HOUSTON (Covering Katy News) – As the Houston region was holding it’s greatest party ever, the Astros’ World Series championship parade, The Houston Press newspaper dropped a bombshell on the public. During the middle of the celebration, The Houston Press made a 3:28 p.m. announcement that it was laying off most of its staff and would stop printing its newspaper, and only publish online.
Shutting down the print publication is not necessarily a bad thing, but they also laid off nine full-time editorial staff members according to the Houston Chronicle. That means the decision to stop printing is not evidence of the death of print; it is evidence of the death of local independent journalism. In the future, they will rely primarily on freelance journalists which provides them the flexibility to cut back on expenses when times are tight. This means when revenue is low the won’t pay freelancers to develop quality investigative stories that they’ve previously published.
Had the Press simply stopped printing, but kept the same size staff, we’d be calling this a bold move and a reflection of the changing way that people consume news. Instead, this is a sign that advertising revenue alone can’t keep small independent news sources alive.
The Press is not purely independent. It is owned by an out of state corporation, but its continued to operate like an independent by focusing on issues that the Houston Chronicle and the Houston TV stations will not cover.
The Houston TV stations miss stories because they’re not set up to consistently cover complicated issues that take days or weeks to investigate unless they farm them out to their one-sided investigative reporters who never seem to tell the whole truth.
The Houston Chronicle is in tight with the city’s establishment. Here in Katy, the Katy Times is also a mirror of establishment thought. Neither publication wants to focus on stories that may cause a fracture between their management and the local powerbrokers.
The Houston Press cited declining ad revenue and devastation from Hurricane Harvey as the reason for its layoffs. We here at Covering Katy have experienced a similar situation. While we have not lost any sponsors, some have needed extra time to pay their bills, causing us to dip into reserves to keep our content flowing to you, our readers.
One of the business model differences between the Houston Press and the Houston Chronicle is that one has a subscriber base and one is free. The Chronicle has consistent funding coming from subscribers which helps during the difficult times, like what’s happened after Harvey. The Katy Times also has a small number of subscribers. Both of those publications are still printing a newspaper, in part because they have subscribers.
Last week I attended the Local Independent Online News Publishers Summit in Chicago. We exchanged ideas on how to keep independent journalism alive. We all agreed that there is a revival of independent journalism across the nation with dozens of reporters leaving traditional media to start their own online publications. We have all decided to risk our personal assets on a belief that our communities will see the value of a local independent media thriving in our hometowns. It’s clear to me that we’re living in a unique time in the history of American journalism. Whether these publishers survive has yet to be determined, but make no mistake they are throwing everything they have at making their publications succeed.
The free market has worked. Big news media bias, and greed has left the marketplace wide open for small publishers to fill the void with real journalism, but the community needs to care about our survival. If we are not all in this together, these entrepreneurial journalists will not survive.
During Hurricane Harvey, Covering Katy was the primary local news source providing Katy specific information to the community 24-7. During a recent standoff in the City of Katy, Covering Katy was the only local news operation providing updates on what was happening, and how the standoff impacted public safety and traffic. When the football stadium was a hot issue, we were the only publication with the guts to present BOTH sides of the argument. When those who conspired to force the stadium upon us and then decided to work to defeat the current school bond, we were the only news source to reveal their hypocrisy. When gang members were physically and verbally attacking the staff of McDonald Middle School, we exposed this horrible situation and forced the Alton Frailey administration to address the problem. When local non-profits need free publicity Covering Katy is always there publicize their good works and their fundraising efforts.
Unfortunately, the new way local newspapers make money is to team up with the establishment and avoid stories that may be controversial. For example, we do know that one popular monthly newspaper is a member of the Katy Area Economic Development Council. While I enjoy their publication, it’s clear that their business plan is to never venture into controversial topics. They only publish positive news about business leaders, but what happens when business leaders do wrong, and the story has to be exposed? It becomes the responsibility of Covering Katy to write the story because if we don’t tell you, you’ll never be told.
Katy Magazine’s owner sits as the Vice President of the KAEDC board of directors. According to our sources, she gets a free membership by providing publicity for the organization. She claims to be a publication for women. We recently published an article on homeless women in Katy who need your help. Would Katy Magazine post that article? It’s not likely, because it may show that Katy is not a panacea of perfection.
Katy deserves one publication that’s willing to treat its readers like adults by addressing the positive and negative happenings in our community. We believe you have a right to know, and that no problem gets solved by pretending it does not exist.
I could run down the list of cozy relationships, but it would be too lengthy for this article. At some point, people in Katy will have to decide if they want an independent publisher of real news. It may require a subscription model. It may require a donation model. It may require switching our corporate structure to a non-profit model, or it may require some idea that’s never been tried previously. What I can tell you is that Covering Katy is operating in the same world as the Houston Press and we face the very same challenges.
Following the Chicago summit, I returned with numerous ideas for keeping Covering Katy alive. I’m huddling with advisors on how to make Covering Katy a fixture in this community, free from the economic ups and downs that’s put the Houston Press on its back.
I’ve been publishing Covering Katy for six years, and have come back from Chicago more convinced than ever that we will find the exact model to make Covering Katy a permanent part of this community, providing real news to real people in real time for years to come.
Soon, we will announce how we plan to move forward. Whatever that plan is, I hope we have your support.