The Texas Tribune announced a new shift in leadership on Thursday, bringing Sewell Chan, a venerated journalist and editor from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post on board as editor-in-chief.
Chan's newly-appointed role marks the fifth editor-in-chief the digital paper has seen in its 12 years of business.
Some news: I'm joining @TexasTribune and moving to Austin! I need your help preparing. What should I read and who should I follow? https://t.co/lg92XQMmUv
— Sewell Chan (@sewellchan) August 5, 2021
The Tribune applauded his accomplishments in the announcement, calling his career "stellar." Chan started his career at The Washington Post as a metro reporter, and followed with 14 years wearing numerous hats at The New York Times before, finally spending the last three years as deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times.
"He's terrific at every aspect of the job, from writing and editing and to inspiring and marshaling the troops. By reputation, he outworks everyone in our business. We're so excited to have a steady hand on the wheel and a fresh set of eyes on everything we do and how we do it," the announcement reads.
After a year and a half of bad news and fatigue during the pandemic, The Tribune said it is aiming for the road to recovery with the help of Chan's "gentle, empathetic, collaborative style." Meanwhile, the Harvard University and University of Oxford alumni has already earned the respect of fellow members of local media—Austin American-Statesman editor Manny García said Chan is "a healer."
The Tribune has been searching for a new editor since former editor Stacy-Marie Ishmael stepped down on March 30 this year, citing burnout during the pandemic. Prior to Ishmael, the paper was led by Emily Ramshaw, who went on to launch a women's and policy publication, The 19th*.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Chan will leave their newsroom on Sept. 3 and join the Tribune team by Oct. 18. He'll be in Austin sooner, though, at the Texas Tribune Festival in September.
"We're so fortunate to attract someone of his caliber and character," the announcement said.
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Ken Herman, the Austin American-Statesman's columnist for the past 12 years, announced his departure Sunday in a graciously-worded report that nonetheless revealed differences between Herman and the new Statesman editor Manny Garcia.
Herman, 67, said Garcia "brings new energy and focus at a time when both of those are valued. He has a different vision from the one I have for the job I now hold. His is a good vision, one that will benefit this newspaper."
Garcia told Austonia he had "great respect for the work that Ken has done" and "really valued his work." When asked whether there was a disagreement between the two of them, Garcia said, "I do not comment on any personnel decisions beyond (saying) that I have great respect for Ken and the work he has done."
Garcia, 61, became editor and vice president of the Statesman in February after leading ProPublica's Austin-based investigative partnership with the Texas Tribune. Earlier in his career, he served as senior editor of The Miami Herald, the head of el Nuevo Herald and then executive editor of the Naples (Fla.) Daily News. He was a regional executive for Gannett, a media company that owns more than 260 brands in 46 states. Gannett now owns the Statesman. Garcia also served as head of standards and ethics for the USA Today Network.
Over more than 25 years with the Statesman, Herman served as a political reporter, headed state Capitol coverage and was the paper's Washington correspondent during the presidency of George W. Bush, who was known to kid with Herman at press conferences. Bush once jokingly admonished Herman for wearing a worn-out seersucker suit.
"It's been a wonderfully broad portfolio that's allowed me to write about whatever interested me in hopes that it would interest you and the editors. In 12 years of column writing, there have been politics, sports, obits, weird stuff, happy stuff, sad stuff and the unrivaled joy and optimism of centenarians jumping out of airplanes," Herman said.
While Herman said he expected great things to come from the Statesman, he said "the business model that produced so much profit and so much employment for so long is so kaput, disrupted into a new frontier in which success is far from assured and must be earned."
At its peak in the late 1990s under publisher Michael Laosa, the Statesman employed 1,100 people--including more than 200 in the newsroom--and had a circulation of 190,000 daily and 220,000 Sunday papers.
The newspaper was then owned by Cox Newspapers Inc.
Current Statesman print circulation and overall readership numbers were not immediately available, but Garcia said digital subscriptions were at 27,000, up 7,000 since January.
On his Sunday show, HBO's news commentator John Oliver came down on local news organizations, including Austin's KVUE, for trading credible advertising for a pretty penny.
In a setup to show how easy it is to get what he called "ridiculous products" with "outlandish claims" on TV, Oliver creates a phony product called The Venus Veil, "a sexual wellness blanket." He hires an actress to promote it on three TV stations, including KVUE.
The product, which is in reality a normal blanket, makes various claims about the use of nonexistent "magnetogenetics" technology. The script states the technology was pioneered in Germany 80 years ago and gets the blood flowing, fixing erectile issues and improving vaginal lubrication.
Showing after the 10 p.m. Thursday news broadcast on FYI Austin, the TV station allegedly accepted $2,650 for the promo, according to Oliver. (18:20) A KVUE reporter spoke with the Venus Veil acting representative who gave a spiel about the "self-contained magnetic field" that the blanket gives to restimulate blood flow, to which the KVUE reporter responded, "very interesting."
"Is it interesting? Or is that obvious bullshit that shouldn't have been on in the same hour of coverage as the cease-fire in the Middle East, a shortage of lifeguards in local public pools, and an investigative piece on criminal justice and bail reform. One of these things is not like the others and is definitely a Nazi-era fuck blanket," Oliver said.
The response from the local community is already showing disappointment in the local station on social media.
