Journalism and COVID-19: Texas Newsrooms Affected
This page is part of Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic, PEN America’s project covering the toll of the coronavirus crisis on the journalism industry in the United States. For “Newsrooms Affected,” we looked at five U.S. states with with among the most negatively affected newsrooms; Texas was one of the states. Here are the Texas newsrooms that have faced furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours, shifts to solely online coverage, suspension of print, temporary or permanent closures, reduced print schedules, or mergers as a result of the pandemic.
Last updated: March 30, 2021
The Austin Chronicle
Location: Austin, TX
Action: Reduced to an every-other-week print schedule
Excerpt from a note to readers by Kimberly Jones, editor of The Austin Chronicle:
“What we’ve been doing at the Chronicle is likely what the rest of you have been doing – assessing the most urgent needs and focusing on those. For us, that’s mostly meant the breaking news stuff, reporting on the latest guidance from health authorities, the new rules on gathering, all the cancellations and closures and modified hours, and the restaurants reinventing their service models overnight to become takeout operations. In the past seven days, we’ve posted more than 50 new stories online, which is a lot considering our primary focus (and our staffing model) has always been on pushing a print issue out the door once a week.
“In these trying times, we’ve made the difficult decision to go to an every other week printing schedule. That means, for the first time since our first seven years of operation, you will not see a Chronicle on stands next week. But you will see us online, every day. And as we’re moving out of triage, into this new normal, you’ll see more stories from us that look like, well, our usual stories. Artist and author interviews. Film and record reviews. Deep dives on city politics. . .
“In this time of social distancing, staying connected matters now more than ever. If you aren’t doing so already, follow us on social media. Share our stories. Sign up for our newsletters. Find a community on our message boards. Buy a subscription to get the paper delivered to you, or support our work with a one-time or recurring donation.”
Castroville News Bulletin, The Leader News, and Medina Valley Times
Locations: Castroville, TX; Lytle, Somerset, and Atascosa County, TX; and Medina County, TX respectively
Founded: 1958, 1999, and 1977 respectively
Action: Shuttered completely following the death of the publisher
Quote from Thom Barnes, former editor of the Castroville News Bulletin and Medina Valley Times, via San Antonio Report’s story:
“One person or two, maybe a partnership, who is willing to shoulder and pay the dues [and] finds it rewarding enough to go through that week after week. When that person is gone, then the paper really kind of loses its heart, too.”
Quote from Julie Dunnavant, former reporter at The Leader News, via San Antonio Report’s story:
“The paper, whether people admit to it or not, it’s the heart of the community. Nobody’s going to get rich with the service that you provide, like being a teacher. . . It’s something that the community may not always appreciate, but it is absolutely invaluable.”
Quote from Jerad Spencer, stepson of Natalie Spencer (publisher of the Castroville News Bulletin, The Leader News, and Medina Valley Times), via San Antonio Report’s story:
“They can see that this person kept the town paper alive. And because of the impact of one person, they no longer have it.”
Location: Dallas–Fort Worth, TX
Action: Laid off 15 staffers
Excerpt from a note to readers by Tim Rogers, editor of D Magazine:
“Today was a tough one at D Magazine. In response to the economic downturn that is hammering nearly every business in America, we had to lay off some talented people and cut the salaries of everyone who remains with the company. D-branded operations, until today, employed 82 people (D CEO, D Home, D Weddings, all online channels). We lost 15 people, including editors, designers, sales people, and administrative personnel. . .
“To our readers: know that we are making this difficult move because we will do whatever it takes to keep the servers and presses running. Now, more than ever, people need straight, honest information — and distraction and entertainment, too. That’s our mission, to bring you the truth in proper context, to inspire you with images and stories, to help you live fuller, better-informed lives in North Texas. We approach our jobs every day with a sense of duty and joy.”
