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Published May 19, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

The sad state of unemployment

Post’s closure, how it was handled, left employees in shock

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Have you ever been in the unemployment line?

It’s a humbling experience that millions of Americans, including 2.1 million Texans, are experiencing because of Covid-19.
Because I am retired, I haven’t faced the trauma of losing a job this time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with those suddenly unemployed through no fault of their own.

I have been there before.

Twenty-five years ago last month I was working at the Houston Post. I had been at the Post since 1971 and had worked my way up to executive editor, the second-highest newsroom position.

It had been a tumultuous and roller coaster career at the Post, the financially weaker of the city’s two papers.

I went to work at The Post when it was owned by the Hobby family. They sold it to a Canadian company – The Toronto Sun – who sold it to Dean Singleton. Somehow, I survived the regime changes.

Since Post employees were accustomed to being bought and sold, we weren’t overly concerned when rumors of another deal started circulating in April, 1995. Rumors of our demise were a fact of life.

Working at the Post, one reporter told me, was like living with San Francisco’s earthquakes. There were so many small earthquakes that you began to assume all earthquakes were small. You quit worrying about the Big One.

The journalistic Big One hit the Post on April 18. This time we weren’t sold. It was worse. The Hearst Corp., the publisher of the rival Houston Chronicle, bought the Post and closed it down, effectively eliminating all competition.

It earned Houston the dubious distinction of being the largest U.S. city with only one daily newspaper.

In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. The week before I had a reporter who wanted to pedal around Texas on his bike and report from small towns.

In an unusual move, company bean counters, apparently clued in about what was soon to befall the paper, intervened and tried to halt the assignment. They offered all kinds of lame excuses. Suspicious, I fought for forging ahead with the assignment, hoping I would force them to tell me the truth about what was going on.

They finally relented and let the biker hit the road rather than reveal the real reason they were blocking the assignment.
Later I learned the truth: They didn’t want the reporter to find out he was out of a job while riding his bike in Central Texas, which is exactly what happened.

There were other clues. I must have been in denial.

At the end of the day on April 17, the day before the announcement, I was summoned to the publisher’s office and told to make sure the paper got out on time that night. Meeting deadlines was part of my job. I didn’t need a reminder. Something was up.

About midnight, I was awakened by a phone call. It was the publisher. He wanted another assurance that the press run was on schedule. I pressed him about what was going down. “Just get the paper out,” he replied, then hung up.

I found out later that it was important to get the paper out on time because the Chronicle would take over the building and presses at exactly 3 a.m. The last Post had to be printed by then.

By now I was certain something was up, but I was thinking another sale, not a closing. After all, we had been on the verge of being down for the count many times.

I heard the news of the closing that Tuesday morning on my car radio as I was driving to play tennis. Angry, I hit a few balls, then rushed to the office for a 10 a.m. staff meeting.

I arrived in time to see my boss, the editor, standing on a desk. I was too dazed to remember the words, but Ken Hoffman, a friend and Post columnist, recalls what was said.

“The Houston Chronicle has bought the assets of the Houston Post. As of this moment, the Houston Post is closed. I suggest that you gather your belongings and leave the building.”

That was that.

As he spoke, I remember the stunned faces of newsroom employees. For years they had endured pay freezes and benefit cuts while working in a profession that often required them to spend nights, holidays and weekends at work, away from families.

More than 1,500 people were out of work, and a 111-year-old daily newspaper was history. There wouldn’t even be the traditional final edition to say goodbye.

We gathered our things, bid colleagues farewell and left under police escort.

For the next month, I was stunned about how fast my fortunes had changed, and I wondered if I could have done anything differently to keep the paper alive.

I couldn’t sleep as I worried about future employment in a dying industry, my finances and a million other frightening thoughts.

I was fortunate. I was back at a new job in a month, but the memories of that month of unemployment linger. I pray for those now looking for work.

The day after the Post closed, at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, at least 168 people were killed in a domestic terror attack in Oklahoma City.

The world forgot about the closing of the Post. I won’t.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)