“HOW’D WE DO TODAY?”
It is Tuesday, July 2, and Jeff Cohen—the editor of the Houston Chronicle for all of four weeks—is holding up the front page of the morning paper, which he has annotated with lines and scribbles. His eleven o’clock meeting with his top editors has barely begun, but already the small talk has given way to self-analysis, which is definitely not business as usual at the Chron. Previously, this gathering was solely about what should be on the next day’s page one; since the 47-year-old Cohen’s arrival, everyone also comes prepared to critique their colleagues’ work—and their own.
Around the conference room table, eyebrows arch and heads bob as Cohen—compact and intense, with dark hair and a perpetual squint—moves from story to story. Wasn’t Tony Freemantle’s article on endangered sea turtles well written? he asks, careful to mention the reporter by name. Yes, everyone agrees, prompting Cohen to read his favorite phrase out loud (“ their offspring had as much chance of surviving as a dog on a Houston freeway”). A piece on the illegal sale of body parts at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston also gets a thumbs-up, though Cohen would have preferred a more colorful lead—one that began with “body dismembering,” he says, with a laugh, rather than “federal agents.” Mindful of his diverse readership, he was glad to see a boxed teaser about the retirement of the only African American Republican in Congress, Oklahoma representative J. C. Watts, but he wishes the point of the story hadn’t been repeated in the headline and the copy. Someone at the table asks if President Bush’s speech about school vouchers should have been given more play. Debatable, Cohen announces, though executive editor Tony Pederson thinks the answer is yes: “We made a mistake,” he says. On and on it goes, until Cohen brings the discussion to a close with an attaboy. “Great writing and four headlines above the fold,” he says. “There’s something to be said for that.”
Sitting off to the side while all this was going on, I asked myself a version of the question Cohen had posed to his staff: How’d he do today? How is the new guy faring in his nascent attempts to reinvigorate a one-hundred-year-old paper? That’s what I’d come to find out, and the answer, at the very least, was that he deserved an attaboy of his own for trying. That morning, over coffee in his office, he had explained his mission by saying, simply, “I want the whole paper to be better today than it was yesterday.” And here he was, the ink barely dry on his nameplate, prodding his staff to make that happen. The editor in me admired his willingness to take on the ingrained culture of a hidebound institution and to do it immediately. (The departure—some say under duress—of longtime business columnist Jim Barlow not long after Cohen deplaned is being taken as a sign of his seriousness.) The journalist in me applauded his commitment to good writing and reporting. The reader in me appreciated being part of the equation—who else, after all, is he trying to make the paper better for?
At the same time, the realist in me wondered how much can be done, given the enormous challenges Cohen faces in two areas. First are the business-related issues that confront every big-city newspaper editor, not just in Houston or even Texas. The biggest of these is the decline in market penetration, a fancy way of saying that where dailies could once count on a mass audience, somewhere north of 50 percent of all potential readers, that number has dropped in some markets to as low as 15 percent. This has occurred despite the absence of a competing paper in many big cities, including Houston, where the other daily, the Post, folded in 1995. Primarily, the falloff is due to competition from the Internet, 24-hour national and local cable TV channels, and other media sources from which people get the news. Another problem is shrinking editorial budgets, a consequence of the soft economy’s effect on advertising sales, including the defection of help-wanted ads to lower-cost alternatives like Monster.com. Finally, there’s the tectonic shift in demographics, which has reduced the percentage of the population represented by traditional readers and left editors scrambling to make their papers relevant to a relatively unfamiliar audience.
The second set of challenges is specific to the Chronicle, which has a circulation of 545,727 during the week (the most of any Texas daily) and 738,456 on Sunday (second only to the Dallas Morning News). Critics complain that the paper is “dull” (so says Richard Connelly, the media columnist for the Houston Press) and “drab” (a comment by judges in the Texas Press Association’s 2002 Better Newspaper Contest, who ranked the Chron a mediocre fourth, behind the Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram). How to make the writing more lively? How to improve the Chron’s business coverage, which even its top editors acknowledge has been a shortcoming? How to find the money to beef up the programming staff on the Web site—one of Cohen’s passions? How to add more pages to sections in need? (“There didn’t seem to be much to the metro section,” read one comment in the Texas Press Association contest.) How to combat the perception outside Houston that the Chronicle is not nearly a good enough paper for the fourth-largest city in America? In a 1999 survey of more than one hundred American newspaper editors from all over the country by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Chron couldn’t even crack the list of the 42 best papers, finishing behind the likes of the Anniston (Alabama) Star and the Riverside (California) Press-Enterprise. Most important of all, how to combat the perception inside Houston that the Chron is so cozy with the city’s power players that it pulls its punches; that it is, in the words