The Dallas Morning News
Location: Dallas–Fort Worth, TX
Action: Reduced the pay of staff
Excerpt from a letter to employees by Grant Moise, president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News, via D Magazine’s story:
“That word ‘team’ has never felt more appropriate than at the current time. The coronavirus pandemic has made us all realize there are many things out of our personal control. In times of uncertainty, feeling unified and connected is critically important. I have confidence that our Company will come out of this stronger and more resilient than ever. In order to accomplish that, we need to weather the storm together, which means there will be no immediate layoffs or furloughs as a result of the pandemic.
“However, we have entered a new economic reality where our growth in audience and paying members is not enough to offset short-term challenges in advertising revenue. The Management Committee has come up with a plan to reduce non-compensation expenses aggressively while still positioning the Company for long-term strength when this situation abates. These non-compensation expenses include reductions in newsprint, cost of goods sold, travel and entertainment, trucking, utilities and capital expenditures. Over the next few days, your management team will walk you through these changes and how they impact your respective area of the business. . .
“We are all in this for the long term. Our responsible stewardship of the Company’s balance sheet and our operating units will allow us to come out of this downturn in a position of strength. We will persevere as one team serving one of the greatest communities in the country. Our work has never been more important on both the media and marketing services sides of our business.”
Location: Dallas, TX
Action: Parent company Voice Media Group reduced pay by 25 percent (35 percent for executives)
From a tweet thread by the Dallas Observer:
“Our survival depends on the success of many of the small businesses that are suffering most during this pandemic, and like them, we’re hurting. Our staff has accepted drastic pay cuts and are waiting nervously to see what layoffs might be required for the Observer to survive.
“But we are determined to endure. If you value what we do, you can help make that happen.
“Before the pandemic, small, local news sources like us were struggling as corporations that don’t live in our community soaked up advertising revenue we rely upon.
“That will be a challenge for us even after the pandemic passes, as it surely will. So, we’re again asking you, our readers, to become members … of us, Team Observer.”
The Edinburg Review and Valley Town Crier
Location: McAllen, TX
Founded: 1967 and 1964 respectively
Action: Shuttered completely by Gannett
Quotes from the Rio Grande Guardian’s story:
“It was a great thing for a long time. For me it was a labor of love because it gave kids a chance to get started in journalism, and it gave the community a slice of life. It is a sad thing to see the papers close.”
—Gregory Selber, journalism professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who worked with two newspaper executives to revive The Edinburg Review around 2005 and who also worked freelance on the paper’s sports pages
“All of this happened last Wednesday. I was on a Zoom meeting and they just told us, ‘Hey, you are shutting down.’ It came out of nowhere so our last publication was Wednesday. . . It was a super brief meeting, less than ten minutes. They were basically saying our (advertising) numbers were not there. We took a big loss in revenue (with the coronavirus lockdown).”
—Unnamed staff member
Location: Clute, TX
Acton: Reduced to a five-day-a-week print schedule
Quotes from Yvonne Mintz, editor and publisher of The Facts, via the paper’s story on the changes:
“This change is a direct result of COVID-19 dramatically disrupting our lives and economy. Our mission is vital, bringing news to our communities in the best and most trying of times. Still, we are much like any other small business. When the local economy suffers, we suffer.
“Many of them have pulled their advertising, through no fault of their own, of course, drastically reducing our paper’s revenue and leaving us searching for ways to cut costs to survive this dangerously thin window. Our advertisers will be back, and our economy will rebound, but none of us can be sure what that will look like or how long it will take.
“The Facts is a vital community resource. We have to do whatever we can to preserve it. . .
“This is not a change we wanted to make. But we will adapt and do our absolute best to serve readers well through this hard time and beyond. We will get through this trying time together and remain committed to supporting local businesses and the community we love.”
Galveston County Daily News
Location: Galveston, TX
Action: Reduced to a five-day-a-week print schedule
Quotes from the Galveston County Daily News’s story on the changes at the paper:
“Like most businesses in our community, we did not anticipate having to make such changes before COVID-19 arrived and dramatically disrupted our lives. The Daily News is much like any other small business. Our business model relies on revenues generated from local advertising and subscriptions.
