COST-CUTTING AT THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE: WHAT IMPACT HAS DECLINING CIRCULATION HAD UPON CRIME COVERAGE?
This study investigated the effect declining circulation at the Houston Chronicle had upon local news coverage- especially crime coverage. In 1995, it became the sole daily metro newspaper in Houston. In the ensuing years it has seen a steady erosion of paid circulation and its publishers responded, as have many newspapers in the United States, by making a series of cost-cutting moves including closing news bureaus and laying off long-time editorial staff. Story content for the years 1996 (the first full year in which the Houston Chronicle became the sole daily) and 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 was examined using content analysis. Particular attention was paid to crime stories as the crime beat is an entry-level reporter position, one which pays less and requires less experience than other specialized beats. Cultivation theory postulates an increase in crime coverage, which is cheap and plentiful, can lead the public to view the world as a more dangerous place than statistics indicate. Two constructed weeks per year were examined. Layoffs at the Houston Chronicle coincided with a 40 percent decrease in local stories. During that same period, stories produced by wire services or other newspapers increased, indicating they replaced some, but not all, of the shortage of local stories. Crime stories accounted for a greater percentage of local stories, although not significantly. They were eight percent of local stories in 1996 rising to a high of 10 percent in 2009. However crime stories became significantly longer over that same v period of time, suggesting crime became a greater staple in filling the newspaper's newshole. Consistent with other literature, violent crime accounted for the clear majority of all crimes reported. Crime stories were also individually coded to determine to what extent details were included which would allow a reader to determine the randomness of the crime and be extension his/her own possible risk. Such variables did not go down as expected, and in some years were even higher than in 1996. This study suggests the Houston Chronicle has responded to declining circulation by cutting staff and local content. Crime coverage has helped fill the remaining local content, but not to the extent expected. Moreover, details which allow readers to gauge their personal risk were present in greater amounts than anticipated.