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Our mission to engage readers, excite debate, and reimagine the 'Chronicle' is ongoing; our new online forum is the latest step

By Louis Black, Fri., Aug. 13, 2004

"Girls would turn the –

As of now, if you wish to discuss letters posted in our online "Postmarks" section, you can. We've initiated an online forum. You can add your comments, agree or disagree with the letter writer, narrow the focus, or expand what they are saying, and post it immediately to our Web site.

Some time back, we began posting letters online as soon as we received and vetted them, publishing a selection of as many as we could fit in the weekly print edition. Now we've added this online forum. Anyone can view ongoing discussions by clicking on austinchronicle.com/forum. If you want to add comments, you just need to register first. We'll be monitoring the posted responses, reserving the right to edit or eliminate dramatically inappropriate or otherwise problematic posts.

This is part of our ongoing process of reimagining the Chronicle – not reinventing it per se, but expanding it online and improving the print edition while maintaining our core identity.

On an ongoing basis, we regularly tinker with the paper, changing, adding, and refining. But during the last year or so, we've been spending considerable time concentrating on the relationship between the weekly print edition and the online version. Currently, we produce the paper each week, distributing it on Thursday with a Friday publication date. Then we capture that version and offer it on the Web. Over time, we expect the two versions will begin to vary more widely as the Web version develops its own identity. We already offer online-only pieces, longer versions of pieces we publish in the print edition, and, as noted, letters as soon as we receive them. The "Postmarks" forum is a prototype for what will be forums throughout the paper, with which we will invite readers to comment more immediately on what we publish.

The Chronicle is a commercial, capitalist enterprise, but it is also very much a labor of love. The staff produces a paper that they find interesting; we hope and count on many readers to find it so as well. Ideally, the Chronicle is a journal of ideas and opinions, well stated and carefully thought out, that invite our readers into a dialogue. Certainly, we're based in what is going on in the community, and part of our mission is to provide an annotated catalog of what is going on in Austin. But at our best, we should excite debate – whether an interior conversation with yourself, a more animated one with friends, or in letters. Now issues can be addressed more immediately online; these forums will be expanded to many other sections in the future.

Speaking for the staff, I think, we imagine that almost none of our readers agrees with everything he or she reads in this paper, though some portion might actually disagree with everything (and we prefer the latter folks to the former). The Chronicle is not a mirror that perfectly reflects our readers back to themselves; a democratic forum where we poll folks to find their take on books, theatre, art, or music; or even a consumer guide. It is a voice at the table, an outspoken member of the community: instigating, agitating, informing, and, we hope, entertaining.

– color of an avocado/

The idea is to engage: not lead, but engage on our terms. Thus, we would love to have even more reader feedback, to expand the opportunities for interaction – but without abdicating any of our authorship. Currently, almost all negative and hostile letters are the most likely to get printed. There are a few letter-writers banned from publication, but very few (one who thinks he has a column, another who thinks name-calling is the same as expressing ideas). All our readers, no matter what they think of us, are part of our audience.

Early on, the Chronicle was regarded as very street and very punk (except by those communities), which meant we had precious little authority but a great deal of freedom. We could get away with almost anything because no one took us that seriously. The journey to respectability wasn't fun. We had to be a lot more careful about what we said. I remember despairing when our political endorsements began to carry serious electoral weight. This was a responsibility I didn't want. "Trust us!" I wanted to scream. "Are you crazy?" As usual, publisher Nick Barbaro brought me back to reality by recalling one of his favorite discussions on leadership in John Boorman's 1985 film The Emerald Forest. Some outsiders ask the leader of a jungle tribe to get his people to do something they don't want to do. He points out that he wouldn't be the leader very long if he tried to get his people to do what they didn't want to do. As in Modern Times, when Charlie Chaplin, turning the wrong corner, finds himself leading a parade of strikers, just because you find yourself at the head of a crowd doesn't mean you're leading.

When he drove down the street –

Someday, it may well turn out that what this paper does and how it does it will no longer be of interest to readers. Then we'll stop. We wouldn't enjoy or know how to produce a paper that might be successful but wasn't of us. And that "us" is the whole staff – not just editorial, but everyone here and in our greater family.

