The goat on the cover of the June 1974 issue of this magazine was a nice touch. If you wanted to illustrate the descent of the state’s big-city newspapers into a form of journalistic trash, why not an image of a refuse-eating barnyard animal gobbling up a front page unworthy of wrapping fish? Griffin Smith Jr.’s accompanying story was no more subtle. “Texas journalism is, on the whole, strikingly weak and ineffectual,” he wrote, going on to tar his own profession as a “backwater.”
Wait a minute. The seventies wasn’t a golden era for the news business in Texas? From here it certainly looks like one. Back then two daily papers were published in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso. Today, not counting Spanish-language dailies, there are no two-newspaper markets anywhere in the state. There were more reporters and editors on the staffs of the big-city papers in those days, and they had more experience and more institutional memory than the current crop. And of course, papers were fatter then. More pages meant more of a “news hole.” These days the paper that hits your doorstep isn’t quite as thin as a takeout menu, but it’s not far off.
I’ll admit to having an unsubtle point of view myself. Three and a half years after stepping down as Texas Monthly’s president and editor in chief, this is the universe I’m in: I’m the co-founder of the nonprofit digital news organization the Texas Tribune, which both collaborates and competes with the dailies. So I’m not exactly a disinterested observer. But I’d hardly be the only one to argue that the big-city newspapers, as a group, have gone from “BA-A-A-AD” (as the cover of that June ’74 issue asserted) to worse.
Clearly there are some things that each of the city papers does well. There’s the Dallas Morning News’ robust opinion section and Jim Drew’s investigative reporting (most recently his series of stories on the turmoil at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas). The El Paso Times’ ongoing coverage of the cheating scandal in the El Paso Independent School District. Terri Langford’s reporting on health and human services for the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Punchy columns by Bud Kennedy in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Ken Herman in the Austin American-Statesman.
But the list of less-good things is just as long: the near-disappearance of homegrown business coverage and feature writing at the Statesman. The closing of the Star-Telegram’s venerable Capitol bureau. Several rounds of destabilizing, morale-destroying layoffs at the Morning News, the Chronicle, and the Express-News. And, of late, the revolving door at the top of so many mastheads. Austin, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio have all changed top editors in the past two years. Austin has had three publishers in the past three years.
The culprit, as has been widely noted, is the collapse of the papers’ traditional three-part revenue model. Classified advertising long ago leaped into the welcoming arms of Craigslist. Display ads for car dealerships, luxury retail, and the like have plummeted thanks to the past decade’s weak economy. And paid circulation took a hit when the papers decided to give their product away online. (The Dallas and Houston papers have lately placed most of their content behind a paywall, but it’s difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube.)
Debbie Hiott, the editor of the Austin American-Statesman, laments the dwindling resources at her disposal, which have resulted in “a pullback of coverage in some suburban and neighborhood areas that readers have since told us they really miss.” Hiott, who took over the top job in 2011, acknowledges as well that some agencies and governments don’t get covered as much as they once did. But having to do more with less has had an upside, she says. “It has required all the papers to focus the staff we have left more on what really matters to readers and less on our whims as storytellers. We’re doing more of the things that keep newsrooms relevant: watchdog, accountability, investigative journalism.”