State of the Media

Access to public documents is the bedrock of investigative journalism. The godfather of modern reporting in America, I.F. Stone, built his reputation parsing the endless reams of neglected paperwork churned out by government bureaucracies, then using the often-overlooked documents against the government that produced them, resulting in a series of incriminating scoops.

Austin-based Ken Martin, a feisty 70-something former Marine who runs a small investigative news website called TheAustinBulldog.org, has helped kindle a fire that could spread around the state, and might prove that the tools of Journalism 2.0 have leveled the media playing field more than most people realize.

Two years ago Martin began an aggressive one-man campaign to see if he could ferret out personal emails sent by Austin City Council members that might relate to public matters. Martin filed requests under the state’s Public Information Act asking for the emails, and when the city dragged its feet in response, a friendly lawyer filed suit, arguing that the public has the right to know if city council members are negotiating the public’s business in private.

The case ping-ponged back and forth, but in the end the city coughed up some of the correspondence, validating Martin’s belief that residents of Austin and other Texas cities are often subject to what he calls “government in the shadows.”

Martin’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire of Austin, is now working with attorneys in El Paso who are trying to obtain another batch of city council and city manager emails that might be tied to public business—in this case, communications dealing with a controversial plan to bypass a public vote and speed construction of an expensive new downtown baseball stadium in El Paso.

The Texas Attorney General’s office—rightly insistent on municipal compliance with the Texas Public Information Act—has been at war with El Paso city attorneys who have claimed that the act’s transparency rules are unclear, and that not all the requested documents need to be released.

Adding more evidence that non-mainstream sites like Martin’s Austin Bulldog are stealing journalistic thunder from Texas’ so-called legacy outlets, an El Paso website has sprung up to bird-dog the emerging El Paso documents. It’s called Chucoleaks.org, and it describes itself this way: “Born out of the exposure of the downtown baseball stadium scandal, Chucoleaks is the regional aggregator of El Paso City Council records City Council does not want you to see.”

For his part, Martin is waiting to see whether other citizen journalists will challenge other Texas cities on similar grounds—perhaps Dallas Area Residents for Responsible Drilling, which has already used open-records requests to keep an eye on natural gas operations in and around the city.

“To allow officials to evade turning over the records of public business conducted on private devices and accounts would be to gut the Texas Public Information Act and permit the public’s business to be done in the shadows, instead of in sunshine, where it belongs,” Martin says.

But a 2012 study by The Center for Public Integrity (conducted by Kelley Shannon, a Texas media stalwart formerly with the Associated Press) reveals that there remains a lot of work to be done before Martin’s brand of investigation becomes commonplace in Texas. Shannon discovered that certain Texas cities consistently petition the Attorney General’s office seeking exemptions from release requirements. Dallas suburbs including McKinney, Garland, Mesquite, Plano and Arlington were among the places most prone to resisting open-records requests. (The AG’s office has referred to Dallas as a “repeat offender” in its resistance to public–records requests).

Despite such stonewalling, Martin is optimistic that citizen journalists will continue to pursue city officials.

“No one is asking for and no one wants access to a public official’s private correspondence,” he says. “We ask only for electronic communication exchanged with others about public business.”

Martin also expects his strategy to become contagious: “I hope it’s a virus that spreads rapidly.”

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A recent headline-grabbing report criticizing Texas public universities for imbalanced teaching of American history—by overly emphasizing issues of race, gender and class—should be monitored by anyone who cares about the righteous mission of journalism in a state where true equality remains achingly elusive.

In the report titled “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” The University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University are cited as schools where 50 percent or more of history professors are “high assigners” of articles and books on race, gender and class.

It was the latest salvo in a seemingly unrelenting assault on education in Texas—an assault that could easily be turned toward another inviting target: statewide journalism departments educating thousands of future reporters and editors.

The impact of this new manifesto remains to be seen, but departmental debates are already popping up in its wake. At a minimum, the report has opened the window a bit wider for hard-line reactionary intrusions on and off campus.

Missing from most mainstream news of the report is the fact that it was funded, in part, by a member of the Texas media: Wick Allison, who created D Magazine in Dallas and also publishes The American Conservative (founded by Pat Buchanan, among others).

