On May 24 the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual ranking of the fastest-growing American cities. Topping the list was San Antonio, which added more than 24,000 people between 2016 and 2017 for a total population of over 1.5 million, making it the second largest city in Texas (after Houston) and the seventh largest in the country.
The same day, Nancy Barnes, the executive editor of the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Texas Newspapers, was in the Alamo City to make an announcement of her own: the San Antonio Express-News, the city’s 153-year-old daily newspaper, would be laying off fourteen newsroom employees. It was merely the latest round of layoffs for the beleaguered paper, which eliminated 165 positions, including 75 journalists— about a third of the newsroom—in 2009.
Among the newly unemployed journalists were reporters, photographers, and editors spread across the metro, features, and sports desks. Perhaps the highest-profile casualty was Peggy Fikac, the paper’s veteran Austin bureau chief and columnist. Others included reporter Zeke MacCormack, who had been at the Express-News for over two decades; Robert Seltzer, the paper’s public editor; travel editor Terry Scott Bertling; and Mike Knoop, the director of news research and archives.
At the announcement meeting, publisher Susan Pape cited “economic factors” and a desire to better integrate the Hearst Corporation’s resources across the state as reasons for the layoffs, while acknowledging that the Express-News remains profitable—as does Hearst as a whole. In January, Steven R. Swartz, the president and CEO of the New York–based media conglomerate, stated in a letter to employees that Hearst had “record profits for the seventh straight year.”
News of the recent layoffs was not well received in the paper’s hometown. Former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro took to Twitter to vent his displeasure:
So today the penny pinchers at @Hearst corporation gutted the San Antonio @ExpressNews newsroom, basically turning it into the SA bureau of the @HoustonChron . Consolidation. This despite record profits at @Hearst. Terrible for the local community.
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) May 24, 2018
Evan Smith, the CEO and cofounder of the Texas Tribune, lamented the loss of Fikac:
If you’ve been around the Texas Capitol for any period of time, you can’t help but know and admire Peggy — one of the best reporters to cover politics and policy over the last several decades 2/x
— Evan Smith (@evanasmith) May 24, 2018
The layoffs come at a particularly vulnerable time for the Express-News. Mike Leary, the paper’s editor-in-chief since 2012, retired on May 18. Managing editor Jamie Stockwell was initially announced as Leary’s temporary replacement, but on May 21 she left to become a deputy national editor for the New York Times. Facing the sudden loss of its top two San Antonio editors, Hearst dispatched the Houston Chronicle’s managing editor, Vernon Loeb, to lead the Express-News until a new editor-in-chief can be found.
Loeb, who previously served as metro editor of the Washington Post and deputy managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is an experienced, well-respected journalist, but his arrival in San Antonio only strengthened the perception, voiced by Castro and others, that the Express-News was being taken over by the Houston Chronicle. In March, Hearst named Barnes, the Chronicle’s top editor, to the new position of executive editor for Hearst Texas Newspapers, giving her at least nominal editorial control over the Express-News.
With a newsroom of about 200—almost double that of the Express-News’s 117—the Chronicle has long been the crown jewel (along with the San Francisco Chronicle) of Hearst’s newspaper division. And although it has endured similarly brutal layoffs in the past, the Chronicle was largely spared the latest round of bloodletting. According to Lisa Gray, senior digital editor at the Chronicle, Barnes recently told the Houston newsroom that while revenue is down at both papers, the drop is more severe at the Express-News—hence the layoffs.
Loeb said that his presence at the Express-News is only temporary, and that he would be returning to Houston once Hearst appoints a new editor. In the meantime, he and Barnes are working on better integrating the two papers’ resources. They recently initiated twice-daily conference calls between the top editors at both papers to better coordinate news coverage and story placement. On June 4, Barnes hired Robert Eckhart, the investigations editor at the Austin American-Statesman, for the newly created position of senior editor for Texas news, where he’ll oversee the five reporters in Hearst’s combined Austin bureau.
“I don’t buy the narrative that there’s some Houston power play going on here,” Loeb said. “There just isn’t. I think we’ve got two really strong papers here that, compared to our peer papers across America, are robustly staffed and have real capabilities. And I’m really excited about what happens when they join forces.”
Robert Rivard was editor-in-chief of the Express-News from 1997 to 2011 and now runs the Rivard Report, a nonprofit local news website. At the Express-News, he presided over the 2009 bloodbath that decimated the newsroom. “I distinctly remember listening to executives from Hearst in New York telling me that if we could just get through this round of layoffs, everything would be protected,” he said. “I learned to my own disappointment that one round of layoffs was followed by another, which was followed by another.”
Rivard said the Express-News was facing the same struggles as other daily newspapers across the country. “We’ve seen the diminution in cities like San Antonio of the reach of the daily newspaper, the mission of the daily newspaper,” he said. “Absentee corporate owners no longer have a deep connection to the community, and are not engaged in the community as a business or a public trust like they once were.”
According to Loeb, Hearst plans to harness the combined resources of the Chronicle and Express-News, along with the company’s smaller newspapers like the Beaumont Enterprise and the Laredo Morning Times, to improve its statewide coverage. But will this statewide focus comes at the expense of local coverage? Regular readers of the Express-News have already noticed a greater number of Houston datelines, while Chronicle subscribers are getting used to more San Antonio coverage.
To Kyrie O’Connor, a former senior editor at the Houston Chronicle who briefly served as interim editor-in-chief of the Express-News after Rivard left, such cross-publication makes little sense. “Consolidating San Antonio and Houston can work only in limited ways, probably involving [state] legislation,” O’Connor said. “They aren’t even close to being the same place. Is New York City the same as Buffalo? Nobody who has lived either place would think so.”
“The only people who seem to have solved the puzzle are the national and international players like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post,” Rivard said. “All of them have one thing in common, which is a deep and continuing investment in their newsroom. Nobody can cut their way to success.”