Hopefully, everyone who read it enjoyed Michael Murphy's entry on his Chronicle UH sports blog last night. As it turns out, his entry about the departure of backup quarterback Blake Joseph and the start of spring football practice was his last. The Houston Chronicle is trimming its workforce by 12%, and UH beat writer Michael Murphy was among the casualties.
Rice beat writer Moisekapenda Bower and TSU beat writer Terrence Harris were also cut, meaning that the Chronicle has essentially eliminated its local college coverage. (I'd normally say something here about this being evidence of the Chronicle's longstanding bias against the local schools and towards Texas and Texas A&M, but the paper got rid of their beat writers for both of those schools a while back; Longhorn reporter Mike Finger and Aggie beat writer Brent Zwereneman are actually San Antonio Express-News employees and, according to Forth and Fifty, the Chronicle is going to drop them as well anyway.)
It's no secret that the newspaper industry has fallen upon hard times; even before the current recession, newspapers were struggling. Not only did the internet change the way people got their news - usually, free of charge - but the rise of websites like craigslist also took a huge bite out of lucrative newspaper classified revenue. The Chronicle's owner, Hearst Communications, has been especially hit hard: one Hearst publication, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went to an online-only format earlier this month, while another Hearst asset, the San Francisco Chronicle, is in serious financial trouble. Other recent developments, such as the death of the Rocky Mountain News or the decision by the Detroit Free-Press to eliminate home delivery for three days of the week, suggest that the newspaper industry, at least as it currently exists, is essentially gasping its last, dying breaths. (An excellent take on the impending death of the print daily industry, its causes, and its effects, can be read here. Another article worth reading is here.)
Without knowing for sure the true financial situation of the Chronicle or whether these cuts were initiated at the local level or at the behest of their Hearst overlords, I can't help but wonder: does this retrenchment mark the beginning of the end for the Chronicle? Anybody can cover the HPD police blotter or city council's weekly agenda, after all, but it's the specialized local beats that make a local paper relevant. By getting rid of not only their local college sports beat writers, but also other worthy local beats such as NASA (Marc Carreau) and Continental Airlines (Bill Hensel), the Chronicle is decimating the unique, specialized and locally-generated content that makes it relevant. Less specialized content means less readers, which means less revenue, which means that, well, you follow the spiral to its logical conclusion and that conclusion does not bode well for the Chronicle's survival.
In the interests of full disclosure, I grew up an avid and partisan Houston Post reader and I have no special interest in the survival of the Chronicle. But as somebody who is at least sympathetic to the importance of print journalism - I wrote extensively for my high school paper, was a columnist at my college paper, and wrote a few articles for a national architecture student publication - I can't help but wonder: if the Chronicle goes away, then what? Who or what is left to take a local newspaper's place as a reporter, as an informer, as a watchdog?
At any rate, I'm sorry that people like Murph are out of a job tonight. Although I could have done without some of his gratuitous antagonism or his continual useless complaining about UH's attendance problems, he was a good journalist who did his job well and provided UH athletics with excellent coverage. Best of luck to him.
UPDATE: Steve Campbell appears to be the new UH beat writer. Megan Manfull is taking over the Rice beat.