“A good community newspaper’s health is generally a direct reflection of a local economy. Unfortunately, this is not business as usual for so many of our local advertisers in this community – and by direct relationship, certainly not for us either.
“We made this decisive change to our operating model to be able to navigate through this punishing economic tunne. Doing nothing is not an option. We intend to serve this community for the long-term.”
—Leonard Woolsey, publisher of the Galveston County Daily News and president of Southern Newspapers
“The Daily News has changed before over the course of its 178 years. It has been a weekly at times and published several days a week at times. It has been a morning paper at times and an afternoon paper at times. It was among the pioneers of digital journalism, adopting that technology in the early 1990s.
“One thing that has not changed through all of that is its dedication to quality. That won’t change now either.”
—Michael A. Smith, Editor, Galveston County Daily News
Location: Houston, TX
Action: Offered buyouts
From a tweet thread by Dwight Silverman, technology editor of the Houston Chronicle who was among those who accepted a buyout at the paper:
“I’m excited about the possibilities ahead.
“I’ll have more to say later about my time at the Chronicle, but I am incredibly grateful that my bosses gave me room to do things that I love and are interesting. Most of all, what I did helped a lot of people.
“That’s the most important thing to me, helping others through my work. I’ll continue to do that, no matter which path I take.”
Location: Houston, TX
- Parent company Voice Media Group reduced pay by 25 percent (35 percent for executives)
- Launched a membership campaign
Excerpt from a note to readers by Margaret Downing, editor-in-chief of the Houston Press:
“As the Houston Press has documented for you over the last several days, these are hard times for our city. We’ve gone out of our way to detail the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, especially for those in the arts, music and restaurant/bar communities, as well as relaying important public-health news and updates. . .
“However, like so many of the people we write about, we’re not immune to the dramatic downturn in business caused by the pandemic. This week our staff was told our pay is being drastically cut and layoffs will follow. Operating budgets will be cut as well.
“That’s why we’re launching a membership campaign. Our goal: Find 1,000 readers who’ll agree to make an annual or monthly contribution to the Press by April 30. In return, you’ll get a completely ad-free online reading experience, along with the knowledge that you’ve helped keep independent journalism alive.”
Houston Public Media
Location: Houston, TX
Action: Eliminated eight full-time positions and 15 part-time positions
Quote from Lisa Shumate, general manager of Houston Public Media, via Current’s story:
“Houston Public Media, like many organizations, is addressing budgetary constraints due to the impact of COVID-19, including revenue shortfalls from fundraising. We’re projecting this impact to continue through fiscal year 21 which begins September 1, 2020. These efforts were supported with existing resources and will continue. Our core service of local news and public affairs will continue unaffected.”
Location: Longview, TX
Actions (by parent company M. Roberts Media):
- Eliminated editor position, which Ric Brack held for 10 years at the Longview News-Journal
- Named John Anderson regional editor of M. Roberts Media, which means Anderson will oversee the newsroom operations for the Longview News-Journal as well as the other East Texas markets
Quotes from the Longview News-Journal’s story on the changes at the paper:
“We wish Ric well in his future endeavors and appreciate his service to Longview and our readers. This is a strategic decision to streamline our operations. Our readers can continue to expect quality local journalism, and we remain committed to being the most trusted source of local news.”
—Stephen McHaney, President, M. Roberts Media
“The News-Journal reporters have worked hard to give the residents of Longview reliable reports on how they are affected by growth, progress and even a pandemic. Our focus will continue to be stories you can read and videos you can watch about your friends, family and neighbors. The M. Roberts Media newspapers have always been respected, and now independent judges have ranked them the best in the state. I am very proud to be part of this team.”
—John Anderson, Regional Editor, M. Roberts Media
The Merkel Mail
Location: Merkel, TX
Action: Shuttered completely
Excerpt from the Abilene Reporter-News’s story on The Merkel Mail closing down:
“This is not a sad story, but it is about the end of something.
