even your second, but he was hiring people right out of Columbia journalism school if they had these good, flashy résumés."

Those hires wouldn't necessarily stay at the paper: "They get a number of fairly talented young aggressive people, but those people get frustrated and leave," says one member of the Albany press corps.

Cohen says he doesn't recall any huge housecleaning. "The point I think you're getting to is 'Is he a slash-and-burn man?' " he says. "And the answer is no. I'm not a hatchet man. I've been an editor for a long time and been called a lot of things, but I've never been called a hatchet man, and I don't intend to be called that on this [Chronicle] job."

John Wilburn, a former Houston Press editor who's now at KHOU's online unit, has known Cohen since the two worked in San Antonio. He says the hire "is great news for the Chronicle. He's demanding but fair. He'll bring a lot of energy to the newsroom. He's fun to work for."

That's not necessarily what everyone believes in Albany. Some say Cohen's jones is for presentation: splashy graphics, handsomely packaged features, lots of bells and whistles on the Web. "He put a lot of time and effort into what the paper looked like, at the expense of real hard content," one current reporter says.

"They don't do a lot of investigative work, but when they do it, they do a good job," says Erin Sullivan, managing editor of Metroland, Albany's alt-weekly. A leading member of the capitol press corps says the paper "should own the state government beat, but it doesn't." (Cohen, that reporter says, "is a decent guy and very smart…but I don't know anyone [at the Times Union] who's particularly happy.")

The paper got some bad ink for such complaints when the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed lousy morale in newsrooms last fall. One former Times Union reporter was featured in a sidebar headlined "Why I Quit." The paper told her she would be allowed to do complex in-depth pieces, ex-reporter Darryl McGrath said in the piece, but never let her do so.

Cohen dismisses the criticism, citing the paper's investigations into GE's pollution of the Hudson River, scandals in the Schenectady police department and "our real watchdog coverage of the New York state government."

One thing is clear: Cohen is a "Hearstie," as one reporter called him. "He's a very, very corporate creature," says another.

Cohen all but admits as much in talking of how the move to Houston came about. "One thing about Hearst -- it's a company that really cares about their people," he says. "They've talked to me my whole career about my hopes and dreams and aspirations," he says, so they knew of his desire to return to Houston.

He'll definitely make personnel changes here, the Albany people believe. "He's not the type of person who keeps everything status quo," says one. "You don't get named to that position to just steer the boat as it was. That era's over."

But how in-depth any change at the Chron might be is open to question. "If the culture is not to go after things like Enron, he'll go along with it," one says. "He'll make changes, in personnel definitely, but essentially it'll be cosmetic changes."

As to his own plans for the paper when he begins June 3, Cohen is (it's not surprising) being circumspect. You'd think he'd be a pretty close Web reader of his hometown paper, and you'd think part of the interview process with Hearst would be a detailed look at what's right and wrong with the Chron.

He says, though, that he will take a couple of months to learn what needs to be done.

"I'm going to spend at least two months getting to know the newspaper, the newsroom and the community. I'm going to take my time and ease into this…Hearst doesn't give you a mandate. They tell you, 'Here is the market -- you go in and get a feel for the newspaper and do your job.' They allow you to -- it's not like Gannett. They told me, 'Jeff, go innovate.' "

He calls the new job "thrilling…I've been sitting awake at night thinking of what it can be. I want to build a world-class newspaper in Houston."

He says he's made no decisions on personnel. Readers of the paper may notice a marked improvement in the next month, however. "What I promised to do was to read the paper really closely for the next 30 days, and I will have a much better take on the newspaper then," he says. Editions will be overnighted to him in Albany.

So reporters, editors and graphic artists will be pumping out résumé-priming work in May. Hey, it'll almost be like a sweeps month in TV.

If they can't get stories published in time, at least reporters can get story-idea memos on file. And if they've done their homework, expect at least some of those memos to call for an in-depth look at the problem of getting adequate legal representation for indigent defendants.

Cohen's wife, Kathryn Kase, is a former reporter who's president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She's lobbied hard in Albany for better pay for lawyers representing indigents.

Maybe such memos will be the only things to be seen on the Chron's newly clean desks.

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