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Published August 13, 2019

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

When Mexico shook, journalism shined at the Houston Post

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Long hours. Modest pay. Weekend, holiday and night shifts. Nasty letters from consumers. Daily deadline pressure.
Who would take a newspaper job? Better yet, who would do it for almost 50 years?

I did. And I have no regrets.

In recent columns, I have shared some bonehead things I have been part of during my career. In fairness, it’s time for a success story.

I tell it not to brag - well, maybe a little - but to give insight into the daily challenges a newspaper editor faces and to illustrate why newspapering was so rewarding, despite the drawbacks.

Like every day as managing editor at The Houston Post, I walked into the office on Sept. 19, 1985, not knowing what that day’s news would bring.

One thing I did know: The board of directors of our parent company, the Toronto Sun, was in town to check out their new acquisition. The newsroom was going to be under the microscope.

Shortly after 9 a.m., wire services began moving bulletins about an 8.0 earthquake in Mexico City.

I convened a meeting of department heads to discuss options. I reminded them about the board of directors and that when the Toronto Sun purchased the Post it promised excellent color photography and aggressive news reporting. The pressure was on.
The problem: No photographs were moving from Mexico City, and details were sparse.

We considered paying several thousand dollars and chartering a private jet to fly a photographer to Mexico City.

That posed journalistic risks.

Would the jet be allowed to land in Mexico City?

Even if allowed to land, could the photographer move around to take pictures?

Could he fly to Mexico City, take pictures, come back, and process his film (not digital yet) in time for the next morning’s paper?

At that point, we didn’t even know if the damage was bad enough to warrant spending thousands of dollars on the trip.
We decided to roll the dice and go for it. We were warned, however, there would be little chance of communication with the photographer during his flight.

Next, we had to arrange space for the photographs, if we got any. Contrary to what readers may think, the size of a paper each day is generally determined by the amount of ads, not the amount of news. It is a business, after all.

I convinced the new owners to take a chance, and we ordered two more pages without ads to pay for them. This was going to cost several thousand dollars more.

I now had chartered a flight that might not get to Mexico City and ordered up extra news space to display pictures I wasn’t sure I would get.

As evening arrived and deadlines approached, it became clear that the magnitude of the quake made it worth our efforts. (The final toll would be at least 5,000 dead, 412 collapsed buildings and another 3,124 heavily damaged.)

But we still had no pictures and hadn’t heard from our photographer. It was a tense situation, made worse by members of the board of directors popping into my office asking if we had pictures yet.

The press room started pressuring us to let them start the presses … without pictures from Mexico. We stalled them and were just about to admit defeat when word came that our photographer was only 20 minutes out from Hobby Airport.

Several hours later, well after 2 a.m., I remember walking out of the Houston Post building carrying a newspaper with two full pages of dramatic pictures from Mexico.

It turns out we were the only paper in the country with such a full display of pictures. For weeks, those pictures were used by other major newspapers, with credit given to the Houston Post.

It had been an 18-hour shift filled with challenges, tension, public service, the unknown and, finally, success.

You gotta love it.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)