The Greater Houston metropolitan area comprises eight counties spread across nearly 9,000 square miles, an area larger than New Jersey, with a population of around 6 million people. If it were a country, Houston would have the world’s thirtieth-largest economy. Covering such a vast metropolis has long proved a Sisyphean challenge to the city’s single major daily newspaper: the Houston Chronicle.
But help may be on its way to the Chronicle’s beleaguered newsroom. Last week the paper’s parent company, the Hearst Corporation, announced its acquisition of the Houston Community Newspapers and Media Group (HCN), a collection of 23 weeklies and one daily newspaper, the Conroe Courier. With names like the Katy Rancher, the Atascocita Observer, and the Bay Area Citizen, the two dozen newspapers are intended to bolster the Chronicle’s suburban coverage, a goal that has historically been more honored in the breach than the observance. When Nancy Barnes moved to Houston three years ago to become the Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, she was shocked at how little attention the paper was paying to the city’s suburbs.
“It was just unbelievable to me—when I got here we did not have a single full-time reporter in the suburbs,” she said. Although the Chronicle now has a half dozen reporters focused on the suburbs, and ten regional weekly inserts, Barnes remained dissatisfied with the paper’s efforts. “It’s been impossible for me to get as many people out into the Houston metro region as I need, because we have six million people here. Every town has had enormous growth—there are 100,000 people in Pearland alone.”
The HCN papers, which have a total print distribution of 520,000 and a digital reach of 4 million pageviews per month, will finally give the Chronicle (circulation 860,000, digital reach of 134 million pageviews) the resources to match its mission as the city’s paper of record, she said. Over the next few months, the Chronicle will replace its own regional inserts with the newly acquired papers. Barnes said that Hearst doesn’t plan to shut down any of the 24 titles, although there may be some consolidation of staff and resources.
“You have to be careful, because there’s community affiliation with the names. What you don’t want to do is take your major-metro sensibility and impose it on these small weeklies, because these communities depend of them for their local news. We want to make the most of that without turning them into some version of the Houston Chronicle.”
While the HCN papers will continue operating as independent publications, at least for now, their reporters are expected to begin contributing to the Chronicle’s breaking news coverage. Last Wednesday, the day that the acquisition was announced, a man in Conroe shot and killed his three-year-old daughter before killing himself. “That’s the kind of story where we would really benefit from having staff there,” Barnes said. “From here to Conroe is an hour’s drive. So to have reporters all over the metro area, so we don’t have to duplicate resources, is going to be a benefit to all of us.”
Yet, as with any acquisition, employees at the Eastex Advocate, the Deer Park Broadcaster, and the Friendswood Journal may have reason to be nervous about their job security. In 1995 Hearst purchased the Chronicle’s major rival, the Houston Post, and then promptly shuttered it, laying off hundreds of journalists. (It did much the same in 1992 in San Antonio, purchasing and then closing the San Antonio Light, the only competitor to Hearst’s own local paper, the San Antonio Express-News.) Earlier this year the Chronicle sold its downtown office and moved into a newly renovated bunker-like building in the Galleria area, near the intersection of Highway 59 and Loop 610. The building’s former occupant? The Houston Post.