Media Meltdown: If San Antonio’s Old-line News Organizations Are in Free Fall, What Replaces Them? 

click to enlarge The San Antonio Light building once housed one of the city's daily newspapers. Now it's being gutted to make way for a tech firm. - CARLOS AGUILAR
  • Carlos Aguilar
  • The San Antonio Light building once housed one of the city's daily newspapers. Now it's being gutted to make way for a tech firm.
Far from its glory days as a two-newspaper town, San Antonio sometimes looks like it’s barely hanging onto the one it has left.

In May, the San Antonio Express-News laid off 14 senior staffers, bringing the head count in its newsroom to a little more than 100 — a far cry from the 230 it boasted prior to a series of painful layoffs that started in 2009.

It’s a story that’s played out in virtually every big U.S. city as papers faced the one-two punch of diminishing subscriptions and the flight of advertising to online sources. Along the way, experts predicted the Internet revolution would help offset the losses, fueling new and disruptive media that rely on multimedia storytelling and citizen journalism to shake things up.

Problem is those alternative news sources aren’t immune to the same turmoil roiling the legacy media groups. What’s more, there are serious doubts whether they’ll ever grow robust enough to cover the gaps left as traditional media contracted.

Need proof? In February, Folo Media, an online publication examining economic inequality in San Antonio shut its doors after less than a year of operation. And this summer, after unveiling a slick new online presence, bilingual paper La Prensa shut its doors — although founder Tino Duran’s son Steve has since resuscitated the print product as La Prensa Texas.

Even the Rivard Report, the big daddy of local online media startups, isn’t immune. Last month, the site founded by former E-N Editor-in-Chief Bob Rivard announced a personnel shuffle that sent Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking packing after just nine months on the job.

“What we’re seeing with those changes are individual business decisions, but they’re all reflective of a media shakeup that’s happening on a national basis,” said Jenny Moore, a journalism professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. “For anyone who takes an interest in the news media, the next six months are going to be important to watch.”

The Daily Grind

For a sign of the flagging state of San Antonio’s news institutions, one need look no further than the former San Antonio Light building on Broadway.

The building that once housed the paper, and later on, the business and online operations of the San Antonio Express-News still bears its ornate Spanish Colonial-style façade, but it’s otherwise been gutted to make way for a tech company’s offices.

It can’t be understated just how big a hole the ongoing layoffs at the Express-News have left in local media coverage. By way of disclosure, I worked for more than a decade as a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, and I still know plenty of people laid off from the paper who have never managed to make the leap back into full-time newsgathering.

Marc Duvoisin, the Express-News’ recently hired editor-in-chief, acknowledges coverage isn’t what it used to be — at his paper or any other metro daily. Newsrooms are forced to make tough choices about what they cover with their diminished staffs. One controversial call by the paper’s leadership: to eliminate obituaries except those of well-recognized community figures.

“You just have to set priorities,” said Duvoisin, who worked for 16 years as a top editor at the Los Angeles Times before a short stint as the Houston Chronicle’s editor-at-large. “It’s the same challenge facing every legacy news organization in the country.”

The E-N has tried to make up for lost resources by joining forces with the Houston Chronicle, a fellow property of media giant Hearst Corp. As an example, Duvoisin points to recent cooperation between the two papers on cover stories on the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
Marc Duvoisin - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Marc Duvoisin
But many in the community worry the net result of the papers’ increased sharing of resources is that the Express-News is becoming the Chronicle’s Alamo City bureau. Fueling that speculation, respected Austin bureau chief Peggy Fikac was one of those caught in the paper’s May layoff, setting the stage for Hearst to create a bureau shared by all seven of its Texas papers. What’s more, plans are also afoot to consolidate the Texas papers’ design work so that some pages — international wire stories or national economic data, for example — would be the same across all editions.

Duvoisin rankles, though, at the idea that he relocated to San Antonio essentially run a satellite operation for the Chronicle. And he said he’ll make efforts to ensure that the new combined Austin bureau isn’t just spitting out one-size-fits-all stories to all seven Texas papers.

