How the Houston Chronicle is catching up to a changing city

Top editor Nancy Barnes opens up about the paper's transition

HOUSTON, TX — The biggest city in Texas isn’t just big. Houston is vast, growing, and changing–fast. 

The city proper is the fourth largest in the country, and the population of the sprawling metropolitan area is now greater than Philadelphia’s. By at least one account, it’s the most ethnically diverse city in America, too–the home of Urban Cowboy is now a place where over 90 languages are spoken and the kimchi taco is a hit. And while downtown was once deserted when the sun went down, it is now alive with hotels, restaurants, and night life.

Over on Texas Avenue, the Houston Chronicle is getting some new life breathed into it, too.* After nearly a year and a half in Houston, the top editor, Nancy Barnes, is generally getting good marks for the direction of the Hearst-owned daily. Since coming to the Chronicle from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2013, Barnes has focused on the blocking and tackling of a brawny, big-city paper. That has meant staffing up in core beats, like government coverage. It has meant stripping away many columns and lifestyle beats. And it has meant populating the outer suburbs of the Houston metro area with reporters. The work is far from complete, though, and Barnes herself wonders if she can change the paper as fast as the city around it changes.

The paper’s transition dates to the fall of 2012. Editor-in-chief Jeff Cohen had managed the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis and the Great Recession, which had triggered cutbacks and uncertainty at dailies everywhere. Then Cohen, a native Houstonian, Hearst lifer, and only the paper’s 10th editor, decided to leave the job after a decade and take charge of the editorial and opinion pages.

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A Hearst veteran, Steve Proctor, had recently come in from San Francisco as managing editor, and he was tasked with leading the newsroom day to day–but no one knew what would happen next. A little more than a year later, Barnes, whose Star-Tribune was widely respected, won the top job. She’d never worked in Texas, let alone Houston, before, and was quickly struck by two observations: The city was astonishingly large, complex, and global, and the newsroom staff was demoralized.

“I think the rest of the country doesn’t understand how big and cosmopolitan a place Houston has become,” she said. “But the newsroom was downtrodden in its spirit. It’s taken a lot of energy to lift spirits up.”

After gauging the place, a third observation struck: Much of the vast city was simply uncovered by the paper, and core government beats like Austin, the state capital, were under-covered. There were no reporters in many of the suburbs where half of metropolitan Houston actually lives. There was just one reporter up in Austin. 

Today, through a mix of shuffling personnel around and some new hires–which required tinkering with internal budgets and getting a little money from Hearst in New York–she has five reporters covering state government in Austin and has lured away specialty reporters from other news organizations to cover subjects like the nexus of energy, business, and policy. And Chronicle reporters have set up far-flung bureaus in the large suburbs of Spring, Katy, and The Woodlands, with plans for more to come. The task of staffing the suburbs, Barnes estimates, is only 35 to 40 percent complete.

In many cases, the focus is local, local, local. In the suburbs, it’s all about schools, growth, zoning, development–and of course, traffic. The Austin and Washington reporters are assigned to cover developments in the context of local delegations and local impact. But Barnes and managing editor Vernon Loeb–another non-Texan brought in from The Washington Post–are also kicking back for more digging, enterprise, and investigation.

An ambitious recent story explored the accidental shooting death of a 4-year-old boy; cases of child abuse and neglect have been high on the editorial agenda in the wake of tragedies at area day cares. The Chronicle also sent a reporter to Russia and Kazahkstan for a series about the state of the American space program and its reliance on Russian rides into orbit. On its face, that might seem a stretch of the local emphasis–but NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake is in charge of manned space flight, and though those flights have slowed to a trickle the center employs some 3,000 government employees and 12,000 contractors. 

“Certainly there have been changes at the paper that any reader can see,” said Margaret Downing, editor of the alternative Houston Press. With fewer columns and more reporting, “I think that they’re trying to find their way.”

Downing rates the business coverage as strong, sees more enterprise reporting on a day-to-day basis and–though this is outside Barnes’ purview–says Cohen’s editorials are “strong and independent.” There have been a few minor missteps along the way that show the clear budgetary strain under which newsroom still operates: The Press, after all, did take note when the Chronicle’s annual newsroom coffee budget was depleted in October.

“I think it’s an improvement,” Downing said of the daily. “Overall, I’d say it’s headed the right way.”

As they chart a new course, the Chronicle staff will soon have a new home. Plans are underway for Hearst to sell its downtown building and relocate most Houston-area staff to the old haunts of the now-defunct Houston Post, which was shut down in 1995. The building will be significantly renovated to accommodate 21st-century media.

It’s the task of revamping the rest of the operation that gives Barnes her worries: transitioning a big metro daily into a largely digital business fast enough. That means not just matching the editorial vision to the community but creating and growing a dozen revenue streams, for instance, rather than relying on one or two or three.

“I’m very excited about the possibilities here,” Barnes said, both about the city and the paper. But “I beat my head on the wall wondering, ‘Are we changing fast enough?”

* Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the street where the Chronicle’s offices are located. Also, a reference to Billy Bob’s Texas that misidentified its home city has been deleted.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.