Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions

My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions.” In it I contrast San Francisco and Houston as representative champions of two different models of both urban development, and future vision for the US economy. But while San Francisco has risen to the challenge, Houston has largely not because it has failed to tell its story to the world. That’s in part because it feels no need to self-promote and especially focus on getting its narrative out via the media.

Here’s an excerpt:

The second big divergence relates to media. After all, the media, understood broadly, is how we come to have knowledge about or opinions of many things. Simply put, San Francisco and the tech industry get the power of media, while Houston doesn’t.

The content creators may still prefer a New York, LA, or DC but the tech moguls are circling the last redoubts of entertainment and information. Apple now has a dominant position in content distribution for music and is expanding in other areas. Google generates huge advertising revenues that are greater than the entire newspaper and magazine industry. Despite its many troubles, Yahoo remains one of the most-visited news sites. Meanwhile in just last year or two, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has bought the venerable New Republic while Seattle’s Jeff Bezos recently bought the Washington Post. Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay, recently announced a $250 million new media venture featuring Glenn Greenwald.
Houston, by contrast, has close to zero media influence or impact and seems not to care. It’s much less an influencer of media than one whose reputation has been shaped by it, and often not in a good way. Though there are many sprawl dominated metropolises in America, it’s Houston that has become the bête noire of urbanists.

One commenter highlights a point I wish I’d made. Gary B contrasts Houston with Atlanta, where Ted Turner built a media empire. Here’s what he had to say:

To my mind, the more interesting straight-up comparison is Houston to Atlanta. They are both new cities, roughly comparable in size (in the 5-6+ million range) and growing at roughly the same rate; they share much the same Southern background and climate (though Houston is more diverse, drawing immigrants from a much greater portion of the world) and political orientation (thoroughly conservative leadership class, but emerging liberal demographics beneath, at least in the central cities). So why has most national press about Atlanta over recent decades been glowingly positive while those about Houston have been mostly negative? A great deal of it has to do with media presence. Atlanta has had Ted Turner’s media empire, and to a great extent has broadcast its own version of its story nationwide; Houston has left its image to be determined by often envious media empires located thousands of miles away.

Topics: Civic Branding, Economic Development, Globalization, Urban Culture
Cities: Houston, San Francisco

20 Responses to “How Houston’s Missing Media Gene Hobbles Its Ambitions”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Atlanta “glowingly positive”? Among my social circle, the joke is that however bad our lives or how uncertain our career paths “….at least we aren’t in Atlanta!” Everything is relative, I guess.

  2. Eric says:

    I go to Houston a lot for work. There’s some stuff to like (Icehouse bars and ummmm…), but it has problems.

    There’s no other city that lacks a sense-of-place like Houston. If you stop your car (and you’re certainly going to be in a car) and get out at a random corner, there’s a very low probability that you’re going to be *someplace*. You’re probably going to be by something related to parking.

    More on topic to the post, the people I know who live in Houston don’t seem to have any city pride beyond regional pride. If you live in New Jersey, Naperville, or Cupertino, there’s a clear demarcation between those residents and city-dwellers nearby. In Houston, whether you live in the city or in Pearland, Sugarland or The Woodlands, all of those people seem to feel they are equally Houstonians. Houston doesn’t have a good media presence, I think, for the same reason Troy, Michigan doesn’t have a good media presence.

  3. urbanleftbehind says:

    PC (or shame against disparaging the seminal touchstone of the civil rights movement) keeps people from being as openly contemptous of Atlanta as they are of Houston.

    Also Houston is on the short end of the media stick in its own state (look no further than Austin).

    As for not empahsizing the suburb/city split, this is where the lack of zoning and 21st century slum concept come into play. What we would call ghettos are more spread out in Greater Houston whereas it tends to be the inner city plus nearby suburbs (e.g. Detroit) or one geographic vector (Chicago South Sides and South Suburbs, Oakland and East Bay) in other places. Where else would a community named “Westside” not strike fear and trepidation but in Houston?

  4. Jon Seisa says:

    Well, Gary B’s observation appears extremely skewed:

    “So why has most national press about Atlanta over recent decades been glowingly positive while those about Houston have been mostly negative? A great deal of it has to do with media presence.”

    I really think this has more to do with the Media’s typical, historical and notorious anti-Conservative bias towards anything Texas (and Conservative), than anything else, as to why Houston is compared negatively to Liberal-oriented Atlanta, one of the darlings of the Media.

    But this is interesting, of the two cities, Houston ranks way higher than Atlanta as desirable to visit, shop and entertain, but that may not say much in terms of desirable to live (cautionary note). Atlanta was dubbed the loser in a survey in the 2011 Travel + Leisure “America’s Favorite City Face-Off” between Houston and Atlanta; and the Atlanta results were quite dismal (but antidotally I’ve heard some great things about Atlanta’s downtown aesthetics and its MARTA transit, at least):

    Additionally, with the approaching Super Bowl 2017 slated for Houston, it will be a great opportunity to make up for some lost time and cast tremendous media coverage on the city as it gears up to execute sweeping preparations for the national event and put its best foot forward.

