Last week’s announcement that the San Antonio Express-News will be moving into the old San Antonio Light building while struggling to sell its current home inspires feelings of irony, nostalgia, and sadness.
The irony is that the E-N is moving to the former home of its bitter rival for the better part of a century. A death match by the early 1990s, it ended strangely. The Hearst Corp. closed the Light and bought the Express-News from Rupert Murdoch, who began his invasion of America with the purchase of the morning San Antonio Express and the afternoon San Antonio News in 1973.
Murdoch imposed a condition: Hearst had to keep the entire Express-News staff, which meant that very few Light employees and none of the executives were transferred over. The late Bob Danzig, who was head of Hearst Newspapers at the time, came down to calm the waters as San Antonio became the latest of the nation’s one-newspaper cities.
“Despite what Rick Casey wrote, we did not kill our kids so we could adopt the neighbor’s kids,” he told one of the town’s service clubs. It’s not exactly what I wrote in my column in the Light, but apt enough that I didn’t correct him.
During a newspaper war waged with sensationalism, games, and, at times, good journalism, reporters for both companies would work to beat each other on stories daily but could gather for a friendly beer afterward and gripe about the bosses. Among the top brass, however, it was personal.
Among the few who came to the E-N from the Light were several columnists who were on contract with the national corporation. E-N Publisher Larry Walker told me in a meeting on the first day that he wasn’t forced by his new bosses at Hearst to hire me. I didn’t believe him. He then said his main concern was the feeling of “my people.” I wondered how long it would be before I was one of his people.
The reporters and lower level editors treated me well, especially my former rival columnist Roddy Stinson. But the top editors gave me a desk in a hallway two floors above the city room. My column, which had run on the front page of the Light, was played on a different page every day at the E-N, buried someplace behind Page 3.
Buck Harvey, one of the state’s best sports columnists, also found his column buried. He could be writing on deadline from an important Spurs game against the L.A. Lakers on the West Coast and be played on an inside page while the front page might carry a column by another sports columnist.
It went that way for nearly a year before the Express-News finally hired a high-level editor from the Light, Robert Rivard. He rationalized the columnists, with me alternating with Roddy on Page 3 and Buck on the front of the sports sections where he belonged. Soon some of the generous profits from being a monopoly were used to remodel the newsroom and I got a small office with a window. I was now one of Walker’s people, and I have to say he had my back when I angered powerful people.
All of the top management that once had to swallow adding a few Light journalists are now gone and won’t have to swallow moving into the old Light building.
Several staffers have told me that the newsroom is happy about the move. Owned by the local group GrayStreet Partners, the Light building has been stunningly redesigned by the venerable Ford, Powell & Carson architecture firm, which also is moving its offices into the building.
To complicate the irony is the fact that the Express-News is now a Hearst paper – and that Hearst is returning not as the owner but as a renter.
I worked at both papers twice during a newspaper career that ran a crooked course from 1967 to 2013. There were so many fascinating – and given that it was San Antonio, wacky – stories. And so many excellent colleagues. The list would be too long and I’d inevitably leave some worthies off. But a brief sampling of Express-News anecdotes and legends is in order.
I once encountered Paul Thompson, the legendary front-page tough-guy columnist of the afternoon News, in the break room. He was probably the best-paid staffer in the newsroom, but he was also a child of the Great Depression. He was recycling used coffee grounds by sprinkling fresh coffee on top, a hobo’s way of stretching the provisions. It tasted terrible.
There was the time Murdoch was in town for his annual visit. He and Editor/Publisher Charles Kilpatrick were heading down the front steps for lunch when the rotund and flamboyant reporter/columnist David Anthony Richelieu, having parked his used hearse illegally, rushed up the stairs past them in his signature opera cape and dark glasses. Murdoch turned to Kilpatrick and asked, “What was that?” Kilpatrick innocently answered: “I have absolutely no idea.”
When Murdoch bought the company in 1973, he turned the afternoon News into a Fleet-Street-style tabloid, complete with sensational Page 1 headlines and, after turning the page, a “Girl in the News.” She wasn’t topless as the London versions often were, but almost. Word around the newsroom was that on a certain day of the week she was an advertisement for a recently arrived offering at a North Side brothel that later would become infamous.
Now, Hearst is struggling to sell its historic 327,000 square foot building and has signed a letter of intent to lease two floors totaling 22,000 square feet in the Light building – the same number of floors it now uses at its current building. The numbers are as brutal as is the reality. They demonstrate that the forces that ended San Antonio’s status as a three-newspaper town in the 1980s and a two-newspaper town in the 1990s have not abated.
The online headline on Thursday’s story announcing the move was upbeat: “San Antonio Express-News moving into Light building, hiring more staff.” The story said the paper “plans to hire an additional 10 journalists, increasing newsroom staff by 10 percent.”
But further down in the story, today’s reality was more realistically described. It said 62 employees “recently took voluntary buyouts, including 11 newsroom staffers and 36 print production workers.”
The print production workers won’t be replaced. The Express-News will be printed at Hearst’s Houston Chronicle. A three-hour drive away and having to fit into a schedule that includes several other newspapers, that will make deadlines for the print edition even earlier than they are now.
Still, Express-News Publisher Mark Medici expressed optimism. He talked of “this next phase of growth” and “a great moment for the Express-News” and “record audience numbers.”
“We are very committed to putting out a world-class newspaper,” he said. It is, to be generous, an expansive notion for a company that is shrinking its workspace to 105 “permanent desks” and 25 for the use of staffers who otherwise work from home. And many of those desks are for sales and other business-side staff, not for reporters, photographers, and editors.
I asked Medici for some specific numbers as to newspaper circulation, online readership, the portion of the desks that will be assigned to newsroom staff, and earlier deadlines. Here is his response – lightly annotated in italics by me – in full.
My reading is Medici is whistling past the graveyard. It’s part of a regional newspaper publisher’s job description these days. Even more likely, he is whistling on the way to the graveyard for San Antonio’s last daily. It is, I’m afraid, not long before the Express-News will be printed only a few days a week, if that often. And after that … I’m happy to have other avenues for good journalism, including the San Antonio Report. But as an old newspaperman, the announcement by Hearst makes me very sad.