The report was written by the National Association of Scholars and unleashed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based free-market think-tank chaired by Wendy Lee Gramm, former Sen. Phil Gramm’s wife, who once served on an audit committee at Enron.

TPPF was founded 24 years ago by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, the wealthy Christian conservative who has consistently been one of Gov. Rick Perry’s most fervent financial backers.

Here is one line toward the end of the almost 50-page report, meant as an indictment of the way some Texas public university professors teach: “They . . . increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry.”

That’s also, of course, one definition of a journalist—at least as Ida Tarbell, I.F. Stone, Molly Ivins and many others would define the job. It could be argued it is also the definition of a good citizen.

If the old saw is true, and journalism is the first draft of history, what’s to prevent journalism programs from finding themselves in the same crosshairs currently trained on history programs? What’s keeping TPPF and similar groups from deciding that journalism programs in Texas’ public universities also need debunking and derailment?

What does such agenda-motivated meddling portend for the “Race, Gender and Media” class offered at the University of North Texas—or any class that attunes young journalists to under-reported issues of race, injustice, poverty, political extremism and women’s rights?

Why not insist that all state-funded journalism departments ignore the sobering facts of Texas’ often-cruel history—never mind its present?

Why not urge students not to tell the stories linking the historical padrone system to modern poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, and not to tell the stories bridging historical freedmen’s towns to the poverty of 21st-century South Dallas?

I asked two colleagues—thoughtful educator/journalists teaching young Texans how to report responsibly in a democratic society—what they think about the report’s conclusions.

“The heart and soul of good journalism is a sustained challenge to illegitimate authority. To not focus on race, gender and class would be irresponsible,” says professor Robert Jensen at UT-Austin.

“Since the 1960s, we have made substantial progress toward building a society that is a more inclusive society, one where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, are respected,” says professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, also at UT-Austin. “For us as journalists, it’s been an exciting development—finding underreported stories and holding up a mirror to our communities.

“We can’t understand our country, our state and our communities if we leave out those underrepresented groups. As journalists who seek to understand our world in a profound way, we absolutely need that research and those classes.” 

San Marcos Daily Record
sanmarcosrecord.com

The sale of the San Marcos Daily Record by an Alabama-based company to a limited partnership in Texas was announced on the last business day of 2012, capping a year of wholesale changes in the state’s community newspaper landscape.

These barely noticed changes often involve historic news outlets—hyperlocal venues once owned by folks who lived in the community, and often the most diligently read publications in their areas. The developments have been coming fast and frequently, and they should have local readers questioning who is now running their neighborhood paper, whether constant change of ownership is good, and whether increasing consolidation—often with local, family-run papers being subsumed into chains—is improving or diluting the quality of local coverage.

In November, four different publishers scooped up 11 papers previously owned by Texas Community Media: Atlanta Citizens Journal, Bowie County Citizens Tribune, Cass County Sun, Pittsburg Gazette, Daingerfield Bee, Mineola Monitor, Wood County Democrat, Lindale News & Times, Gladewater Mirror, Big Sandy & Hawkins Journal, and Grand Saline Sun.

Texas Community Media—run by the family that has owned The Victoria Advocate, Texas’ second-oldest daily newspaper, for three generations—had held those 11 papers for only six months before flipping them to various investors for undisclosed sums.

Operating through several business entities, Brenham-based Jim Moser also went on a buying spree last year, picking up the San Marcos paper plus five others that Texas Community Media had put on the market. Moser Community Media already owned The Jackson County Herald-Tribune, The Cuero Record, Yorktown News-View, The Mexia News, The Clifton Record, Meridian Tribune and The Robertson County News.

Meanwhile, California-based Freedom Communications sold six Texas papers for between $60 and $80 million to a partnership headed by former Dallas Morning News executive Jeremy Halbreich, formerly CEO at the Chicago Sun-Times during a period of cost-cutting and staff-slashing.

Halbreich’s AIM Media Texas is headquartered, in part, in Dallas’ Highland Park Village, perhaps the most exclusive business district in Texas. Six of AIM’s seven newspapers are located in deep South Texas, in Weslaco, Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, far from the Hermes, Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel and Harry Winston stores of Highland Park. (Before selling it for $80 million, Halbreich also ran American Consolidated Media, a Dallas-based outfit that owned 105 community newspapers).

