2017 was a rough year for alternative weeklies. The Village Voice ceased print publication in October, and L.A. Weekly was bought by a group of Southern California investors that promptly laid off the editorial staff, save for one person. Both entities were once owned by Village Media Group (VMG).
In November, the VMG downsized staff and ceased print publication of another of its storied weeklies, The Houston Press. A big reason: The Southern U.S., including Texas, was hard hit by Hurricane Harvey.
Revealing the ever-precarious nature of publications that rely solely on ad revenue, the free, 28-year-old Houston Press ceased its print publication and downsized staff last month, a casualty of the devastation.
Going forward, The Houston Press will be an online pub with one editor and a team of freelancers. A major reason for the change was a serious dip in ad revenue following Harvey.
The Texas Observer reports on the strange demise of the paper in the story “Requiem for an Alt-Weekly.” Writer Michael Hardy recounts the day the staff was let go. The Houston Astros had just won the World Series, and several staffers were at the victory parade before being summoned back to their office, where they were met with pizza, six packs of beer and the bad news.
The publication kept only two employees: publisher Stuart Folb and editor Margaret Downing. Eight full-time and two part-time members of the editorial staff were out of work immediately.
Beyond the tragedy of the loss of another alt-weekly lauded for its investigative pieces, is a more precarious issue. Is it possible for ad-supported journalism to survive in today’s media landscape?
As the Texas-based Covering Katy site reports, had the paper decided to keep its staff and go digital, it would have been a bold move in a new direction, rather than a tragedy for independent journalism.
While other Houston publications were equally devastated by the storm, their financial base was supported, in part, by subscribers, allowing for a financial cushion during rough times.
In a broader context, the demise of the The Houston Press in print reveals another worry. With extreme weather on the rise, our coasts and populations are at risk. Such serious events bring collateral damage — including a severe blow to local press.