New Times’ Houston Press Buys Rival Paper

After 16 Years of Covering the City's A&E Scene, Public News Folds.

Darwinism continues to alter the landscape of alternative newspapers — this time among the oil refineries and oppressive heat of Houston.

The Houston Press — owned by industry heavy-hitter New Times, Inc. — announced on Thursday, July 9 that it had purchased Public News, a Houston arts and entertainment paper.

The deal, which had been rumored since the beginning of the week, effectively ended Public News’ 16-year run in Houston. The 47,000-circulation paper put out its last issue on July 8.

“Essentially, our deal is that we’re buying assets from him [Public News Publisher Bert Woodall]. He has things we can use: circulation equipment, circulation stops, computers,” says Houston Press Publisher Terry Coe. “A big thing [that prompted the purchase] was his advertising list and his relationship with his advertisers.”

Although it wasn’t an AAN paper, Public News had been working with the Alternative Weekly Network [AWN], the non-profit cooperative that facilitates the placement of national ads in almost 100 affiliated alternative papers across the country; it does the same for 45 to 50 non-member papers too. Public News fell into the latter group.

AWN Executive Director Mark Hanzlik believes New Times bought Public News because AWN and the paper were taking ad revenue away from the 108,000-circulation Press, which is represented by New Times Inc.’s Ruxton Group.

“We assisted Public News in attracting and receiving national ads through AWN’s sales efforts and that probably irked the Houston Press,” he says.

Coe dismisses the theory: “We had every national ad they had and more. This was not about taking business out of our pockets in a head-to-head situation. They had a few local accounts that we didn’t have.”

Buyer’s motivations aside, Woodall says New Times’ interest in buying Public News dated back almost a decade. More recently — because of mounting debts and cash flow problems — he began shopping the paper around. After listening to a few bids from other parties and “not liking what they had to offer,” Woodall says he went back to the Phoenix-based alternative chain, which owns seven newsweeklies in addition to the Houston Press to see if they still wanted to talk sale.

“[New Times CEO Jim Larkin] as a friend offered to loan me the money to keep the paper going,” says Woodall. “But I couldn’t see doing that with all the [money] problems we had.”

The accrued debts — including a $70,000 bill to the IRS — are what spawned the deal, confesses Woodall, who adds, “For them [Houston Press /New Times], the real benefit of the deal is that they can raise their ad rates. Ours were absurdly low. But now they no longer have to deal with that retarding affect.”

Neither Coe nor Woodall would divulge the price tag. Three Public News sales staffers have been offered jobs at the Press; two accepted. That leaves nine people, who comprised the paper’s administrative ranks [Public News had no full-time editorial workers] searching for work.

Says one Public News staffer, “This is not something Bert wanted to do. But we — this small, poor 32-page paper gave them [the Press] a run for their money.”

Woodall is equally dour: “I sure as hell didn’t win the lottery [with the deal]. I can’t sit around for a year. I have to look for a job like everybody else. My primary regret is for the community we served. There will now be a lot of artists and musicians who bloom and die inside the morning air who won’t be getting exposure anymore.”