Even Warren Buffett has noticed the media money to be made in smaller Texas cities, bolstering his growing investment in dozens of American newspapers by snapping up the Waco Tribune-Herald and the Bryan-College Station Eagle.

Community newspapers have loyal readers in places the urban technorati often overlook. A National Newspaper Association survey two years ago showed that in small towns served by publications with circulations of 8,000 or less, 78 percent of those papers’ readers said they read “most or all” of their local newspaper. This devoted readership is good news. The open questions are the effects of repetitive publisher turnover, constant changing of the guard, and acquisition of mom-and-pop papers by chains—the same sorts of changes that began afflicting large legacy newspapers in Texas in the late 1980s.

AIM and the other chains picking up Texas’ small papers are on record saying they’re committed to the communities their papers serve, and AIM even promises to beef up watchdog reporting.

But can that be sustained with so much churn?

The same weekend that Moser scooped up the San Marcos Daily Record, Buffett shut the doors on Virginia’s 143-year-old Manassas News & Messenger, letting all 33 employees go. Nothing so drastic has happened—yet—at the small Texas papers that have been changing hands in recent months. But the revolving doors can dampen consistency of coverage and erode institutional memory, allowing formulaic journalistic homogenization to creep in.

Studies show that smaller-city readers need and want their hyperlocal news—but will small-town Texas readers remain loyal, or be best served, if their hyperlocal paper is constantly under new management by people who’ll never be their next-door neighbors?

As the New Year uncorks this month, let’s imagine that you are just emerging from a very long self-imposed exile.

It began 50 years ago, after President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The awful news drove you into hiding, and you vowed not to come out until half a century later.

Maybe you felt that an unquestioning and unblinking media had allowed a reactionary toxicity to wash over Texas.

Sure as hell the media will be different in 50 years, you thought, and hopefully more skeptical.

Now here it is, 2013, and you’re stepping back into the light to read today’s reporting—seemingly endless news space devoted to men complaining about a “socialist” administration and a union-loving president.

Texas should secede.

Liberal judges are rewriting the Constitution.

The president is a megalomaniac, a liar, a weak-willed rube . . . a limousine liberal morphing into a damned socialist. He is consolidating power in the White House.

What else?

Federal appointments are going to people who are only picked because they are “diversity candidates.”

The government is giving away free money to people who don’t need it, or deserve it.

The country is threatened by people who are not praying enough in schools, and who are not monitoring the dangerous books being read in public schools.

There is an invasion coming from Mexico that threatens our way of life, our jobs and our families.

A thought wells up: I read the same exact headlines 50 years ago.

 

I’ve been lucky to work recently with the brilliant Texas journalist/historian/writer Steve Davis (he did Texas Literary Outlaws, a wise look at some of the great Texas reporters) on a long investigation into media and right-wing hysteria in Texas from 1960 to 1963.

The project involves an acute examination of the way the state’s journalists covered events back then, and the ways in which they gave unquestioning credence to the anti-liberal, anti-socialist hysteria propelled by a small handful of people and organizations, basically enabling those voices to hijack the national dialogue.

Bellowing social conservatives and anti-Kennedy zealots in Texas—Gen. Edwin Walker, Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, and University of Dallas President Robert Morris (arguably even more fervid in his communist witch-hunting than Sen. Joseph McCarthy)—had their vitriol validated by constant, non-skeptical media coverage.

And as the media gave such extremism credulous coverage, it also gave it political oxygen.

Exhuming the old stories, Davis and I discovered time and time again that if you pull John F. Kennedy’s name out of the vilifying items that appeared in countless news outlets—excepting The Texas Observer and certain courageous newspapers serving black Texans, such as The Dallas Express—you can substitute the name Barack Obama and instantly update the dateline to now.

In the stories suggesting that Texas and the nation were under threat from socialists, simply plug in “the Tea Party” for “the John Birch Society.”

What you see, then and now, is an unquestioning media and a paucity of journalistic investigation into who is bankrolling the anti-White House and pro-deregulation movements, and what their real (profit-driven) agendas are.

