Recently it was announced that the Houston Press, long a valiant voice for truth and justice in our city, would no longer produce print editions. The alternative weekly was a free publication and a frequent antagonist to that which was cruel, wrong, or at least boring to the millions of people who live and work here.
It was not exactly a surprise. I’ve been waiting for the news since I heard the Village Voice went all digital, and I had no expectations Houston could survive where New York had failed. That a paper should move entirely online in this day and age is not all that surprising. What did surprise me, though, was the utter and complete gutting of the newsroom. Everyone on staff but Editor-in-Chief Margaret Downing was handed their walking papers. I’ve spoken with M — as I call her — since, and I know I am welcome as a freelance contributor, but I keep picturing the Houston Press offices empty and just her presiding over it and I am full of a terrible sadness and rage.
I was on the cover of the Houston Press fourteen times in roughly three years, winning two national journalism awards in that span for those stories. For a college drop-out who finagled the gig for free concert tickets, it remains one of my proudest achievements to have graced those covers. I, and dozens of others, fought corruption and evil in H-Town, and when we couldn’t get that fight going we at least told y’all about the best and most unusual of us. We were the curators of truths that could not be summed up in a tweet, and that is a thing of beauty.
Here is what bothers me, though… I have nothing but the gravest respect for M. Her skills as an editor and a journalist are unsurpassed in the city. She basically taught me everything about writing that I know. She taught a lot of other really good people, too. Margaret Downing is the single best thing about Houston journalism, and I am happy to fight you if you don’t agree.
But, she is one person. And now, she oversees the news, the arts, the music, and the food sections of a newspaper that serves over 3 million people all by herself. She approves the pitches, she edits the copy, she, I assume, handles the social media. She’s not doing multiple people’s jobs; she’s doing an entire EMPIRE’S job.
This troubles me greatly. I have no doubt the Houston Press will continue to produce good and relevant content, and I am personally invested in that endeavor. I’m here at Free Press Houston, but I’m there too.
How on Earth can we expect to be properly and diligently informed if we continue to allow our news media to starve like this? For many freelancers I know, journalism is more hobby than job. It’s virtually impossible to make a living at it, but that wasn’t terrible for the industry because there remained a corps in the newsroom who could be counted on to chase down the stories, big and small, that we need to know about. The latest on a city budget meeting may not be sexy or exciting, but it is important if we’re going to be able to hold our leaders accountable. A staff of professional journalists who aren’t constantly wondering where their next meal is coming from is crucial to that.
When that goes away, when newsrooms are empty and it’s all just freelancers, the result is a kind of journalistic parasitism. I have gotten to the point where I do very little original reporting because it’s just not economically sound. If I spend more than three hours writing something, I’m basically making less than minimum wage. So I do hot takes, think pieces, criticisms of stuff reported on by others in a tail-swallowing cycle.
You ever wonder why you see so many “news stories” that are basically just collections of people tweeting about things? This is why. Because a writer can put one together and get it loaded onto a website in about an hour with minimal effort and it will get thousands of shares. That just doesn’t happen with a lot of real news stories. It’s not laziness. It’s a desperate attempt to fire out enough content to make saying anything at all financially viable.
In the end, though, it’s not a very good plan. At least, not if you care about knowing what’s going on in your city. I’m as proud of my opinion articles as I am of my cover stories, but if we don’t pay for our news an awful lot of terrible things are going to pass under the radar. Knowledge is power, and there are a whole mess of folks who would deeply prefer us to not have that power. Good men and women who dedicated their lives to arming us with knowledge lost their ability to do so in security. You know who still does have nice, safe jobs? The happy people at Sinclair Broadcasting, who are slowly taking over all our local news channels hoping to pipe Trumpian propaganda into our eyeballs. Think about that as we rocket into the future.