“After 130 years, the Merkel Mail is soon to be no more. The weekly newspaper’s last edition is Wednesday.
“It’s not sad because the newspaper’s publisher John Starbuck will be just fine. If there is sadness to be had, it’s from the loss of a publication that’s served this community since 1890.”
Quotes from John Starbuck, publisher of The Merkel Mail, via KRBC-TV’s story:
“Papers just didn’t sell like I thought they would. . . It’s been a ride but, unfortunately our revenue stream has dropped off. Legal notices for our attorneys have been our financial bread and butter. . . It’s not so much the revenue but the fact that Merkel does not appreciate the paper for what it is like they did several years ago.”
Mineral Wells Index
Location: Mineral Wells, TX
Action: Closed and merged with a sister newspaper, the Weatherford Democrat
Excerpt from a note to readers by Lisa Chappell, publisher of the Mineral Wells Index:
“The coronavirus pandemic has burdened businesses with steep losses in revenue. The Mineral Wells Index is no exception. It has forced us to rethink our operations and make some difficult decisions.
“Today is the last edition of the Mineral Wells Index and its website. Next week, it will merge with our nearby sister newspaper, the Weatherford Democrat. The Democrat will undertake coverage of both communities. . .
“These are stressful times for you, and for us. We thank our Mineral Wells Index subscribers and advertisers for their support over the years, and ask that you continue to embrace our journalism in print and online at the Weatherford Democrat.”
San Antonio Current
Location: San Antonio, TX
Action: Laid off 10 staffers
Excerpt and quote from an article by San Antonio Current staff:
“In light of the unprecedented economic catastrophe brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Current is heartbroken to tell you we temporarily laid off 10 employees today. The cuts came from virtually every department, including sales, production, editorial and events. It’s our sincere hope that after weathering this storm, we’ll be able to bring back this incredibly valued staff, but at the moment we can’t offer a timeline.
“In the spirit of transparency, since we are a free publication and website, 100% of the Current’s revenue comes from San Antonians being able to gather in public — in restaurants, bars, theatres, museums, parks and at our own events and festivals. Since a majority of our advertisers are ceasing operation as quarantine measures go into effect, we simply don’t have a path forward with our full staff. Remaining employees across the company are taking a pay cut and covering multiple roles for the time being.”
—San Antonio Current Staff
“This is absolutely brutal — the worst-case scenario. Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate this, and we are heartbroken to have to let go of these hardworking and talented people. My hope is that in the very near future, we can go back to business as usual. Until then, our very small but scrappy staff remains committed to San Antonio, our advertisers and to delivering journalism for the city we love.”
—Michael Wagner, Publisher, San Antonio Current
San Antonio Express-News
Location: San Antonio, TX
Action: Sixty-two employees took voluntary buyouts, including 11 newsroom staffers and 36 print production workers
Quote from Mark Medici, publisher of the San Antonio Express-News, via mySA’s story:
“Throughout this pandemic, all of our employees have gone above and beyond the call of duty. The voluntary separation program is an acknowledgment of these challenging times and provided an option for some employees to pursue other interests, retire early, spend more time with family or simply recharge and reset.
“Still, it is bittersweet. Those who have chosen to leave will always be a part of our Express-News family, and I wish them nothing but the very best. For the balance of our team, the future is bright, our audiences are growing and our reporting has never been in higher demand.”
Location: Victoria, TX
Action: Laid off editor/publisher Chris Cobler
From an Instagram post by Chris Cobler:
“For financial reasons intensified by the pandemic, the Victoria Advocate has eliminated my position. I want to thank all of you for inviting me into your homes and sharing your lives with me for these past 13 years. You’ve made Victoria our home. Most of all, I want to thank the many, many talented and dedicated journalists at the Advocate and elsewhere during my almost-40-year newspaper career. Their commitment to truthful reporting and serving their communities inspired me and made going to work here fun and important every day. All of us who care about what’s going on in our community and our world desperately need them. They need your support now more than ever. Wherever you are, please subscribe to your local newspaper.”