Fifty years after Kennedy was killed, has anything changed?

There were countless stories in 1963 featuring aggrieved Dallas energy titans complaining about over-regulation, and claiming that Washington socialists were tax-happy martinets out to squelch the state’s entrepreneurial soul.

There were even dirt-digging stories slamming the president for “hiding” his personal history from voters.

Molly Ivins would have responded on point: Why offer the lying zealots so much acquiescent ink? Why not, instead, investigate the holy hell out of them?

University of Texas at Austin professor Don Carleton wrote a great book called Red Scare! that looks at how, just a few decades ago, a small group of Texas pre-tea partyers basically commandeered the state’s airwaves, front pages, city councils and school boards, and were allowed by a willing media to hyperventilate about creeping liberal conspiracies.

Fifty years later, as Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

T. Boone Pickens
David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons
T. Boone Pickens

The Texas media has a long tradition of reverentially lapping up the morsels doled out by über-rich Citizen Kings, as if those folks are sages on everything from private morals to public policy.

Looking back on 2012, journalists continued celebrating the billionaire who religiously funds Karl Rove’s shadowy political machines—champion fracker and oil driller T. Boone Pickens. Both in Texas and nationally, Pickens was offered routine access to the airwaves and editorial pages, to the point where he morphed into our twangy version of Donald Trump.

But in October, while Pickens was basking in hagiography, The Center for Public Integrity quietly noted that he had just forked over a million dollars to Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, one of the heaviest supporters of right-wing politics in the nation, and one that gave well over $30 million to ultraconservative campaigns in the days leading to the November election.

And let’s not forget Pickens’ often-ignored-by-the-media history of underwriting the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, in which he conspired with pro-Bush-dynasty Texas tycoons Harold Simmons and Bob Perry. (The New Republic did a brilliant piece in April tying Simmons, Pickens and Rove).

All of which dovetails with a charade that myopic media outlets still ape: Pickens’ promotion of himself as a born-again proponent of alternative energy.
Here’s one recent example of Pickens holding the media keys: Two days before the presidential election, Pickens was in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a column endorsing Mitt Romney and slapping Obama (“… his administration has systematically launched a regulatory war on oil, gas and coal”). Karl Rove had to love seeing his bankroller ink a column in a swing state—one filled with moneymaking opportunities for Pickens to frack the holy hell out of the Marcellus Shale.

The fact that he is wrong about Obama’s energy record is almost beside the point. What the media really should investigate is why his once-ballyhooed “Pickens Plan” to promote alternative energy sources—when it was introduced four years ago some in the media embraced him as an Oilman-Prodigal-Son-turned-Rachel Carson—has, ahem, radically changed.

All the while, the media continues to ignore the fact that he is as consistent as ever in support of right-wingers pushing old, dirty energy.

Recently, tucked away in some diligent Minnesota newspapers, came the telling news that Pickens has abandoned his stake in a large-scale wind farm in that state. Earlier, he had slashed his once-lionized plans to build massive wind operations in West Texas.

Bottom line: Pickens spent 2012 pulling the plug, saying that solar and wind energy are not worth his time and money—while putting his muscle into the kind of mega PAC that makes a mockery of campaign financing.

In late summer, at an Amarillo forum, Pickens appeared in an easy chair for onstage musings elicited by The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. The chat allowed the billionaire to reminisce about his big-money water-rights deals, his preference for natural gas and Romney, and his favorite college football teams. (After The Texas Tribune’s founding, Pickens gave a $150,000 donation.)

In October, The Dallas Morning News published a Pickens piece exploring “what makes the legendary oilman’s mind tick.” Pickens, now in his 80s and accustomed to unfiltered access to the media, said, “I start every morning with, ‘Does anyone have an idea of how we can make money today?’”

That same month, Pickens was in Louisiana stumping for Big Energy pols, where he was granted friendly face time with the editorial board at the Gannett newspaper chain’s The Advertiser in Lafayette. He told them, “You’ve got a bunch of these people who are very environmentally indoctrinated and they want to shut down the coal fire plants and get on wind. Well, wind doesn’t blow every day, so they say: ‘Solar.’ Well, the sun doesn’t shine every day either.”

