Luz Moreno-Lozano was driving back to Austin after a reporting assignment in New Braunfels in 2022 when she received a call from her editor. There had been a shooting at an elementary school in the South Texas town of Uvalde, and she was the closest Austin American-Statesman journalist to the scene. “I just turned around and headed straight there,” she recalled recently. “I stopped to get gas and food, because I didn’t know how long I would be there.”
In Uvalde, she found her way to a community center where dozens of desperate parents were waiting to learn whether their children were alive or dead. She spent the next two days interviewing bereaved family members and attending press conferences about the mass shooting, in which nineteen students and two teachers lost their lives.
In the days and weeks after the massacre at Robb Elementary, reporters from around the world poured into Uvalde. The Statesman’s staff seemed a step ahead. Investigative journalist Tony Plohetski obtained surveillance-camera footage from inside the school that showed hundreds of heavily armed officers waiting in the hallways for 77 minutes before confronting the gunman—demolishing the official narrative of a heroic police response. After a Texas House committee released its report on the tragedy, Statesman executive editor Manny Garcia assembled a team to produce a Spanish translation within three days. Employees of the paper distributed 10,000 free copies of the translated report throughout Uvalde.
For its coverage of the shooting, Austin’s 153-year-old daily newspaper was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for meritorious public service. Garcia won the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Foundation. Plohetski was a finalist for the Anthony Shadid Award in Journalism Ethics, while politics reporter Niki Griswold was a finalist for a prestigious Livingston Award for young journalists. “Every single person in the newsroom worked on Uvalde in some way,” said health reporter Nicole Villalpando.
As at most local newspapers, the Statesman’s budget, circulation, and staffing have all plummeted over the past two decades. But its Uvalde coverage proved it remained capable of producing outstanding journalism. In an alternate timeline, this recognition by the Pulitzers might have prompted Gannett, the Virginia-based newspaper chain that owns the Statesman, to reinvest in the only daily newspaper in the Texas capital—one of the best-educated and fastest-growing big cities in the country.
Instead, Gannett has allowed the Statesman to continue withering away. Texas Monthly spoke to five of the paper’s current reporters and five recently departed reporters. They described a newsroom in seemingly irreversible decline. The paper continues to replace long-standing newsroom talent with a revolving door of inexperienced transplants who stay for a few years and then move on. “There used to be a sense of teamwork, with everybody rowing in the same direction,” said one of the few remaining veterans, a reporter who has been at the paper for more than a decade. “Now it just feels desperate. We’ve lost tons of institutional knowledge, and the staff has gotten incredibly young.”
A newsroom that once occupied a magnificent headquarters on the banks of Lady Bird Lake, in downtown Austin, now operates out of an office park near the airport. To save money, the physical paper is printed in Houston and trucked to Austin each night, which means print subscribers receive news and sports scores that are sometimes more than 24 hours old. The paper stopped printing a Saturday edition in 2022. (Some of these changes began under the paper’s previous owner, Atlanta-based Cox Media Group. Gannett declined to make Garcia or any corporate executives available for interviews. In a written statement to Texas Monthly, a spokesperson wrote that “we are incredibly proud of our work at the Statesman, which speaks for itself.”)
Like nature, though, news abhors a vacuum. As the paper has faded, old and new media outlets have stepped in. Under the leadership of former Statesman executive editor Debbie Hiott, public radio station KUT has added ten positions to its newsroom since 2019 and now boasts an editorial staff nearly as large as the Statesman’s. The station has also formed a partnership with nonprofit news website the Austin Monitor. Further local coverage is provided by the Austin Chronicle alt weekly, Pflugerville-based Community Impact’s chain of monthly community papers, arts and food website CultureMap, and the lifestyle-oriented magazines Austin Monthly, Austin Woman, Austin Fit, and Austin Way. Several statewide outlets, including Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, are headquartered in Austin.
“The ecosystem is much larger now,” said Evan Smith, cofounder of the Tribune and a former editor in chief of Texas Monthly. “Not every place is as fortunate as Austin to have as many robust options to draw from. It’s not enough—it’s never enough. But I think the expanding number of sources is a positive.”
Apparently sensing opportunity, a number of national media companies have entered the Austin market as well. In 2021 Axios, a well-funded news start-up based in Arlington, Virginia, launched its Austin daily newsletter, written by former Statesman reporters Nicole Cobler and Asher Price. City Cast, a network of local podcasts and newsletters founded by former Slate editor in chief David Plotz, will expand to Austin later this year. And Hearst, a New York–based media company that owns the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, recently announced a forthcoming newsletter called Austin Daily, which will be overseen by Express-News editors Marc Duvoisin and Randi Stevenson.
