As of today and going forward, there will be no more print copies of the Houston Press. We’ll be online-only at houstonpress.com, a business decision brought about by declining advertising revenues seen throughout the print newspaper industry and more specifically for us, the mini recession caused by the downturn in the oil and gas industry that did nothing good for the Houston economy.
And then, of course, there was Hurricane Harvey. That was the topper. The massive flooding destruction it caused appeared to directly target restaurants and the arts community – some of our biggest advertisers – who faced with declining revenues of their own found they had other, more pressing expenses to consider.
Despite all the millions of people who read us each month, or all the journalism awards we’ve won, or the successful public events our marketing department has presented, the fact is, we haven’t been making enough money to sustain ourselves in print and our parent company Voice Media Group decided it could no longer afford to be our enabler.
A new streamlined Houston Press will emerge starting next week, still presenting the cutting edge journalism that readers aren’t likely to get elsewhere, still questioning the status quo while highlighting what we think is great about Houston. The difference will be that a sole editor will be working with freelancers to produce editorial copy, rather than having a staff on hand.
It’s not like we haven’t changed before. When I returned to Houston almost 20 years ago to take on the editor-in-chief position everything was directed toward unhurried fact-finding – in fact that was stressed in our recruitment ads. For someone coming from the daily newspaper world as I was, it took considerable adjustment to get used to the fact that every event didn’t require an immediate response. The workload was just as intense as now, but different. At our height we were running two in-depth magazine-style stories in every issue.
When we eventually moved to an online component there was a huge adjustment as well. Suddenly we were back in the game – some of the staff for the first time in their careers – of responding quickly, of answering the bell, collecting thoughts rapidly while still writing clearly and cleverly.
As it turned out in most cases the online demands helped everyone become better, sharper writers. Readers engaged with us in ways they hadn’t in the past. Posts online led to tips that took us to larger stories. Photographs looked better online than they could ever look on newsprint. Cover stories found new homes in one of our four posting areas – food, news, arts and music – and Best of Houston was there to see for all time, not just a once-a-year special event.
Did I want to see the end of the print edition, the dreaded either-or instead of publishing in both forms? Well, of course not. Who wants to be the editor whose printing press was shuttered? Where was Warren Buffett when I could really have used him to swoop in?
But it is what it is. Our parent company could have killed this publication completely. Instead it listened to our Publisher Stuart Folb and kept it alive in digital form, with the company's successful new digital advertising agency helping to buoy the new model.
A lot of good people here will no longer have jobs at the Houston Press and that for me is the saddest and most painful part.
Nearly all of our employees were handed their termination papers today. In several cases, whole departments are gone. These are people who in most cases worked above and beyond because they really liked working here, liked the camaraderie, the clients, the interesting people they got to meet.
In the newsroom that means that reporters who were more than competent, who could negotiate the most complicated business documents or talk with sensitivity to people who were going through the worst days of their lives – journalists with passion and discernment whose work has changed lives for the better — are suddenly without a platform, or a paycheck.
We rely upon a sizable number of freelance photographers, graphic artists and videographers whose work is also highly valued. This change will also affect them in the number of assignment opportunities available.
The journalism industry has had a rough time lately for any number of reasons that include vastly reduced profit margins, a business model that hasn’t seen the same level of advertising revenue online as it had in print, and competition for attention from anyone with an opinion online.
At the Houston Press we still think we have a lot to say, a lot to add to the conversation. There will be new copy online every day and we hope you continue to read us. There will be numerous advertising opportunities, and we hope you stay as one of our clients or become one.
I have loved working for the Houston Press more than any other job I’ve had in my life. In the 19 years and 9 months I have been here as editor-in-chief, I got to work with smart, gifted people who told stories that no one else was telling. You didn’t need to be an important official to get us to listen to you.
Looking over an application letter from one of my hires in my first year with the company, I’m caught by her enthusiasm for working at the Press. “You quote people saying what they actually say,” she wrote. “That is so cool. You see they won’t let me do that here.
“In that story about the kid with muscular dystrophy they wouldn’t let me quote him saying that when the doctor told him he had six months to live it scared the crap out of him,” she explained.
The future scares the crap out of a lot of people. Amid all the unknowns ahead, there are some constants. The Houston Press still exists online. It will still be as relevant and irreverent as needed. There will still be advertising and readers.
Those of you who’ve been with us so far, please take the next step with us. Like the Astros at the beginning of their final game en route to winning the World Series, we’ll start by playing small ball. Chipping away, staying alive. And perhaps some day, bigger and better than ever.