15 Years Ago: In the first months of the Austin Chronicle (and I hope few readers were foolish enough to think last week's many reminiscent words about the Chronicle's early days were my final say on this paper celebrating its 15th anniversary), it was a bi-weekly of 20-24 pages with a print run of 20,000. There was almost no full-time staff but about eight or so volunteers. The struggle to stay alive was intense -- often exhilarating, more often debilitating.
There was never enough money, and even though the paper kept earning more money, there were always ways to spend it, not the least of which was paying the staff something resembling a decent wage. As soon as we made money, we spent it, so the need for money never changed and never ended. Things are only slightly different now. What money the paper made has gone back into the paper and it is always hungry for more.
Ironically, the turning point in the Chronicle's story was about eight years into its existence. The paper had been weekly for a year, but had shown almost no overall growth, which was economically devastating (twice as many issues, 10 percent more income). Conservative activist Mark Weaver of the American Family Association talked HEBs into not distributing the Chronicle at their stores anymore. Weaver then went around to the radio stations and the Austin American-Statesman bragging about his victory. They all covered it.
People rose up, lead not by the Chronicle but by the community. Clearly, many adults were sick to death of a handful of others trying to tell them how to think and what to read. Within a few weeks, the Chronicle was back in HEB stores.
A few months after this, the Chronicle began to experience unprecedented growth, and advertising became very robust. There were many reasons for this: the longevity of the paper and ongoing, excellent editorial content, a recovering economy, and increasing internal reorganization and sophistication. The most important aspect was that for a few weeks everyone in Austin was talking about the Chronicle, and one of the things they realized was that everyone was reading the paper. I would facetiously offer thanks to Mark Weaver, but I don't want to tread down that path even in humor.
Now: 15 years after those first issues, this issue is 136 pages, last issue was 112 pages, and all summer our issues averaged 90 pages plus. The print run is 80,000. According to Media Audit, an independent phone survey to which we subscribe, the paper has 229,300 readers (just about 50/50 male/female) over any four-week period. Whereas 18% of our readers make under $25,000 a year, 16% make over $75,000. 21% are between ages 18 and 24, with 14% between 45-54. The Chronicle is now produced by a staff of about 50 full-timers and many part-timers as well as numerous independent contractors and freelance writers.
In many ways, perhaps the story of this anniversary should be about how the little paper that could, did, and what that means. It is one thing for a small staff of industrious slackers to put out a paper read mainly by those who think of themselves as living in the subculture. Most everyone who worked at the paper just worked on issues thinking about the present; they didn't expect a future. We weren't ever sure if the paper was going to survive. But from the day we did that first issue, it was like sending a child out into the world. Any parent knows how hard and how irrationally you will fight for your child, even if you may be a bit mad at the scamp yourself. There was a ferocious energy poured into those early years which just ate people up.
Now, people all over Austin read the Chronicle. When we say things, people listen. In our April 1 issue, when we announced that we were going daily and had a deal with a major national newspaper firm to build a printing plant, we not only got resumés from all over the city and country, but an excutive of said national company called us, two hours or so after we started distributing the paper that Thursday morning, and, in all fairness, was not very happy. The paper has gotten bigger. People do take us more seriously. This is not always good (especially on April Fool's Day) but the Chronicle's sense of itself as a community paper hasn't changed, even as the community and the paper have.
Which is why the "Best of Austin" is one of our favorite issues of the year. This wasn't always the case, the staff hating the issue, unhappy with a rating system for this city they loved. It seemed abjectly commercial to rate favorite people, places, and things. Now that we have been doing it for so long, it is viewed as an ongoing work with a past and a future, a way to salute Austin's best, brightest, and most worthy on an annual basis without slighting others (if we haven't covered something in this or a previous poll, and it is deserving, we certainly will). We invite our readers to send in any ideas and categories we may have missed. Suggestions from this year's ballot are already being worked into next year's poll.
Future: The paper and what it is and who we are has changed. If you think I'm going to talk about the future, no way. We're as surprised as you are by whatever is coming next.n