“Austin has such a concentration of people who are demographically likely to be news consumers, in terms of education and income,” Duvoisin explained. “We basically want to put a line in the water and see if we can attract enough readers to make it a sustainable business.” The newsletter will be ad-supported and will maintain a small, Austin-based editorial team. “One of the things we’re trying to do is make it contextual, a little edgy, a little voice-y,” Stevenson added. “We don’t want it to feel or read like a traditional news product.” Former Business Insider reporter Katie Canales and former Houston Chronicle newsletter writer Cat DeLaura have been hired to write for Austin Daily.
It remains to be seen whether this plethora of nontraditional news outlets can fill the hole left by the Statesman’s decline. A growing body of research shows the consequences suffered by cities that lose their daily newspapers. “Voting rates go down, volunteering rates go down, and the general civic robustness goes down,” said David Ryfe, the director of UT-Austin’s School of Journalism and Media. “Political corruption goes up, because if politicians are not monitored by journalists, many of them will do very hinky things. Just the idea that someone is watching what they’re doing seems to decrease corruption among public officials.” A 2018 Brookings Institution study found that cities that lose a local paper pay higher municipal borrowing costs—around $650,000 per bond issue—because investors lack information about those cities’ governments.
Gannett has little incentive to care about Austin’s well-being. Founded in 1906, the company grew to become one of the country’s largest newspaper chains, anchored by USA Today, before being purchased in 2019 by GateHouse Media. The combined company discarded the GateHouse name but kept GateHouse’s CEO, Mike Reed, who has led endless rounds of layoffs and budget cuts while enriching himself and the company’s investors. Following the consolidation, Gannett continued slashing staff and resources at its 218 daily newspapers; many have been reduced to so-called “ghost newsrooms” that operate with just a few staffers.
“You have to look at Gannett and the other big newspaper chains not as media companies but as financial firms,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “They see newspapers as declining assets, and they ask themselves how they can squeeze a few more years of profit out of those assets.”
One of the best-kept secrets in media is that most local newspapers were profitable even before the recent rash of cuts. Not as profitable as papers were in the nineties, when many still maintained margins of 20 percent, but lucrative enough to attract significant Wall Street interest. GateHouse, one of the most ruthlessly bottom line–focused chains in the country, purchased the Statesman in 2018 for $47.5 million and appears determined to recoup its investment—even if it has to bleed the paper dry. (Gannett does not disclose the Statesman’s revenue or profit margin.)
About the only thing stopping Gannett from turning the Statesman into another ghost newsroom is the employee union that formed in 2021. On a vote of 36–12, the employees opted to affiliate with the NewsGuild, a Washington, D.C.–based media workers union. After spending two fruitless years attempting to negotiate a contract with Gannett, the union organized a one-day strike on June 5 to call attention to low pay and poor working conditions. Every staff member participated, according to union leader Nicole Villalpando. In the months after the strike, Gannett made minor concessions—allowing journalists to refuse dangerous assignments and agreeing in principle to the idea of a minimum salary—but remained far apart from the union on what the minimum salary might be. (Gannett has proposed $48,000, while the union is holding out for $60,000.)
But simply by forming a union, Statesman journalists won protections. Under federal law, newly certified unions cannot have the conditions of their employment unilaterally altered by management while negotiating their first contract. That means no layoffs. It also means that in 2022, when Gannett announced that it would suspend 401(k) matching companywide and require five days of unpaid leave—“to ensure our balance sheet remains strong”—the Statesman was exempt. “I think the union has saved journalism in Austin,” Villalpando told me. She said the union is currently gearing up for an even longer strike.
“We have people leaving the Statesman because they can’t afford to live in Austin,” she said. “We have people who are forced to take on roommates, who have second jobs, who are relying on their parents to support them. There’s a lot of credit card debt, a lot of putting off starting families.” Villalpando herself has been forced to take a second job at WeightWatchers to pay for her child’s health care.
Among those who have left the Statesman is Luz Moreno-Lozano, the paper’s first reporter on the scene in Uvalde. In June, she took a job covering city hall at KUT. In the past, moving from a daily newspaper to a public radio station would have been viewed as a step down on the journalism career ladder. These days, though, nonprofit news outlets are some of the last refuges in the tempest sweeping through news media. (Even nonprofits aren’t immune to disruption—Houston Landing, a well-funded but nonunion nonprofit news website in Texas’s largest city, recently fired its editor in chief and top reporter. In the following weeks, journalists at the Texas Tribune and the nonprofit San Antonio Report formed their own unions.)
At the Statesman, Moreno-Lozano had been covering city hall, county government, crime, and transportation, writing three to five stories each week. In years past, the paper had assigned at least one reporter to each of those beats. “I was constantly struggling to catch up, and it just felt overwhelming,” she said. “I was seeking a place where I could learn and grow and feel supported.” She misses her former colleagues but found that working for Austin’s daily newspaper had become untenable. “This is an award-winning, nationally recognized newsroom,” she said. “The reporters should be able to afford to live in the place they cover.”