Point Austin: Hard Times at the Statesman
The new owners start cutting, and the bleeding begins
The shoes have begun to drop at the Austin American-Statesman. Most prominently, on Monday Publisher Susie Biehle and Editor Debbie Hiott announced they'd be accepting buyouts from new owners GateHouse Media, and moving on. As the Aug. 27 front page of the paper reported, Hiott – a 28-year employee and editor since 2011 – told colleagues, "It was a tough decision, but after 28 years in this newsroom, I am ready for a new challenge. I love the Statesman and the people who work here, and I expect to be a supporter long after I am gone."
More personal announcements have drizzled out from other staffers, and over the coming weeks we'll start to miss familiar bylines. Longtime transportation reporter Ben Wear posted online that he'll soon be leaving, and behind-the-scenes folks – indispensable to any newsroom – are also beginning to bail. In theory, all 200 or so employees have been offered voluntary buyouts, with the new bosses reserving the right to withdraw offers from anyone they consider currently irreplaceable – standard operating procedure for the private tyrannies we call corporations.
Hiott's long tenure and hard-earned rise through the ranks – she began as a reporting intern while still a college student – is testimony to her considerable talent and hard work, to the Statesman's previous stability, and to the booming Austin regional economy that kept Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises from selling off this franchise as quickly as they had others. I don't know enough about the business side to comment on Biehle's tenure, except to note that earlier this month, it was she who announced both the buyouts and the closure of the Spanish-language spin-off ¡Ahora Sí! Presumably, she could divine the future at least as well as her staff members.
The GateHouse Model
Like others at the Chronicle, I've taken periodic, acerbic shots at the Statesman (targets of at least a couple of April Fools' features) – which they resolutely ignored – and if the GateHouse version survives in any substantive form, will undoubtedly do so again. But not today. I feel no joy in this turn of events, part of a decades-long trend in which two-newspaper towns became one-newspaper towns, and then advertisers fled to the cheaper, more ubiquitous web, and finally predatory equity firms like GateHouse began gobbling up the remaining papers to milk them dry.
The new owners say the Statesman will become their "flagship" paper, but their record in other towns suggests the ship will fly an extremely threadbare banner. In an extended December 2017 report on the fate and future of local papers, The American Prospect summarized the GateHouse business model as "ruthless miserliness" with two inevitable effects: "It destroys the newspaper's capacity to do its fundamental job of covering the news, and it makes for miserable employees."
Faced with that dismal prospect, it would be understandable if every last employee, certainly on the news side, decides to accept a buyout and move on. Honor to them, and honor to any who choose to remain and see whatever can be salvaged under the new regime. It's a Hobson's choice.
Daily News Needed
In theory, trouble for "the competition" should be cause for some celebration here at the Chronicle, but in addition to reflexive empathy for working reporters under threat, I'm alarmed at the prospect of Austin – the 11th largest city in the U.S. – effectively becoming a no-newspaper town. Some of that reportage has already moved to narrow-gauge pubs like Community Impact or to the web like The Texas Tribune, but a daily newspaper (even at its most aggravating blandness) is a community-binding and -defining institution that contributes to an ongoing public conversation for which we haven't yet found an adequate substitute.
In recent years, social media has stepped in as a sort of sidelong public commentary – but much more often than not, the commentary is about something (good or bad) that first appeared in a published and paid-for-by-subscribers newspaper. Maybe we'll figure out new and sustainable public models – the Prospect story offers hope on that score – but we haven't done it yet.
At the Chronicle, we indeed can and do execute important, eccentric, and insightful reporting and writing that the Statesman can't or won't do. But we've got our own post-recession, media-industry problems, and we simply do not have the resources – human or financial – to sustain the sort of persistence and range of a daily newspaper committed to covering an entire capital city and region. At their best, the Statesman reporters have performed that outsize task with distinction, and the thought that they've now got swords dangling over their working heads, or the unhappy option to cross their fingers and hit the road ... is not one any Austinite should welcome.