Years ago, eccentric billionaire H.L. Hunt’s rants against “government regulation” were dutifully written about all over Texas—even as the Dallas anti-communist advocated a new Constitution wherein rich people were given more votes than ordinary Americans.

Maybe not a lot has changed.

A Texas reporter, someone who once embraced top members of the Dubya gang, once told me this about the statehouse press corps: “Only 1,000 people ever read our stories.”

His cynical thinking was that today’s political-media rat pack in Austin writes pieces that appeal only to the 1,000 lobbyists, operatives and opposition researchers snaking in and out of the high-dollar office buildings along Congress Avenue. There is precious little critical thinking, deconstruction, explanation—and nary a real human face on these stories.

The two best daily political explainers in the history of Texas—the late Molly Ivins and the late Sam Attlesey—are reaching for beer and cigarettes in their populist newsroom in the sky. Those two reader-friendly reporters actually got out of that incestuous Austin circle and roamed Texas, always aiming to explain what the hell national and local politics really meant—and the impact on ordinary Texans.

When I slaved at a big Texas daily, I once begged my editor to let me report on how Dubya’s so-called welfare reform policies were going to hurt people all across the state, and I counted myself lucky to bang out one story from South Texas that involved interviewing a desperately poor family living in an abandoned yellow school bus hidden in high weeds. I was never allowed to roam again.

Today, the state’s print and online dailies drown readers in a pool of data bits and tweets stripped of nuanced explanatory journalism and the voices of real people.

Here’s one recent example of the kind of news item that begs for extrapolation and interpretation—and a human face. It’s a political move that needs to be analyzed, by the media, for its impact on the people of Texas. Instead, the item garnered the thinnest mention in the Texas press.

The Washington Post broke the story that Texas is one of 19 states being booted out of the national collection of statewide election polls orchestrated by the National Election Pool—a consortium of major news organizations that has stewarded exit polls for the last decade. The Houston Chronicle did a small summation: “The elimination of Texas means that voters in the Lone Star State will not be polled about their choice for president or the U.S. Senate.”

Exit polls are always controversial, and sometimes they wind up breaking some of journalism’s cardinal rules (“cover the news, don’t make news”), especially when it seems that the polls begin to sway late voters. They are also infamously unreliable. Plenty of experts say that exit pollsters delivered vastly inflated figures for the number of Hispanics in Texas (and the nation) who voted George W. Bush into the presidency.

Still, exit polls are important not just to need-for-speed news jockeys in a rush to announce winners and losers on the evening news or the online front page. If conducted with cultural sensitivity, they can open a window into the soul of Texas’ rapidly changing minority demographic.

Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm run by professors from Stanford and the University of Washington, suggests that the mainstream media often does a poor job of polling Latinos and interpreting the results. If done right, exit polls can return more than numbers—they can tell you about people’s hopes, dreams and fears.

Now Texas has been sliced from the NEP consortium, in what is being framed as a cost-cutting move. Props are due to the Houston Chronicle for at least trying to understand the bigger implications, in a blog post that reads: “The omission also will prevent political scientists from comparing changes in the Texas voters’ views of social and economic issues over the past four years.”

If heavy hitters in the Texas media spend money to fill the gap created by Texas’ polling omission, it will be a minor miracle.

And even if they do, it would be a major miracle if they really put in the time to interpret—and put a human face on—that material. Something, anything, to get out of the insider ballpark.

The Dallas Morning News, still the bellwether mainstream journalism entity in Texas, has decided to align its editorial muscle with the online-oriented, Dallas-based advertising firm Slingshot.

The newspaper and the ad firm are creating and co-managing what has been described as a “social media agency.” Known as Speakeasy, it will create digital ad campaigns for local and national businesses, in part by using newspaper stories that it distributes via Facebook and Twitter, or features on websites managed by the ad firm for clients.

Jim Moroney, publisher of the newspaper, will serve as chairman of Speakeasy. The founder of Slingshot will be the CEO. And though the partnership has been described as a joint operation, it’s clear that The Dallas Morning News will be the principal owner—and the one continually scrambling to find new ways to monetize its content. I used to work there, and I now teach inside The Belo Center for New Media at The University of Texas at Austin, supported by the newspaper’s parent company, A.H. Belo Corporation.