John Oliver hit @KVUE hard. Wow, I've lost a lot of respect for the channel.
— James Vinson* (@DoctorShades24) May 24, 2021
It's really disappointing to me as a citizen of #atx that @KVUE cares so little for its viewers that they would promote clearly bogus products on its shows. https://t.co/tgpniyuP1S
— germanny (@germanny) May 24, 2021
Well, I now know not to trust @KVUE , thanks to @iamjohnoliver #lastweektonight
— Mariss (@marissawill7) May 24, 2021
A KVUE spokesperson issued the following comment to Austonia: "'FYI Austin' is a two-minute commercial spot that is not a part of the KVUE newscast. While it is a commercial spot, it was an error to air it, and we are reviewing our processes, so this doesn't happen again."
"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" also exposed local stations, Utah's ABC 4 and Denver's Mile High Living, in not protecting viewers from baseless claims made by advertisers such as the made-up Venus Veil.
Sponsored content allows local organizations to integrate ads among other reporting, making it difficult to detect, especially when the Federal Communications Commission does not have specific requirements for how content is labeled sponsored. According to Oliver, media groups including KVUE parent, TEGNA, Scripps, Nexstar and Sinclair all have sponsored content programs.
While local organizations can make a lot of their revenue from this—Oliver says KXAN parent company NEXSTAR makes almost half its advertising revenue from spots aired during local news—Oliver says news organizations shouldn't sell themselves out when it could hurt their credibility.
"The integrity of local news is crucially important and there is real harm for everyone if that integrity is damaged," Oliver said.
This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. to include comment from KVUE.
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Journalists at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community newspapers won the right Wednesday to negotiate for a union contract.
The National Labor Relations Board in Fort Worth tallied the results of a newsroom election, in which 36 employees voted in favor of union representation and 12 voted against. The NLRB still must formally certify the election.
"We're excited to move forward with a voice in our future and to continue to #KeepAustinInformed," the Austin NewsGuild tweeted in response to the election results, which were delayed due to the winter storm last week.
Unofficial result is 36-12. The @statesman is now a union paper.
— Phil Jankowski 🦇 (@PhilJankowski) February 24, 2021
The Austin NewsGuild announced in early December that they were taking steps to unionize, including submitting the required paperwork to the NLRB to request a union certification election at the Statesman. A secret-ballot mail election is only necessary when newsroom management declines to recognize the union voluntarily, as was the case with Gannett, the Statesman's parent company.
"We respect the decision by our colleagues," Statesman Editor Manny Garcia said in a statement Wednesday. "We will continue to focus on our public service mission to serve our growing community."
The NewsGuild cited a need for stability in "an increasingly unstable industry, one plagued by budget cuts, layoffs, a lack of diversity and dwindling resources," according to a Jan. 9 news release. Its members pledged to advocate for increased staff positions, improved benefits, increased safety gear and anti-racist policies. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the NewsGuild's diversity committee sent a letter to management demanding a plan to revive the Spanish-langauge newspaper ¡Ahora Si!, diversify hiring and require implicit bias training, among other changes.
NewsGuild members join journalists others across the country that have unionized newsrooms in recent years, including at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Arizona Republic.
The Dallas Morning News Staff voted to unionize in October, becoming the first newspaper in Texas to do so. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff announced it had unionized shortly after.
Like many of these papers, the Statesman has faced years of downsizing, hiring freezes and, most recently, furloughs during the pandemic. It has also endured a series of corporate handoffs—three in as many years.
Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises sold the Statesman to the New York-based publishing company GateHouse Media in 2018, after 41 years of ownership. In late 2019, GateHouse closed its $1.1 billion takeover of Gannett, becoming the country's largest newspaper company, and pledged to cut costs. (The company now goes by Gannett.)
Gannett laid off seven Statesman staffers, including veteran sportswriter Suzanne Halliburton and culture critic Joe Gross, in April. Three months later, the company signed a lease at MetCenter, a corporate business park that the Statesman will move into next year. Its recognizable riverfront headquarters will be redeveloped. Last October, the company reportedly offered employees voluntary buyouts. Then, in January, Executive Editor John Bridges announced his retirement after 32 years with the Statesman last month. He was succeeded by Garcia, who previously worked at ProPublica.
According to the NewsGuild, more than 50 journalists have left the Statesman voluntarily or because of buyouts and layoffs over the last two years, representing a 40% reduction in newsroom staff.
5/ We're not naive about the reality of our industry & know a union can't stop the shrinkage. But it can help protect our remaining staff & give us a voice in decisions about the future.
It will give our reporters an opportunity to fight for our readers & the coverage they need.
— Austin NewsGuild (@AustinNewsGuild) December 16, 2020
Dr. Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Austonia in December that this push toward organizing is "a rare glimmer of hope in this really dismal landscape."
Unions at legacy media companies, such as the Statesman, may help counterbalance publishers' singular focus on profit, which often comes at the expense of jobs. But unions alone won't insulate newspapers from a rapidly changing industry. Instead, Pickard said existing newsrooms need to transition to new business models—like the nonprofit Texas Tribune or low-profit Philadelphia Inquirer—that help lessen commercial pressures.
"If we don't do anything the market will just drive journalism into the ground," he said.
This story has been updated to include a response from Statesman Editor Manny Garcia.
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