In 2006, I came to Houston on a 6-week contract to analyze a group of community newspapers spread all across this enormous city. From Conroe to Clear Lake, from Cleveland to Waller County, I spent 45 days and nights reading community newspapers and talking to editors in the greater Houston area.
At the end of my contract period, I wrote an exhaustive report – hundreds of pages – detailing ways each newspaper serving each pocket of Houston could improve its content. In my opinion, I told the company’s CEO, if the content of these newspapers were improved, the people who read the newspapers would become more involved.
The day after I submitted the report, the CEO pulled me in his office and said there was no way I could leave and go back to Alabama.
“You have to stay and fix our newspapers,” he said.
So I stayed, and for six years, I worked for a company called Houston Community Newspapers where my sole purpose was to work with a group of 12 incredible editors who published wonderful newspapers devoted to the communities they served.
Today, a dozen years later, most of those newspapers have become holograms of what they once were. Some have been eliminated, their titles a memory for an older generation that once scrambled to the driveway to read about their neighbors. Others have been merged – three became one – in order to save print and editorial costs.
Those newspapers, today, are owned by the Houston Chronicle, but the Chronicle doesn’t shoulder the blame for the void of local news across this prodigious city. Another company – one that is mercifully out of the news business – gutted Houston’s community newspapers. They stripped editors of their writers. News pages in Bellaire were filled with news from Cypress, or Katy, or whatever fit a blank space on the page. In some of The Leader’s area, you’ll find copies of a publication called the Heights Examiner. There’s nothing Heights about that publication.
In the same year Houston Community Newspapers flushed its mission for publishing relevant community news, our company formed and bought The Leader. We believed the Heights and Oak Forest and Garden Oaks and all the neighborhoods of North Houston fit the perfect mold for a place where readers would respond to a community newspaper devoted to their lives.
Of course, we had no idea if the dream of rebuilding The Leader would work, but we also knew that if we did a good job covering local news, we’d have the best chance at remaining an integral part of a community that demands and deserves to have a voice.
For more than six year now, we’ve tried to publish a newspaper that reports on our community without preference or an agenda. Some weeks our newspaper is better than others. Some stories are much better than others. But during our stewardship of The Leader, we’ve remained constant in one philosophy: We won’t sacrifice important, local content to increase profits.
At one point, I was convinced The Leader has weathered the newspaper storm because of this devotion to content. Over the past few months, though, I’ve learned an important lesson as my attention has shifted from one project to another. The reason The Leader has maintained its relevance, and the reason The Leader has remained an independent source of news, and the reason our publication earns some modicum of respect in the community has nothing to do with the work that’s done inside our office walls each week.
No, the reason The Leader has remained a vibrant, pertinent newspaper is because you, our readers, actually appreciate it and support it. You are the ones who send us story ideas each week. You are the ones who write letters to the editor, or call when you’re upset because we missed delivery to your home. In most communities where there are still free newspapers, most calls to the office complain about getting the trash off the front lawn. In The Leader’s community, the calls are 5-to-1 people who missed the paper this week.
I’ll be entirely too blunt here, but the only reason The Leader has remained open is because you – our readers – invest 15 or 20 or 30 minutes a week reading and responding to our stories. From posts on our social media pages to answers when we ask questions, I’ve never seen a community that supported its paper the way our readers support this one.
Each year, since 2012, we have a program called Voluntary Pay, and for seven years, hundreds and hundreds of readers have been part of that program. In next week’s edition of The Leader, you’re going to find a letter from me about our Voluntary Pay program.
Just as you all have done for the past seven years, I’m going to ask if you’ll consider continuing your support for The Leader through our Voluntary Pay Program. We don’t charge for delivery of The Leader each week because we still believe in the free distribution model. The more papers we can put in lawns each week, the better it is for the local businesses that use The Leader to market their products and services.
But as you probably know, more and more businesses choose to spend their money on digital advertising. And in response to that, we send out one call a year asking if readers will consider a contribution to help continue supporting local news.
So next week, I hope you’ll have time to read my letter. For as long as we’ve been the stewards of The Leader, you all have helped support what we try to do each week. And if you have the ability and desire again this year, I hope you’ll consider being part of our voluntary pay program.