Pro vs. Chron

How the new editor of the Houston Chronicle is playing against type.

September 2002By Comments

“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 of this magazine sixteen years ago, “an aging handmaiden [to the] establishment”?

On that last point, history is instructive. For most of its first 86 years, the paper was owned by the Houston Endowment, a charitable foundation said to be as concerned with politics and position in the community as with philanthropy. The endowment’s founder, Jesse Jones, was Mr. Houston—a builder, banker, and New Deal Secretary of Commerce who was the most important figure in the city’s establishment for almost half a century before his death in 1956. And so the Chron became the establishment’s house organ. Its take on politics and business, its society coverage, its barbs and bouquets, all were an extension of the endowment’s civic leadership role. The result was a paper that was more boosterism than journalism, more Houston than chronicle. In 1987, after Congress passed a law requiring foundations to divest themselves of their profit-making assets, the endowment sold off its hotels, laundries, and other operating companies. The Chron was the last to go, and only then after Senator Lloyd Bentsen tried and failed to secure an exemption for newspapers. Later that year, the endowment sold the Chron to the Hearst Corporation for $415 million—at the time, the most ever paid for a U.S. newspaper.

On one level, the Hearst deal changed the way things were run at the Chronicle, says the editor at the time, Jack Loftis. “That first morning I asked, ‘Who are we mad at today?’ And I was told, ‘No one.’ What?!?” But despite Loftis’ best efforts—”My biggest challenge was to change it from what it had been,” he says—the Chron‘s reputation as a mouthpiece for the establishment persisted. Part of this Loftis takes the hit for. “We were still a little bit closer to some politicians than we should have been,” he admits. But part of it was the conspiracy theorists at work: No matter what he did or didn’t do, they saw the lingering legacy of the Houston Endowment. “They had their sacred cows, like the Medical Center and sports stadiums,” says Richard Connelly, of the Press, who complains of “press releases showing up in the paper.” Even bad journalism was occasionally mistaken for favoritism. Beginning last fall, the Chron was hammered for its slow response to the collapse of Enron. Critics assumed the problem was the paper’s ties to Ken Lay and other company executives, but Loftis and Pederson say otherwise. “I wish we had that as an excuse,” Pederson says. “We didn’t get the story for reasons that had nothing to do with how close we were to the establishment. We didn’t connect the dots in the right way.”

It was into this swirling sea that Cohen waded when was he tapped this spring to succeed the retiring Loftis. It was, in essence, a homecoming: Although he was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, his family moved to Houston before his first birthday. He lived first around the Medical Center and later in Meyerland, attending public schools and ultimately graduating from Bellaire High. After earning a journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin, in 1976, he took a job on the sports desk of the Hearst-owned San Antonio Light, working his way up to managing editor by the time the paper folded, in 1993. After a short stint in New York in the new-media department of Hearst’s newspaper division, he was named editor of the Hearst-owned Albany Times-Union in upstate New York, where in eight years, by all accounts, he was a star. In three of the past four years, the New York state Associated Press named the Times-Union the best newspaper in its circulation class. In May 2002 Editor and Publisher cited the paper as one of ten across the country that “do it right.” Cohen’s track record appealed to Chron publisher Jack Sweeney, who diplomatically dismisses suggestions that Pederson, a well-liked 27-year veteran of the paper, was shunted aside so that the Chronicle could be run by an outsider with no establishment ties. “We already have a great team,” Sweeney says, “but you always want to add another high-powered superstar to the lineup.”

So what is Cohen thinking, now that he has been called up to the majors? For two hours before the eleven o’clock meeting, I tried to pin him down on his impressions of the paper. He was cagey when it came to specifics, particularly whether recent criticisms of the Chron were legitimate—”I wasn’t here; I don’t know; I’m not looking backward” was his answer whenever I brought up Enron—but he was expansive about his philosophy going forward. “There’s a crisis of confidence in America,” he said. “We can’t trust the FBI or the CIA. We can’t trust the church. We can’t even trust Martha Stewart. The job of a newspaper is to restore that confidence by shining a light on these problems.” The Chron will do that, he told me over and over, through “watchdog journalism,” by taking a “populist approach” to reporting the news, by “standing up for the little guy” and “challenging authority.” (Jesse Jones, call your office.)

He was only slightly more open about the changes he plans to make. He talked about retooling the business pages so that women, minorities, and small-business owners would read them, “not just CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.” He wants the front page of every section to have stories that appeal to “Hispanics, African Americans, Jews, single moms, the elderly—all the people in the community.” (And, indeed, recent section fronts have brimmed with big-tentism, with stories about Al Lipscomb, the embattled African American former city councilman from Dallas, and ¡Mucha Lucha!, a new cartoon on the WB network targeted to Hispanics.) He’d like to see more writerly stories in the paper, something along the lines of what Rick Bragg produces for the New York Times, which is why he’s encouraging the likes of Freemantle and Mike Tolson, another writer on his radar screen. And the comparisons with competitors don’t stop there. While Cohen told me that there’s no single model for the kind of paper he wants the Chron to become, there are parts of other papers he admires: the Monday business section of the Times, the Life section of USA Today, the sports section of the New York Post, the gossip pages of the New York Daily News, and the big-story coverage of the Dallas Morning News. “You define your competition in those specialized segments and then figure out how you can be better than they are,” he said.

Fair enough, but first things first: Job number one for Cohen is figuring out how the Chronicle can be better than the Chronicle is. I’d say he’s off to a pretty good start.

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