“You’re right to raise the issue,” Duvoisin said. “San Antonio has its own interests coming out of Austin, but I think we can work to accommodate that in our coverage.”

Scale or Love

While papers like the Express-News have suffered under the disruptive power of the Internet, the answer to their woes hasn’t been as easy as slapping up a website and moving ad sales online. The problem is digital advertising just isn’t as lucrative. The majority of online ads are concentrated on Facebook and Google, which together rake in 60 percent of all revenues.

It’s a problem that also dogs the dailies’ online competitors. Unless they can offer advertisers national scale like a Politico, Vox or HuffPost, sales seldom generate enough revenue to support a viable newsroom. And the subscription model has also proved problematic for smaller outlets since consumers are largely reluctant to peek at content hidden behind a firewall.

One of San Antonio’s first digital-only alternative news sources, Plaza De Armas, illustrates the shortcomings of both models. PDA folded after two years in operation, unable to fund its long-form political journalism after trying to sell both ads and subscriptions. [Another disclosure: San Antonio Current Editor-in-Chief Greg Jefferson was a partner in PDA.]

There are successful local or regional news startups — the Texas Tribune, for example, or Philadelphia’s Billy Penn — but those have largely adopted a nonprofit model, using public radio’s strategy of asking readers to pay what they can.

Also key is building strong community ties, and sometimes revenues, by staging events.

The Texas Tribune, arguably the Lone Star State’s most visible online-only news source, stages happenings on a weekly basis, ranging from panels and conversations with politicos to trivia nights and newsroom open houses. And they’re not just in close proximity to its Austin HQ but in locales as far flung as El Paso and Nacogdoches.

“You can exist on the Internet with either scale or love,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Journalism. “The stuff in the middle, including metro dailies, just aren’t doing so well.”

For its part, the San Antonio Current also relies on events such as United We Brunch and the San Antonio Beer Festival to supplement advertising sales and maintain its free distribution.

Editorial Control

With 13 editorial staffers listed on its website and annual donations from heavy hitters like H-E-B and the Tobin Endowment, the nonprofit Rivard Report is the most visible of San Antonio’s media upstarts, but its recent management shakeup may hint at growing pains.
After a surprisingly short tenure, the site dumped editor-in-chief Beth Frerking as part of an editorial reorganization and put Rivard back at the helm as editor and publisher of his namesake venture. Board member Dan Goodgame, an exec at tech firm Rackspace and a former White House correspondent, subsequently resigned.

Both Frerking and Goodgame declined to be interviewed, and Rivard Report’s new managing editor, Graham Watson-Ringo, declined comment on personnel issues.

However, a person familiar with the Rivard Report’s workings said the departure came down to tension over how much control Rivard could exert over the editorial side.

Frerking took the job on condition that Rivard step away from the newsroom to focus on fundraising, the person said. When he continued to dabble in newsroom matters, tensions escalated and Rivard demoted his new hire, prompting her resignation. The showdown came shortly after Frerking bought a home in San Antonio and her husband relocated from Silver Spring, Md.

“It’s disappointing to me,” the person said. “It feels like a missed opportunity for the Rivard Report to be something bigger.”

While Watson-Ringo declined comment on the management change, she was willing to discuss her plans to bolster the site with more multimedia content, including podcasts and video, and a larger array of commentary pieces. She also asked her staff to rethink how they cover meetings and focus more on story than process. 

None of those changes are in response to readership declines or other problems at the site, she said. Site visits are continuing to grow.

“The Rivard Report is not broken,” said Watson-Ringo, former executive producer of expressnews.com, the Express-News’ digital subscriber site. “I’m not here to be a fixer. I’m here to keep us on an upward trend.”

Filling Newsrooms

Even when local media startups figure out a winning strategy, they tend to operate lean. As a general rule, their content relies heavily on freelancers, part-timers, interns and community volunteers. Nationally, their hires haven’t even begun to offset the number of jobs lost as legacy news outlets slash their staffs.