The arrangement is basically a sign of the national times come to Texas: publishers, from the heavyweights on down, are racing to connect with social media experts. Sometimes, as in Dallas, they are simply siphoning money from print budgets to form their own social media companies that unabashedly view content as a mash-up of news and advertising.

And they’re not just trying to figure out how to disseminate the news in faster-moving bursts on Twitter. The partnership in Dallas is predicated on exploring better ways to allow journalism, presumably in any multimedia form, to be used as an integral part of digital ad campaigns.

The newspaper’s mid-September story on the strategy says its social media agency “will also have access to the complete archives of The News, allowing clients to post stories related to their products and services on their own sites.” In other words, the ad agency will offer the journalistic content of the newspaper to its clients. The clients, in turn, can use the newspaper’s stories on their own websites and in their own social media channels.

It’s one of the buzzy new mass-communications mantras sweeping the 2.0 media landscape, whereby the old journalism boundaries between editorial and advertising are increasingly blurred, and some publishers talk unapologetically about “content marketing.” Defenders of the new strategy say the approach puts a smoother, more believable face on the ubiquitous “advertorials” that sometimes consume whole chunks of magazines like Texas Monthly. Now, instead of clients paying publications for an advertorial that’s clearly marked as an advertorial, companies can re-publish works of bylined journalism on their sites. One Speakeasy executive described it as a “softer” sell than an advertorial.

Some people in North Texas are raising red flags. Tim Rogers, editor of D Magazine (over the last several years he has done the best, most consistent coverage of the media in Dallas), wonders whether newspaper editors will be tempted to start assigning stories that advertisers would consider appropriate for marketing purposes.

Morning News executives insist there’s no potential conflict, that the newspaper’s creation of a social media ad agency is, in effect, just a continuation of what the paper has always done. For example, the newspaper may allow stories from its business section to be used in corporate newsletters. The social media agency, the execs say, simply provides a digitally groomed way to do the same thing. And, without question, it’s a way to make up for the dwindling revenues from print advertising.

In its own story announcing the move, Moroney said the Morning News is a “tremendous repository of great content,” and that the social media/advertising/journalism initiative will increase the newspaper’s reputation as “an innovator in the newspaper industry.”

The Morning News promises to retain editorial independence, and that its stories will not be selectively edited by businesses.

But does having works of journalism on a company’s website—and coursing through its social media streams—imply a tacit endorsement from the newspaper? Is the result a “softer sell” because it seems to come with the independent vetting that news outlets should always provide? Time will tell.

It’s the kind of thing that almost no one would notice. That, in and of itself, is part of a welling media problem. In New Orleans, the clerk of the Civil District Court, Dale Atkins, quietly released a mid-summer memo with this news tucked inside it:

“The Clerk of the Civil District Court’s Office has selected Gambit as its official journal for all advertisements required to be made in relation to judicial proceedings. Beginning August 1, 2012, all advertisements required to be made in relation to judicial proceedings for the Clerk’s Office shall be placed in Gambit.”

Atkins was telling the public that those small ads written in confusing legalese—and that are often found in the very back of newspapers—will be running in the alternative Gambit newspaper instead of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Atkins announced that he was motivated, in part, by what might prove to be the real canary-in-the-coal-mine moment for mainstream newspapers in America. He said his decision, a financial knife in the back of the already staggering Times-Picayune, was guided by the fact that there is going to be a “reduction in the number of times the paper would be printed.”

Come October 1, the historic Times-Picayune—the paper that won Pulitzer Prizes for its courageous coverage during and after Hurricane Katrina—is scheduled to cease being a daily newspaper. Newspaper executives announced plans earlier this year to cut back publication to just three days a week. If that happens it will be a watershed moment in American journalism, and could become the tipping point for the nation’s large dailies. (Never mind that staffers at the Times-Picayune first learned about this when they read an article in The New York Times.)

Publishers everywhere, including Texas, are watching closely. The Austin American-Statesman—which rarely receives reassurances from its owner, Cox Media Group—must be studying the impact of slicing its seven-day-a-week publication schedule, cutting the print-centric staff and coalescing around its online operations in tech-friendly and tech-savvy Austin. If there were one place in Texas where the financial planners might want to go all-in on an online-only operation, it would be Austin.

