Stories of Houston’s 3-newspaper era pique memories
Since I spent more than half my 70- plus years in the Texas Gulf Coast area, in or near Houston, I maintain my readership in the Houston Chronicle.
My first two years of college were spent in Huntsville, less than two hours north of the metropolis, then the final two in Houston. I worked there a couple of years before my rural raising sparked a yen to return to those climes.
Being drawn back to my country raising derailed my goal to be the world’s greatest sportswriter onto the rail line “local” or “doodlebug” trains through small towns and weekly papers. All aboard for Teague, Rosenberg, Cleveland, Conroe, Lockhart, Rosenberg (again), Missouri City and Jasper.
So, anyone penning historic notes about those early times or those communities grabs my attention.
Recently, the Chronicle’s Tony Freemantle wrote a feature about one of my favorite eras — the 1950s’ and early 60s when Houston was a three-newspaper town. There was, of course, the Chronicle — the lone survivor of the era — plus the Houston Post and the only nonlocally owned paper, the Houston Press, a property of Scripps Howard.
It was a purveyor of sensationalism with bold black screaming headlines.
As a college journalism student — not to mention a small town boy — I was in awe of all THREE Houston newspapers. Having been a correspondent while attending Sam Houston in Huntsville, I was paid by the now-defunct Houston Post (absorbed by the Chronicle) to call in sports results.
As a scholarship student at the University of Houston — the recipient of the Houston Press Club award for one year — I was intent on learning all I could about “newspapering in the big city.”
At every opportunity, I read the three papers. That was made fairly easy in that the University of Houston journalism department made sure we were exposed to Houston journalism and copies of the three papers were readily available.
Having grown up in a small town, I was aware of what was news, typical small town fare: city council, county government, churches, women’s clubs/activities, Scouting and, most importantly, schools. Public schools were a source of page after page of news: academics/ honor rolls, school board, sports, individual honors and accomplishments and even school cafeteria lunch menus.
While there is some amount of those types of news in metropolitan newspapers, the old Houston Press was filled with juicy gossip tidbits, some true, some not. It was intriguing.
And, the Press had more columnists than any paper I’d ever seen. Weekly papers had maybe one “hard news” columnist but the rest were from little individual, rural communities close to the weekly paper’s home base.
Within the Press, you could read gossip columns trying to compete with Bill Roberts at the Post and, later, Maxine Mesinger (a wealthy habitué of all the right places) in the Chronicle. They reported on night life and socializing in Houston.
Out of the old Press came Sigmund Byrd (talented, but abrasive), a whole ‘nother column you can read next week. Pat O’Bryan was a product of the Press and I later got to know him as a relative of my lifelong friendsformer employers-former partners, the Owen family.
Walter Cronkite gained some early experience at the Press, as did Thomas “Tommy” Thompson, author of several books, the best known being “Blood and Money.”
And, surprise, one of the first news types to use the Press springboard into the big time was: Marvin Zindler, Eyewitness News. Zindler vaulted into national prominence when his TV (Houston Channel 13, ABC) expose’ brought about the shutdown of the infamous “Chicken Ranch” in LaGrange which spawned the musical play that became a movie: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Zindler’s beginnings were in law enforcement as a Harris County deputy sheriff, serving warrants and subpoenas.
So, as you can see, the old Scripps-Howard Houston Press was a launching pad for a lot of talent and material.
And, just reading it was a heckuva journalism lesson for a young college student.
WILLIS WEBB is a retired community newspaper publisher of more than 55 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.