Gentler Rita still rocked Houston media
Disruption could last weeks in wake of storm
September 26, 2005
The nation’s fourth largest city may have escaped the full wrath of Hurricane Rita over the weekend, but the glancing blow from the powerful storm still threw a heavy punch to the local ad economy. The effect could last for weeks or longer.
Most of that disruption, say local media people, will be the direct result of the forced evacuation of some 2 1/2 million city residents in the days leading up to the storm, leading to clogged, chaotic highways in 100 degree heat and vehicles left alongside the road and out of gas.
Those residents are now busy returning, but a number are not expected back until Wednesday, when schools are set to reopen. And it could take several days for retailers to resume full operations. Many were boarded up over the weekend. Even Wal-Mart and Home Depot closed, along with many grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants. And about 300,000 of the 700,000 residents who lost power still had no service yesterday.
As it was, the city’s media outlets struggled to keep going during the storm, not knowing for a long time whether Rita would sweep directly down on them but expecting the worst.
TV and radio stations in the nation’s 10th-largest broadcast market were largely in emergency mode over the weekend.
“We’re not running any commercials,” said a woman who was frantically manning the news desk at KHOU Channel 11, the Houston CBS affiliate, on Saturday, before slamming down the phone. “We’ll be straight news through the weekend.”
The city’s daily, the Houston Chronicle, circulation 545,727, delivered soggy papers all weekend, despite gas shortages and a limited crew of carriers. Many of the paper’s employees had joined the evacuation.
“We published all our papers,” says Jack Sweeney, publisher of the Hearst-owned paper, the country’s seventh-largest daily. “The biggest issue is fuel and gasoline. But we are getting our trucks out. There have been 2 1/2 million people with their lives disrupted.
A direct hit by Rita to this city of about 5 million would have had a devastating economic effect. Houston boasts 88 percent of the nation’s oil and gas-related jobs, along with the largest port in international tonnage in the country, more than 400 chemical plants, and the world’s biggest medical center. And after Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, a terrified Houston was prepared. But while it escaped the worst, county officials say the storm still caused tens of millions of dollars in structural damage, and rural areas saw widespread devastation.
Even with all the logistics problems, the Chronicle was delivered Saturday and Sunday to many of its subscribers. Those who did miss issues over the past few days will have them delivered in what Sweeney terms an evacuation pack, similar to the vacation packages that the paper makes up for subscribers who are out of town.
“Our advertisers will reach the subscribers. It just may be a little late,” he says.
Although there was no damage to presses or other facilities, Sweeney describes the business side of the paper as “very affected.” But he says his relief over the city’s escape from the storm more than makes up for any concerns about financial losses.
“We had over 150 people living in the building Friday, and I am especially proud as publisher as to how they stayed at their posts.”
He says the paper has kept its web site active with constant updates and reports from staff bloggers and citizens sending in their own reports.
The Chronicle already was in hurricane mode before Rita hit, responding to the 150,000 bump in population Houston saw from Katrina evacuees. It had begun distributing 10,000 mini-newspapers to 25 shelters, as well as producing a new classified category for temporary workers and running display ads from companies like Chevron and Exxon Mobil, which are encouraging employees displaced by Katrina to come to work in Houston branches.
Other news outlets closer to the eye of the storm were harder hit.
The Baytown Sun, 31 miles east of Houston, printed until Thursday and then converted to a web edition, according to publisher Wanda Garner Cash. She and managing editor David Bloom, two reporters, a copy editor, the production manager and a mailroom worker each took a few hundred papers and dropped them off around town.
The 11,545 circulation daily printed a reduced-run paper Sunday for distribution to news racks and single-copy locations. “Home delivery will resume as soon as our carriers return from their mandatory evacuation locations,” says Cash. “Some went as far away as St. Louis.”