Meanwhile, the executive overseeing the changes in New Orleans for Advance Publications, which owns the Times-Picayune, told the excellent media reporters at Poynter Online that he wasn’t concerned with “how many days we publish but how well we cover the community.” That sounds noble but it probably rings extremely hollow to the hundreds of staffers who have been forced out, or will be forced out, of the Times-Picayune because of publication cutbacks.

One Times-Picayune staffer has described the retrenching into the online operation as doubling down on an unproved bet—a gamble with livelihoods … and a public’s need for daily news. Not to mention that we are talking about New Orleans, a city that can shift on a dime, and that is often home to more human and natural disasters than many places in America. New Orleans (hell, the entire state of Louisiana) practically exists as a poster child for the need to have daily, constant, vigorous, intensive investigative and explanatory journalism.

A few folks in The Big Easy are howling in the face of the storm. The colorful owner of the local football and basketball teams offered to buy the paper but was basically told it was not for sale. Various citizen kings, community leaders, academics and artists have formed groups to lodge protests with Advance. You know people are pissed when both Mary Matalin and James Carville have joined the protest.

There have even been vague rumblings about big players ironically canceling even more advertisements in the paper unless Advance agrees to cancel plans to leave New Orleans without a daily newspaper. So far, it doesn’t look like any of the moves has gained momentum.

Finally, some enlightened souls have suggested that Advance could have split the difference—keep some semblance of the daily print operation alive, but stripped down to the necessary essentials: hard news and investigative packages. That’s the type of reporting that really changes lives, that people need to see in paper, in their hands.

Instead, Advance appears to be staying the course. And it might not be too long before publications in Texas make the same mistake.

Erwin Seba, a reporter with the Reuters bureau in Houston, has exposed one of the most alarming ongoing stories in Texas. His 2,000-word saga, published in late June, began with this: “In the end, all it took was a small chemical spill—perhaps less than a barrelful—to bring down the newest, mightiest oil refinery in the United States.”

Seba traced how things have gone dangerously awry at the newly expanded $10 billion Motiva Enterprises Port Arthur refinery—the largest refinery in North America—resulting in the shutdown of some of its units. The plant is spread across thousands of low-lying acres in humid Port Arthur, on the site where the first oil refinery in Texas was built 111 years ago, and close to where oil was first unearthed in the state.

The refinery is a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, owned by the Saudi Arabian government. A few weeks before Seba’s story appeared, steel-gray storm clouds gathered in Port Arthur as the Shell and Aramco executives arrived for the triumphant ceremonial opening of the new units. Assembled inside a huge tent, the oil executives gleefully turned an imitation valve, symbolically launching an operation that promised to produce 6 million gallons of gasoline daily.

Spokesmen for Motiva, headquartered in Houston, crowed to reporters that 14,000 people had found work building the new units and that the plant would add $17 billion to the Texas economy. “Our commitment to meet the needs of the United States’ oil market … will contribute to enhancing the United States’ long-term energy security—today, tomorrow, and for decades to come,” added Aramco CEO Khalid Al-Falih.

But within days of the opening ceremony, there were scary problems at the refinery, which have gone unexamined by the state media, with a handful of notable exceptions:

Two fires broke out in a new crude distillation unit, and then whole sections of the plant were shut down on June 9. More than a few oil experts feared another Texas City-style disaster was simmering. In 1947, the worst industrial disaster in American history occurred in Texas City when refineries blew up, killing more than 500 people and injuring 5,000. In 2005, 15 people were killed and 180 injured in an explosion at the British Petroleum plant in Texas City.

Given fears of another wide-scale tragedy, the historic scope of the project, and the regional and national implications of a plant shutdown, it’s staggering that so few media outlets have disclosed what is happening in Port Arthur.

The earliest reporting appeared in a few outlets: Bloomberg, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The Beaumont Enterprise produced solid breaking news stories on the shutdown. Then Seba’s drilled-down piece, abetted by unnamed sources, emerged three weeks after the ceremonial opening. Seba reported that a chemical had leaked into a new 30-story crude distillation unit; as it heated up to nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit inside the chamber, the chemical vaporized and began to corrode thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe.