    And regarding San Francisco, it ranked last on the “Happiness Factor” while Houston ranked 2nd (and Dallas 1st), and after speaking to several residents I know in SF, I can see why… EVERYTHING is ghastly expensive there; the city literally devours your wallet right before your horrific eyes. With this said, it seems to me that the city with grave negatives NEEDS to over-advertise and over-publicize their few positives. So I can understand SF’s need for excessive media exposure compared to a city like Houston. It makes perfect sense.

  5. Tone says:

    Dear god, what is a “Happiness Factor” and how would one go about determining it?

  6. Tone says:

    Houston’s image problem has nothing to do with media. It frankly is a terrible place.

  7. Jon Seisa says:

    @ Tone – Here is the Harris Poll Happiness Index… Yes, seems a little odd, but methodologies have been developed to gauge “happiness” for us earth dwellers by the distant jaundice scanning eyes of TPTB.

    Urbanists are familiar with the Happiness Index and Report/Survey Methodology for sustainable development used by the U.N. and Agenda-21 aimed at quantifying, measuring and gauging livability satisfaction in global countries and global cities.

    But it’s origin is rooted in the 1972 emergence of “Gross National Hapiness” (GNH), a global indicator of progress:

  8. Jon Seisa says:

    San Francisco placed 9th on Forbes Magazine’s “List of America’s Coolest Cities” and beat out NYC (#10) and Chicago (#12); however Houston placed #1 on the list:

  9. wkg in bham says:

    There’s a lot to not like about Atlanta. My only experience with Houston is a lay over in the airport. I’ll assume it’s a flat, muggy Texas style version of Atlanta.

    Disclosure: I lived in Atlantat for 15 years.

    Truly, I would be hard pressed to think of a city that sprawls more than Atlanta. That being said, there’s a neighborhood to fit almost every taste. A whole city dosen’t have to be to your liking, only the part you live in. I’ve never heard anyone trash Philly here due to the mile after mile of row house slums.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Liberal Atlanta versus conservative Houston? Seriously? Houston is the city with the lesbian mayor. Greater Houston is marginally more conservative than Greater Atlanta nowadays. (Houston, incidentally, also has positive per capita income growth, unlike Atlanta.)

    The issue with Houston is different: it’s a one-industry city whose industry is destroying the world. It’s very different from Alaska in that it doesn’t consist of rentiers off of local oil, but a huge chunk of the work done in Houston is in oil and gas – e.g. Halliburton is not an oil company but provides professional services to oil companies. Of Houston’s top ten Fortune 500 companies, nine are in the oil and gas industry or, like Halliburton, provide oil and gas services or equipment.

    The Bay Area is more economically diverse, but the industry it’s most famous for is tech. Tech is sexy; oil is not. For the same reason, people prefer to associate the Bay Area with Apple, its second largest company, and not Chevron, its first. Chevron makes money from cornering and then extracting natural resources, rather than from creating anything. And specifically within the realm of creating things, tech is sexy to Americans, because it feeds into the national fantasy of superstar individual inventors in a way that industrial conglomerates like GE don’t.

  11. Jon Seisa says:

    @ Alon Levy – Nothing is in isolationism. Everything is a steppingstone. It required the presence and harnessing of the petroleum industry and its public-private partnerships, the plethora of petroleum byproduct spinoffs chemically developed and engineered, and massive petro-dollars that have funded immense and diversified research, technologies, scholarships and education to even make possible the emergence of the subsequent high-tech industry. Many kudos should be going to the petroleum industry’s ingenuity and petro-chemical scientists and engineers.

    And I might add, literally everything in one’s home, car and workplace that we conveniently depend on via a daily basis is virtually made from a petroleum by-product, even the clothes one wears and the ladys’ beauty products. Not to mention, fiber-optics leading to PCs and their components would not exist.

    Thus, Houston’s oil industry did not destroy the world, it helped quantum leaped it into the High-Tech Age and Knowledge Economy, as well as California’s oil industry, which Silicon Valley owes overdue kudos to. The oil industry helped create the foundational economic and financial engines to finance and build the latter high-tech industry with much tax revenues garnered to governments to establish programs, grants, agencies’ budgets, new initiatives, new polices, and so on to foster technological institutes, labs, research centers and knowledge parks.

  12. wkg in bham says:

    The Atlanta Economy: Yep. It was hammered by the recession. Too much of it devoted to population driven activities e.g. house building; but not nearly to the extent of Phoenix or Las Vegas.

    Another characteristic of the Atlanta economy is that it is not concentrated in any particular thing. A roster of national/international firms out of Atlanta would include Coke, Delta Airline, ICE (International Commodities Exchange – which was buying the NYSE the last I heard), Sun Trust Bank, UPS, Geogia Pacific, Genuine Parts, Chick Filet, Home Depot, CNN. Most of these just track the movement of the economy in general. If the economy tanks, they are going to tank also.

    Eds and Meds big – but nothing like Boston or San Francisco/San Jose. There is a component of governmental type stuff e.g. CDC, Dobbins AFB, Fort McPherson, but not a big player there.

    What I’m trying to say is that Atlanta has a real economy based on real stuff. The opposite would be Phoenix; an economy built on what?

