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SA Voice: Express-News cuts are bad news for all in growing city

On the front page of Thursday morning's San Antonio Express-News was the kind of story that makes growing cities very proud.

'FOR THOSE ON THE MOVE, ALL ROADS LEAD TO S.A.' was the headline over a story about San Antonio being #1 in the country in the number of new residents.

By late afternoon, a story on the paper's website was one that should make all of us in this growing city very sad.

'San Antonio Express-News lays off 14 Journalists.'

Our hometown newspaper is shrinking again just as this booming city really needs more reporters and local reporting.

[You can see more tweets about the closing below]

Another 14 are gone.

Now, you might be thinking 'So What? And you're their news competition, TV guy. Why do you care? And what am I going to really miss?'

I'll get there in a minute.

First, a little context. I'm old enough to have been covering the cutbacks, consolidations and layoffs in San Antonio's newspaper business for decades - even before the San Antonio Light closed 25 years ago.

And this trend of fewer reporters is nothing new.

REMEMBER THE LIGHT

In 1992 Ed Rademaekers, the Executive Editor of the San Antonio Light told me

If you're looking at a spreadsheet, the newspaper industry is looking up right now. [But] if you're looking at demographic data, you gotta be scared. Young people aren't reading and it's not going to be easy to run the San Antonio Express-News or any old traditional print medium anywhere in the country.

That was December of 1992. He was right then and he's still right.

Way back then I was interviewing him as the Light was in limbo and about to close.

Its owner, the Hearst Corporation, had agreed to buy the Express-News and was planning to close its own longtime paper, the Light, which had been trailing its competitor in circulation.

But the staff had to continue to publish the Light every day while they were forced to wait three months to see if anyone else wanted to buy it.

Nobody did. The Light finally closed and several hundred people, including a big chunk of staff and press room workers, were laid off.

And just as importantly, the competition between two massive groups of journalists ended. And some would say the drive and incentive to push themselves to do their best started to die.

Yes, they competed then and still compete today with TV and radio news people, but something real died when that newspaper war ended.


THEN CAME THE INTERNET

And it would only get worse. It might be hard to realize, but that was years before the internet was a thing and really started killing newspapers and their staffs.

It was years before 'aggregators' started basically stealing stories reported by all of us in the local news business and making money each time a reader clicks on something we produce.

So 25 years ago, there was this massive, sudden drop in the number of journalists out there covering all kinds of things we should know about - or might want to know about.

Important, but unglamorous stuff like school board meetings and city council agendas. Tedious stuff maybe, like looking into infrastructure problems and planning for a city about to boom.

Since the San Antonio Light closed in early 1993, the population of the city of San Antonio has jumped by more than 50%, going from just about a million people to an estimated 1,511,946 (according to Thursday's Express-News story).

And we're expected to grow by another million or so by 2040.

We could really use more local reporters.

In the big picture of newspaper layoffs, the 14 cuts announced Thursday are a blip compared to the Light closing, and a fraction of the 75 laid off on what was called 'Black Friday' in 2009.

But shrinking news staffs as a city is growing is a real problem for all of us.

WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE WON'T KNOW

Because if you stop to think about it, every one of those journalists out of work means that we could be losing out on a story that's important to us. Say there's some corruption that will go undiscovered, tax dollars stolen that we won't find out about.

Or on the flip side, there's good news that will happen that nobody will hear about - or a plea for help that will go ignored.

It might be a spotlight that could be shined on something you really care about or some random piece of information that you could benefit from, like a story on a place you'd love to visit or a person you'd love to meet.

Something that you really want to get involved in.

But you won't.

The watchdog and spotlight effects of local news reporters are hard to quantify, but I can tell you, they're real. And they make big differences in people's lives.

That's why most people I know wind up in news. It's not because they want to shape your politics or get you to think like they do.

They see people benefit in ways small and big from what we do. And they like telling stories. That's pretty much it.

YES, THERE'S THE WEB

On the bright side, the staffs of local TV news stations have grown over the last two decades. At least ours has.

We're also investing more and more in our 'digital' efforts.

And we and local and regional web news outfits are helping fill the void left by shrinking newspapers.

Robert Rivard, who worked at the Light, then was Editor of the Express-News, started a little website called the Rivard Report when he left the paper.

Now it's grown into an impressive, donor-supported, non-profit, hyper-local 'digital news organization' with a growing staff and a new Editor-in-Chief, Beth Frerking, recently brought in from the National Law Journal.

The Austin-based 'Texas Tribune,' run by former Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith, is a bigger, statewide version of the Rivard Report.

And with some of the Express-News latest cuts coming from its Austin bureau, we will need the Tribune to step up and aggressively cover all things state government.


ABOUT THAT 'FAKE NEWS' THING

I've seen some haters on the web already celebrating the death of a 'dinosaur' news outlet. Some claim they're happy because a 'liberal rag' is shrinking.

But whatever you think of the paper's editorial page or what some call 'Fake News' because they don't like what's reported, it is bad news for all of us when our city is growing, while reliable, trusted news outlets are shrinking.

And yes, my news outfit is competing with the Express-News as we are all increasingly moving into the same digital world. (Call this long web story by a TV news guy 'Exhibit A).

And it's possible that we could hire some of those laid off by the paper this week. I hope so. Our Assignment Editor happens to be one of those who lost his job when the Light closed 25 years ago and has a wealth of knowledge and experience that is unique.

But as we grow as a city, our problems become more complex, more diffuse. We are physically spread out so far we don't get to actually see other parts of the city as we once did.

We will rely more and more on news outfits - real reporters - to tell us what's going on in our own area.

YOUR CABLE GUY CAN'T DO IT

And we cannot get that from our favorite talking heads on Cable TV in New York.

While we may agree with everything they say, they don't have reporters to tell you what's going on with your kids' school district.

They won't care how the new Defense Spending Bill includes money to help jumpstart a push by the City of San Antonio and the Air Force to improve wastewater pipes at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland and the entire southwest side.

They aren't going to look into how the city is - or is not - figuring out how to deal with that booming population and growing traffic problems.

There have to be real reporters you can trust doing that unglamorous, important, local work.

And we all have to make sure there are enough of them. And support them.

My heart goes out to all of those affected by the layoffs. Good luck. And don't let the haters get you down.

I'll be posting the story I shot in 1992 on the closing of the Light later on my facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/randy.beamer.



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