The Sun suffered minor damage to its building with parts of the roof torn off and water leaking into offices. But power was restored late Saturday, and servers and telephone service came back Sunday. So they set up a base camp at the managing editor’s office, where they established a reporter and editor blog and updated their web site until they lost power again.
Advertising should come back strong, Cash says, especially in appliance sales, remodeling, contractor, tree service areas and other restoration areas.
Baytown’s sister paper, the Galveston County Daily News, a 27,000 circulation morning daily on a barrier island about 60 southeast of Houston, evacuated to the corporate headquarters of Southern Newspapers Inc., in Houston, which owns 13 other papers.
The News was working to publish a Sunday/Monday paper on Sunday, but publisher Dolph Tillotson was concerned with issues like whether carriers would be let back on the island and whether the paper would have electrical power at its presses. Part of the pressroom roof was blown off. He was considering whether operations would have to move inland to print at another paper’s facilities.
Tillotson says five copy desk editors were huddled around computers on the dining room table of his Houston townhouse, the only place in the area with internet access. The Galveston paper has managed to print a paper every day, as well as publishing an internet blog.
“Personally, I’m very grateful for the nearly heroic efforts of our staff,” Tillotson says. “They have worked tirelessly for days with very little sleep. They have figured out what seemed like insurmountable problems on the fly “ dealing with issues we never dreamed we’d run up against.
“For example, how does one feed a crew of employees in a city where the restaurants and grocery stores are simply and universally closed. One answer is we bribed the good folks at Hugo’s on Westheimer Street, closed though they were, to manufacture some dynamite quesadillas, seemingly from nothing.”
Other Texas newspapers that didn’t see more than a few drops of rain didn’t fare as well. The Victoria Advocate, 125 southwest of Houston with Sunday circulation of about 40,000, faced a mandatory evacuation Thursday and sent its staff of 200 away.
Publisher John Roberts even made an arrangement with the San Antonio Express-News to insert a four-page edition of the Advocate in its Sunday pages. But then the storm changed course and Victoria wasn’t touched. By then only 30 of the paper’s 212 employees were at work, so the paper had to stop publishing until the weekend.
A similar situation faced Corpus Christi Caller-Times publisher Patrick Birmingham, about 200 miles southwest of Houston, who says the paper suspended publication Friday and Saturday because its employees and carriers had evacuated.
After nearly 18 years, it’s time to say good-bye
Yet more evidence native advertising doesn’t work
A new type of cord-cutting: Snipping broadband
Coming, the collapse of radio’s iHeartMedia
Weeklies: Surviving if not thriving in digital age
Tweeter in chief: How Trump could save Twitter
Shows Trump hates are seeing big ad gains
Broadcast vs. cable: How the top shows stack up
A sign that coughs at your cigarette smoke
The word: Time Inc. sale is imminent
Rundown: Which advertisers have jumped from YouTube
Media Life’s Digital Media Transparency Initiative
HBO does hard time with Dwayne Johnson
- Arun Kumar becomes chief data and marketing tech officer at IPG
- Jenny Campbell rises to managing director at 72andSunny
- Adam Crandall becomes director of strategy at mono
- Mark Wildman rises to EVP of partnerships at Westwood One
- Kevin Craig rises to SVP of newspaper relations at AMG/Parade
- Bill Corvalan becomes VP of West Coast partnerships at AllOver Media
- Richard Just becomes editor at The Washington Post Magazine
- Gemma Lawson rises to VP and design director at Nickelodeon
- Ashley Judd joins Epix' 'Berlin Station'
- Former NBC ad sales executive Robert Blackmore dies at age 90
This week’s broadcast ratings
This week’s cable ratings
This week’s top-rated movies, songs and books
This week’s daypart ratings
This month’s digital traffic data: December 2016
Ad sales rep for a digital-only magazine
Freelance media planner/buyer available for all markets
Wanted: Media buyer in Philadelphia
Paid social media planner wanted in Detroit
Opening for a media planner at a top OOH agency