    I think Houston is more diverse than just oil (e.g. Meds) but don’t know enough to comment on. My impression is that the SF/SJ high tech is “narrow” in terms of providing jobs and general income.

  13. Sean S. says:

    And specifically within the realm of creating things, tech is sexy to Americans, because it feeds into the national fantasy of superstar individual inventors in a way that industrial conglomerates like GE don’t.

    This right here is one of the reasons why I chaff when people automatically connect a very, very limited area of “tech” (which is publicly consumable electronics and software) to “innovation”, ignoring significant and in many ways economically more powerful industries. There’s nothing wrong per se about attempting to attract or encourage start ups and businesses in that sector, but there is an obsessive myopia in urban development sectors on industries frankly that are better served and already placed in other metropolitan areas.

    The best comparison I can make to many cities (and many high priced urban consultants) plans is to college football. Every college administration argues it needs a football team, and high priced coaches and professional staff sell their expertise to the highest bidder, despite the fact that your given college will never, ever make it to the top of the rungs. Period. The reality is there is a very small percentage of players that can compete at the top tier, and those players are already looking at the top tier schools. Of the roughly 120 schools playing at the FBS level, only 30 really matter.

    The same applies to the “tech” industry. Buffalo is not going to somehow magically lure away the very small pool of tech industry jobs to itself. Continuing to sell the idea they will, just like college coaches and professional staff, is an attempt by people who know better trying to fleece desperate, willing municipal administrations. Many cities will have to focus on other economic sectors and other niches in order to stabilize their economies. Expecting Twitter to start up in Poughkeepsie is absurd.

  14. Jon Seisa says:

    Technology is really here to stay, and has diversity of fields for diversity of unique cities that can tap into new exclusive niches indicative to their own local strengths, resources, industries and regional makeup, e.g. biomedical, biogenetic-tech, med-device-tech, bioengineering-tech, agri-biotech, aeronautics/aerospace, chem-tech, pharma-tech, nanotech, biohelix-tech, interfusion-tech, telecommunications (yes, media), clean green-tech, transportation, semiconductors, and so on, besides the more publicly visible and popular cyber-tech and IT sectors. These “Innovation Clusters” do not work in a vacuum but cross-pollination and shared strategic-optimization are actually very key to further success and innovative breakthroughs. High-tech is even reciprocating back into the oil industry in new innovative ways since the advent of the fracking breakthrough that revolutionized American energy.

    So cities, like Buffalo, could best serve themselves best by a “tech-audit” where an sweeping assessment can identify and extrapolate strengths and weaknesses, untapped markets and potential of projected new industries, as well as current industries, fields and resources that need high-tech know-how augmentation, reinvention or enhancement so that instrumental initiatives and policies can integrate high-tech integration and help make a strategic transition into a more vibrant, robust and diversified local/regional economy for the new emergent Knowledge Economy, the new paradigm transitioning out of the Information Age.

    Instead, of an “Us vs. Them Mentality”, a “Win-Win Mentality” can be had by all when examination and analysis of the success models and their drivers are understood and then exclusive customized action applied based upon a city’s tech-audit results.


  15. Tone says:


  16. May says:

    Houston has also been the most aggressive annexing city in the country. I think this is present strength;but a time bomb since sprawl pattern of development dominates and it is dominated by low wage labor force that cannot afford this profligacy. Will really face crushing pressure when 2d life cycle blues arrive.

    Please note: Texas is already a minority-majority state, so its policies should be more responsible when it comes to dealing with improving education for the poor, getting off the sprawl development addiction, etc.
    As Houston’s population becomes more diverse, the region’s education and income problems intensify –
    Kinder Houston Area Survey
    Segregation by income in Houston is among the starkest in U.S.

  17. Matt Hall says:

    What does “minority-majority” mean? I’m not being silly. There are many unchallenged concepts today that I have real doubts about, such as “Hispanic.” I don’t think these concepts describe the world as it actually is.

  18. Anonymous says:


    It refers to a populace within an area composed of a majority of an ethnic group that is normally considered a minority, overall, in the broader demographics.

    “A majority-minority or minority-majority area refers to a sub-national jurisdiction in which one or more racial and/or ethnic minorities make up a majority of the population. This term was used in this context from at least 1978, if not earlier.”


  19. Matt Hall says:

    aren’t there majority-minority populations everywhere if you look at them at the a certain scale? Social identity is much more complicated than the phrase suggests.

  20. John Morris says:

    Isn’t Austin also a big factor? To some degree Houston sort of subcontracts some of that identity building to Austin. A high speed rail connection between the two seems much more valuable than a Dallas link.

    The big story about the Bay area is how hypocritical and conventional it really is. San Francisco may carry the brand, but the sprawling valley of office parks that makes up much of the area is hardly symbolic of a paradigm shift.
    Northern Virginia seems more adventurous.

    The region resists real large scale movements towards urbanism, excludes the poor and middle class. Increasingly even kids with very bankable degrees don’t want to move there.

    Wizbang concepts like electric Google cars, wind and massive solar farms seem more like childish ways to adopt/ save the conventional status quo.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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