Post Time Why Houston should still be a two newspaper town

June 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

The HOUSTON POST—the newspaper’s old home at the Southwest Freeway and the West Loop is still standing strong—a magnificent structure from the outside. But inside the front towers, all the interior walls are gone. There are only naked concrete ceilings and concrete floors (something about asbestos), torn window blinds and large air pipes stacked about, an echoing hangar covered with dust. The printing presses still run, printing the current owners product, the Houston Chronicle. But if I close my eyes and open my memory I can still see it as it was. This is the third floor, the city room, where inked-stained wretches hammered away at their typewriters (and later computers) delivering only truth, beauty, and their own biases to Houston. Photographers raced in and out, TV sets flickered, and phones rang among busy people on deadlines. The life of a newspaper city room has often been portrayed in movies and on TV as a tense, exciting, meaningful place. It was really much better than that. Here in the front northeast section was my office and the rest of the editorial/opinion section, a newspaper’s heart and soul, though many detractors called us other parts of the anatomy. This is where I worked from 1985, when the Canadians bought the paper, until the end in 1995. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, I could view my domain of billboards from the east to the west. The high and mighty came through our conference room to explain that we were a bunch of commie idiots and, by the way, would we please endorse them in the next election? The ed/op staffs’ desks were always piled high with reading stuff; they read everything, and were unquestionably the brightest minds in Houston. Now the desks are gone. So is my lovely office—the Canadians spared no expense. The change in office decorations began for me on the morning of April 18, 1995, when I arrived tardy to an emergency executive meeting and found the Post out of business. Armed guards watched over the staff as we vacated the building with our belongings. We were warned that guards were also at the Houston Chronicle, so don’t go there looking for jobs. An article in the next day’s Chron gave the same warning, but didn’t mention the guards. A few days later I went back to the paper to see if I could sift through the mail and pick up my letters, including a check for $1,400. I was not let through the door. Ever since the folding, it’s been rumored the Post went bankrupt. Unless our owner, Dean Singleton, was cooking the books, we had made $10 million the year before and posted a profit 12 of the 15 preceding months. We didn’t have to close. So Hearst, the Chronicle’s New York-based owner, has always been careful to say it bought the “assets” of The Post. To have purchased the competition and closed it might have raised questions with the Justice Department. A lot of newspapers run a last edition, their own obit, when they cease operations whereby the staff bids farewell to its readers. Singleton said such a gesture would be “useless.” At its demise, The Post was 111 years old, but we traced our heritage back to the 1830s and the Telegraph and Texas Register in San Felipe. In our library I could read old microfilm copies of the paper’s news, ads, and legal notices sprinkled with names like James Bonham, Stephen F. Austin, and William Barrett Travis, who wrote a letter to the editor ending with, “God and Texas—Victory or Death!!” The paper ran the Texas Declaration of Independence, news of the fall of the Alamo, and reported Col. William Fannin and his men were ready to face Santa Anna at Goliad. As Sam Houston’s army passed through San Felipe just ahead of Santa Anna’s army, the publishers, Gail and Thomas Borden, loaded their presses on ox carts, joined the retreat and eventually had to dump them into Buffalo Bayou. The April 14th issue of the paper was still inside the presses when it was dumped. The move caused the Bordens to miss reporting on the Battle of San Jacinto one week later. Over the years the paper ran the good, the bad, and the Pulitzer. (The Chronicle remains the largest-circulation newspaper in America never to have won a Pulitzer; but it hired a winner, cartoonist Nick Anderson.) Like so many newspapers, the Post went through owners, names, and failures. It was variously called the Houston Post-Dispatch, the Daily Post, and the Houston Chronicle. One owner, Rienzi Johnston, went by the title “Colonel” although it seems he never got higher than drummer boy in the Confederate Army. When another owner, Julius Watson, died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis, he left the paper to his six-year-old son, Roy. A.C. Green lost the paper and turned the assets over to the employees only to see it fail completely in 1880. By then, 16 Houston papers had already been financial failures. Managing editor Marcellus E. Foster had a falling out with the publisher and resigned. He started the Houston Chronicle in 1901. William and Oveta Hobby were running the Post before they bought the paper in 1939 from Jesse Jones, who also owned the Chronicle. Jones thought it wrong for both major newspapers to be under one owner. Post columnist William Sydney Porter eventually went to prison and there changed his name to O. Henry. Then there was William Cowper Brann, who later wrote, “In the year of our Lord, 1891, I became pregnant with an idea. Being at the time chief editorial writer on the Houston Post, I felt dreadfully mortified, as nothing of the kind had ever before occurred in that eminently moral establishment.” An irate reader shot Brann dead in Waco. Walter Cronkite got his start as the Post’s correspondent at The University of Texas, and for years the Post had a paperboy in Alvin who could plop the paper right on the doorstep—Nolan Ryan. But there is a footnote to this story: Several years after the demise of the paper, an organization came to me and asked if I’d like to be its executive director. Sounded interesting, but then the water boarding began. I sat through an intense, two-hour interview with the entire board of directors, then was asked to write a lengthy essay so a handwriting expert could check my warped and possibly lethal inner being. Afterwards, I heard nothing. Since they had approached me, I called to inquire. “Sorry. We hired someone else.” OK, no big deal, although it was a rather strange way to operate. End of story, until last year at a gathering, a gentleman introduced himself and noted he had been on that interview panel. “After that meeting, we got a call from the Hearst people,” he said. “They warned if we hired you, they’d never give us another dime.” As he walked away, he turned and said, “Come to think of it, they still didn’t give us any money.” Today, the Post is no more, only a collection of dusty concrete and departed souls. Houston is left with the sound of only one tongue flapping.

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