Too Quiet

The City Hall press corps ain't what it used to be

It was big news, splattered across the Metro section of the Houston Chronicle Tuesday, February 18: The city was dropping its "Funday in the Park" program. The news was so big that it...well, inspired isn't the right word; in any case, it spawned a column the next day by Thom Marshall, apparently the only media person in town who takes seriously the musings of flaky City Councilman/mayoral candidate Michael Berry.

So it was big news.

But it was also old news. The Parks Department had sent a memo to councilmembers announcing the decision the previous Thursday, February 13; KHOU-Channel 11 (a "business partner" of the Chron) had a brief mention of it on that night's 10 p.m. broadcast. KTRH-AM had the story the next day, not to mention that by the end of that Friday, February 14, the city had put out a press release.

But it didn't show up in the Chron until the following Tuesday.

This is not to pick on any individual reporter -- we all have our off days. But it...well, again, inspires isn't right, but it spawns thoughts of what can result in the country's biggest one-newspaper town as media budgets get squeezed: coverage lapses. (Chron political columnist John Williams briefly mentioned some of this at the bottom of his February 3 column; the recent abduction of former KTRH City Hall reporter Janice Evans to the Dark Side of political spokespersonship has triggered a wave of nostalgia among local media types.)

Houston is America's fourth-largest city, with a $2.6 billion annual budget; like cities everywhere it's facing a financial crunch that will affect every resident. And the number of full-time reporters covering City Hall from all the city's media outlets

The Chronicle used to have two reporters at City Hall, now it's only Kristen Mack. (The Chron claims reporter Matt Schwartz is there on a part-time basis, but in terms of daily coverage, that's been more of a claim than a description of reality.)

Maybe ten years ago, the press room at City Hall was regularly filled with reporters -- all competing aggressively with each other -- from two daily newspapers (a pair each), two or three news radio stations and a handful of TV stations. The same was true, to a smaller degree, at county government and the courts.

Nowadays, the Post is gone, and radio stations KTRH and KPRC share the same owner and downsized news staff (and the City Hall reporter now also covers the county). Non-Chronicle reporters in Houston may be responsible for specific beats like City Hall, but they're also expected to handle a lot more unrelated assignments than they formerly did. They swoop in to cover a big governmental meeting or a controversy when they can.

Take the Houston Independent School District. It's the seventh-largest in the country, with 210,000 students and a $1.4 billion budget that is also facing significant cuts. Its board meets just once a month, which you might think would produce a bottleneck of newsy decisions. But it's not unusual for that monthly meeting to produce no story at all, or no more than a brief.

And it's not because the situation is similar to that in Dallas, where (as tedious personal experience has shown), the weeks preceding the board meeting are dotted with subcommittees thoroughly discussing upcoming agenda items in front of reporters. It's because the Chronicle is usually the only daily news presence at the monthly meeting and it can therefore decide what's worth reporting. More reporters at these meetings would ensure, through the awesome motivation of Covering Your Ass, a lot more coverage. (Quick for-instance: HISD students, for the first time, will get all of Thanksgiving week off in 2003. Not earth-shattering, but something parents might want to have read about.)

And even covering only the major meetings of a governmental entity, reporters know, is not exactly the best way to do the job. "Just covering the meetings doesn't do anything," says one frustrated reporter who's assigned one such beat, but not given the time to do it. "That's not where the sausage is made, it's just where the decisions are announced or finalized. You have to be there every day to know what's going on."

The situation's not about to change anytime soon, of course -- no one's going to start up a second daily, and Houston's TV stations are not all of a sudden going to forsake crime-of-the-day coverage in favor of governmental reporting.

But the passing of formerly bustling press rooms in Houston's governmental buildings should be, at least, noted and lamented every once in a while.

Dog Days

Sweeps month is not yet over, but we're already declaring a winner in Most Shameless News Promo. And the winner is (you now doubt will be shocked to learn) KPRC.

It could have been a parody, but we're afraid -- very afraid -- it wasn't. The ad featured a close-up on a sad-eyed, handsome, towheaded youth, a boy of maybe eight or nine.

"Have you seen my dog?" the heartbroken lad croaked. Then came the stentorian tones of a voice-over: "Missing pets!"

The boy spoke again: "He's my best-est friend." Then the voice-over: "Dognappers and catnappers! Here in Houston!"

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