Herman: New owners at the newspaper. Same mission.


I’d be remiss if I let the moment pass without noting a significant imminent change at one of our city’s longest-standing and most important institutions.

This one.

If all goes as planned, this will be my last column for the employer behind my paychecks since June 1995 and for a year or so when I worked for the Lufkin Daily News in East Texas many years ago. I’m not going anywhere, but my longtime employer is.

On Monday, ownership of the Austin American-Statesman is scheduled to transfer from the Atlanta-based Cox Media Group (an arm of the family-owned Cox Enterprises) to GateHouse Media, a Pittsford, N.Y.-based company that owns more than 140 daily newspapers and paid $47.5 million to buy this one.

First, as an early litmus test of my new paycheck-signer’s sense of humor, let me note that when I first heard the name I misunderstood it as Toll House. I liked that because I figure a company that invented a great cookie should be able to run a great newspaper.

(Quick. Take a look. Are the GateHousers laughing?)

All we know for sure here at the newspaper is that as a result of the new ownership things are likely to change somehow. But you should also know this: Things also were likely to change under the old ownership. And that’s because my industry is in an unprecedented period of unprecedented change. We’ve been disrupted.

Cox has been a good employer for me, providing me the kinds of opportunities journalists covet. I very well may have never made it to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, if not for an employer who thought it important for its White House correspondent to follow the president around the world.

I’ve long sensed there were misconceptions about how it worked when an Atlanta company owned the Austin newspaper. The misconception went something like this: Every morning somebody from Atlanta (probably a Cox family member with nefarious motives and intent to bend the news) called Austin to tell the paper’s editors what to put in the paper.

It never worked that way. The message was more along the lines of “put whatever you want in the paper and send us some of the money.” We had broad autonomy, especially when large profit margins were automatic. As the profit margins changed, so did some of the autonomy, though the daily exercise of news judgment has always remained fully in control of our newsroom.

Despite its steps (and occasional missteps), Cox decided it was no longer in its interest to own the American-Statesman, which it had purchased in 1976 from a Waco-based company that had owned it since 1919.

One of my bosses (a boss who has a way with words) said it well in likening the upcoming ownership change to a breakup with a bad boyfriend. It’s been nice, but … . (And in this case the bad boyfriend is keeping the real estate.)

Farewell, Cox. I wish you well (especially with the pension plan I’m trying to figure out how to maximize).

Hello, GateHouse Media. I wish us well (especially with the paychecks I hope to continue to enjoy).

The challenging thing about change is that it always includes the unknowable. Me? I’m going with semi-cautious semi-optimism, kind of like when you’re awaiting lab test results from your doc.

The potentially bad thing about the new owners is that they seem very bottom-line oriented. The potentially good thing about the new owners is that they seem very bottom-line oriented. That’s potentially good because, we hope, it could mean the new owners will let us continue to serve our community in the way we know how to serve our community without interfering, as long as the money flows.

Which brings us back to The Big Disruption. Every newspaper, indeed every news organization, is trying to navigate our disurupted world. The challenges are daunting, not the least of which is the notion held by many that information is not something for which you should have to pay.

Confronted by readers who despise our earlier deadlines and subscription prices, I’ve responded by noting that what we now provide actually is a better product. We just provide it in a different way.

Let’s take a Saturday night Longhorn football game. Here’s the way it used to work. Say the game ended 10 p.m. Once it’s over (actually beginning before it’s over), the sportswriter wrote the story and hit the button to send it to an editor so the editor could do his or her magic (editors are magical people). Once the magic was done, the editor would hit a button and put the game story en route to the giant printing press.

And, eight hours or so later, the story would wind up on your front lawn.

Now let’s look at how it works now that odds are real good that something that happens at 10 p.m. won’t be in your print edition the next morning. The Saturday night Longhorn game ends. The sportswriter writes the story. The editor does editor magic. A button is pushed and, instead of going to a giant printing press, the story goes to your home. Immediately.

Perhaps you’ve noticed there are people who have computers in their homes. I know those computers cost millions of dollars and fill a room, but people have them. And we can link the newspaper’s computers to those home computers (and cell phones and tablets) and send news and sports and weather and columnist ramblings on an immediate basis. What’ll they think of next?

Two words come to mind for this newer way of delivering news product: Faster, better. (Not to mention that fact that we’ve yet to figure out how to get video into the print paper.)

And there’s a societal benefit to this: The rest of us don’t have to see you on your lawn in the morning in your pajamas and/or robe and fuzzy slippers. Consider this a roadside beautification component Lady Bird Johnson would appreciate.

Throughout this period of lingering uncertainty here at the paper, I’ve remained proud of the product and my colleagues who produce it. We still have the largest, most experienced news staff in town and we still care deeply about our town.

We’ll dive headfirst into the somewhat unknown world of new owners on Monday. Please make the trip with us and feel free to let me know what you think as the months go by. I’m far from in charge around here, but I know the people who are.

One more thing: I still kind of wish it had been Toll House. I just checked. My computer accepts cookies.



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