Periodically, we're told that the paper is losing readers, that the community is turning against us, that everyone someone knows has stopped reading us. During the recent brouhaha over Alex Jones (see Access of Evil, News, Aug. 6, and this week's many letters), one delighted perennial candidate we've never endorsed called to let us know he was dancing on our grave. As I said, someday that might happen. It doesn't seem to be right now.

Every year, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies hosts a convention. A few weeks before this year's, we received a mailing from the Media Audit, an audience research group that bases its finding on random calling (rather than inserting a survey card in the paper):

"Austin Leads with 11.1%.

"... 'To no one's surprise the website that attracts more adults than all the others (478,400) belongs to The Village Voice in New York City. But on a percent of market adults the most successful site in our compilation is that of The Austin Chronicle. It attracts 11.1 percent of adults each month in the Austin, Texas area. The question that comes immediately to mind is: What is The Austin Chronicle doing that makes its website so successful.'"

– in his Eldorado. –

Production Manager Karen Rheudasil, the guiding intelligence (as well as blood, sweat, and tears) behind our Web site, came into my office beaming. Quickly raining on her parade and with improper self-satisfaction at my smarts, I pointed out that undoubtedly the Media Audit had tailored their press release to each paper, noting some category in which they were outstanding as a way of luring them to subscribe. At the convention, we discovered – to no one's surprise and as we often do – that I was wrong; every paper in AAN had been sent the same release. Further, relative to community size, the Chronicle is one of the most successful weeklies in the country, boasting impressive market penetration, reader numbers, and overall revenue (though we are far from among the most profitable).

This is because of you, our readers, and the paper's staff. We've never had a business plan, a profit target, or an overall commercial strategy. Led by Barbaro, we've always tried to put out the best Chronicle we possibly can, figuring that if we got that right, everything else might follow. Remarkably, it has. We trusted you, took to heart the late Ed Lowry's advice that you never write down to your audience, though occasionally it was okay to aim a little high because they'd follow.

I bring all this up to some extent in light of the forums and our redesign, but mostly because I just returned from a three-week, out-of-town vacation. One of the great pleasures of my life is sitting down with several issues of the Chronicle I had nothing to do with and just reading it.

Pablo Picasso never –

As to the hordes of Alex Jones faithful who came to their champion's support: 1) The Chronicle is not a daily; 2) free speech is not served by firing reporters because a few letter-writers disagree with their views; 3) before you criticize a piece or attack a publication, read it; and 4) if we gave in to every pressure group-instigated letter campaign, we wouldn't be much of a publication, would we? And, finally, the day getting tons of similar, often silly letters makes us upset or changes our minds is the day we get out of this business.

– got called an asshole/

The scene is on a prison bus, with a few guards and several manacled prisoners. One of them, Napoleon Wilson, is kept away from the rest. He is an unrepentant murderer. Finally, one of the guards begins to ask him a question. Wilson rolls his eyes back. He knows what's coming; he's been asked it before.

Lt. Ethan Bishop: "You're not ... you're not a psychopath. You're not stupid."

Napoleon Wilson (interrupting): "I am an asshole. ... You can't take everything away from me."

This is one of my favorite lines of all time, from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), essentially a remake of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959). (For the "we hate all remakes" crowd, we note that Hawks remade the film twice himself, as El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970).) If you've never seen this film and like Carpenter's work, drive-in movies, Westerns, and/or action movies, you're missing an American classic. It's currently being remade with Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke for release next year.

Often, if someone is complimenting me, I use this line: Don't take everything away from me; I'm still an asshole. I'm the editor of a tough, independent publication, and I'll do what it takes and say what's needed in that role, regardless. In fact, if you ever hear I've mellowed or become less of an asshole, please warn me. And if ever, in the name of free speech or to protect my feelings, I urge readers to mindlessly support me by phone call and letter, remind me that, yes, I want to be an asshole – but not that pathetic a one.

Not like you!"

– "Pablo Picasso," Jonathan Richman end story
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