Seba’s dispassionate report included a panoramic view of the history of oil in Texas and was informed by independent industry experts, who suggested that such problems at the plant should never have happened. “We have the worst-case scenario,” one of Seba’s anonymous sources told him.

Motiva, Aramco and Shell officials have been almost silent on the topic. Motiva’s home page still features the glowing PR account of the May 31 opening, and no mention of the subsequent problems.

Since Seba’s piece, James Shannon, who writes for the Beaumont Business Journal and Beaumont-based The Examiner, has pushed the story forward. One of Shannon’s anonymous sources said it was not “plausible” that corrosion caused the plant’s shutdown. “The combination of secrecy and speculation makes this a difficult story to cover, but reporting efforts will continue,” Shannon wrote.

That reporting will continue is good news. That so few media outlets have reported the problems at the Motiva plant is as ominous for Texas journalism as the storm clouds on the day of the refinery’s ceremonial opening.

Texas is no different from any place in America. It has always had communities that are underserved or ignored by larger local and regional media. And it has always had news outlets attempting to fill the gap—from The Texas Observer to the defunct Dallas Express, from The Forward Times in Houston to alternative weeklies across the state.

One of the mainstays of this gap-filling mission has been KKDA-AM in Dallas, which has served black listeners a combination of news, views and cultural touchstones hard to find anywhere else in North Texas. For decades, the station has been a listening post, sounding board and rallying force for black Dallas. It has given a voice to political figures, activists and artists marginalized or stereotyped by the mainstream media. Fans try to figure out how to pull down the signal in Waco, Tyler and other towns.

Recently, almost the entire on-air team at the station was laid off by Service Broadcasting Corporation, its owner, and replaced by less-expensive, automated programming. R.L. Griffin, Bobby Patterson and Ernie Johnson are among the exuberant, irrepressible, longtime personalities who have been abruptly silenced. They served Dallas for years with a mixture of music, humor, history and news (and their emphasis was often on local music; the three men are among the finest blues/soul artists in Texas).

Their departure points to a mad jumble of things, including modern fiscal realities and how history is fading very, very fast. The layoffs not only remove a ton of institutional memory from the airwaves, more important, they erode the community-based media born of necessity during segregation.

Hearing Griffin (also known as “The Right Reverend of The Blues”) and the others over the years was like picking up signals from a parallel reality, one that was seldom referenced in news venues other than KKDA. It’s impossible to overestimate KKDA’s role in what some industry insiders still call “urban radio” and in the racial history of North Texas. Here’s just one example:

In 1991 the station aired the funeral service for NAACP leader Hudson Washington Griffin Sr., the mightily influential unofficial mayor of South Dallas. Until his death, Griffin (no relation to R.L.) had spent 40 years at his tiny tailor shop, just a short stroll from the site of the sprawling Confederate Cemetery. He would sit by the front window, hemming pants and dispensing advice on voting and housing rights to residents who remembered how the city’s white power structure once wielded the poll tax as a bludgeon to suppress black voter turnout.

Richard Nixon and Bill Clements reached out to him, trying to figure out how to tap the black vote. KKDA was the only Texas media outlet truly cognizant of the revered man’s place in history, and the station selected to broadcast Griffin’s services at New Friendship Baptist Church.

The station once boldly gave voice to controversial County Commissioner John Wiley Price (his show was called “Talk Back: Liberation Radio”) and City Councilman Al Lipscomb. Like them or not, both men made national news for good and bad reasons, and both brought to the airwaves discussions that were not being held anywhere else in Texas. KKDA once had seemingly unbridled scope and ambition. Roland Martin, now on CNN, once served as KKDA’s news director.

When Price, Lipscomb and Linwood “Cuzzin’ Linnie” Henderson, another North Texas media legend, left the air in the ’90s, they were replaced by Patterson and the other folks who have now been let go. For now, KKDA morning talk show stalwart Willis Johnson remains in place.

For years the station has promoted itself as KKDA/Soul 73 and built its legacy on its interaction with the community. It hired Patterson and the others because they have loyal followings in Dallas. Now, a big chunk of the station’s righteous soul has been silenced.