Around 13,000 employees worked as reporters, editors and other types of newsgatherers at digital-native outlets last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to the 32,000 who have lost their jobs at newspapers since 2004.

“The (Express-News) has been shedding talent left and right, and fortunately we’ve been able to pay good freelance fees to keep some of those people’s bylines in print,” said Thomas Edwards, editor of six-year-old Local Community News, which publishes five direct-mail monthly community papers. He points to E-N columnist Susan Yerkes and longtime business writer Travis Poling as two examples.

But, even so, Local’s newsroom core consists of just Edwards, himself a veteran Express-News journalist, and one full-time reporter/photographer. He acknowledges that such tight staffing makes it difficult for the chain to build a robust online presence and keep up with social media. It also means some stories necessarily go untold.

Elsewhere, staffing is similarly tight. Charlotte-Anne Lucas, another former Express-News editor, serves as the sole full-time employee of nonprofit news site NOWCastSA, the site she describes as “independent C-SPAN for San Antonio.” The fledgling downtown blog the San Antonio Heron has just two full-timers.
Charlotte-Anne Lucas - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Charlotte-Anne Lucas
Operating with such pared-down payrolls makes for a constant scramble to cover the news, observers said. No matter how long editors’ and reporters’ work days, it’s simply harder to cultivate news sources, delve into new coverage areas and explore parts of town previously under the radar.

With 17 independent school districts and myriad city and county meetings to cover, that means it’s easy to miss big stories. That’s especially true as San Antonio dives into a period of unprecedented growth and all that means for its housing, transportation and quality of life.

“When it comes to covering planning and zoning, I feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up — and that I’m never going to get caught up,” Lucas said. “The nature in which the city is going to change over the next 20 years is being written in those meetings, and that’s scary to me if no one is paying attention.”

[And another disclosure: NOWCast is partnering with the Current on a series of events we’ll soon be unveiling.]

Rethinking the Model

If subscriptions and ad sales are elusive for local startups, that pretty much leaves the nonprofit route. And that business model has its own attendant challenges — namely constantly raising money to stay solvent.

Fortunately, groups ranging the Knight Foundation to the 80|20 Foundation have stepped forward to write checks to local nonprofit news providers. But keeping up donor relations and chasing new funding sources can be a full-time job — and a tricky transition for a former journalist.

NOWCast’s Lucas has been forced to seek out creative partnerships including one with the San Antonio Public Library in which the library covers the organization’s monthly rent in exchange for creating programming. Her workshop series on digital literacy branched into a Google Fiber Grant to teach digital media literacy to families in public housing.

“It’s basically been eight years of refusing to fail,” Lucas said.

No matter how many creative funding sources and events nonprofit media groups line up, some experts doubt they’ll ever come close to replicating kind of local news coverage metro papers once provided. Without a massive, dependable source of advertising dollars, the money just isn’t there.

“I don’t think nonprofit journalism is going to be a very robust model,” said Robert Huesca, a communication professor at Trinity University. “It just doesn’t offer enough depth or breadth to have particularly good long-term prospects.”

For better or worse, social media may be the way many people get their community news, Huesca added. For many, it makes more sense to turn to a highly focused blog or a neighborhood association Facebook group than scour a website or paper for information. What’s more, Millennial media consumers are often less loyal to individual news sources, preferring instead to click on individual stories that show up on their social media feeds.

Also, when city council sessions and school board meetings are available on streaming video and whole court documents are available for download, readers aren’t looking for more information but context. That kind of context requires warm bodies to deliver, preferably experienced reporters with deep knowledge of the institutions they’re covering.

With no indications that any of the new media models can afford to hire those reporters in large numbers, experts said it becomes vital for news providers to intimately understand the wants and needs of their audiences in ways they haven’t in the past – even when it adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult job.

“You have to be out there talking to your audience and talking to them a lot,” Moore of A&M-San Antonio said. “But that can be hard when you’re a deadline-driven reporter who’s doing five to six stories a week.”

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