Page Two: Ten Ways of Looking at an 'Austin Chronicle'

In celebration of our 25th anniversary

Page Two
Narrative: If the early days of the Chronicle were rendered faithfully, it could only be as a dark, stark, cold tableau against a minimal set: a few desks, a couple of pieces of broken furniture, and a lot of crap. Occasionally, the dialogue between characters would seem coherent to the audience. But mostly it would be a more avant-garde piece: a ballet of the dysfunctional, a performance piece by the truly uncomprehending – essentially, a theatrical work so disjointed that much of the discussion afterward would be as to whether the playwrights had any overriding goals or anything resembling a narrative sensibility.

Sometimes there were people race-walking across the stage, babbling to themselves and seeming supernaturally happy. Less often, there would be a few performers walking back and forth across the stage with something close to death-mask faces and actual, ominous, dense black clouds floating above their heads. But the predominant activity would have to be people either alone, in pairs, or even in larger groups, either all screaming at one another together or taking turns. The words they scream run together into an incoherent wailing; the rants begin hostile, embittered, and angry, but toward the end most would go for an air of overwhelming sadness, usually some combination of emotional exhaustion from working too hard, trying to do too much, and feeling as though they are being treated with a lack of respect and/or appreciation.

On film, I'd go for a straight National Lampoon's Animal House-style musical – just random anarchy and dramatic acts, against a celebration of chaos. My ideal cast would include some modern incarnation of the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Olsen and Johnson, the Ritz Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, Clark and McCullough, and Judy Canova.

Okay, so the Chronicle finishes its 25th year of publication with this issue. Next issue starts the 26th year.

Marketing: Every seven years or so, an extra issue has to be added to our 52-issues-a-year publishing schedule, to adjust to the calendar. This issue is very consciously a regular weekly Chronicle, though deliberately numbered as Volume 25, No. 53. In order to really celebrate these 2 decades, we end that period with what it is we do week in and week out. Next week's Volume 26, No. 1, will have a special separate supplement about the last 25 years of Austin and the Chronicle. The Chronicle's 20th anniversary issue was an oral history of those first two decades, the story told by dozens of participants. The 25th will be honored with more of an emphasis on the visual. (An exhibit celebrating 25 years of Chronicle photography will be on display at the Austin Museum of Art – Downtown Sept. 8-24; there will be related community events open to the public Sept. 8-10, 5-7:30pm, at the museum as well. See austinchronicle.com for more details.) Happy anniversary.

Reality: On Monday we realized that, though the special section was done, we should work on and think about it longer in order to make sure we get it right. After the decision, Publisher Nick Barbaro and I smiled at each other, because this act really was the most obvious homage to the early days of the Chronicle. We'd swap out features and change cover stories until right before the paper left the building to be printed. Given that we often finalized the cover only on the day we went to press, these were often exciting changes at the last minute, abhorred by almost the entire staff – usually because this meant that, though we made the decision, it was all of them who had to do the work.

Nothing has changed. Erin Collier, our beloved marketing director; Carol Flagg, fabled ad director; and the entire staffs of retail advertising, classifieds, and distribution are all unhappy with us – as are various and assorted staffers in other departments. This is because this meant a lot of extra work for them. Erin, for example, had blanketed the media with press releases. Working all her contacts and relationships, she arranged a blizzard of coverage. And we changed the dates.

Personal Appeal: Please, buy the spin; sell the spin. Ignore the section above; concentrate on the section before it. Believe in that section and in that belief; preach and pass the word along. Let not disgruntled staffers hear the astonishment of the reading public at the thought that we could so cavalierly rearrange our world.

Appearance: In 1985, Nick Barbaro, Kathleen Maher, the late Jeff Whittington, and I attended our first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention in Maine. We landed in Boston, rented a car, and drove to Portland. After parking by the restaurant where the opening reception was being held, we headed over. All of us were wearing T-shirts. Halfway there, I stopped, went back to the car, and got a nicer shirt out of my pack to wear. After all, I figured, we should make an effort.

Walking into the reception, I realized that most of the people there were in business attire – the men in at least jacket and ties, the women all nicely dressed. There we were, three of us in T-shirts, and me wearing my ratty shirt, though tucked in and buttoned. I turned to Nick Barbaro and said, "Well, we've met the future, and, as usual, we're badly dressed."

Appreciation: The Chronicle was not admitted to the association that year, but the next it was inducted as a member of AAN. For any number of years, members of AAN had talked about creating our own awards for weeklies. Nothing had been done, and nothing continued to be done for probably another dozen years. Then I became the editorial committee chair. Chairs usually serve for two years, though with one-year terms. I left at the end of my first term – it was not enough fun. But I had initiated an annual AltWeekly Awards contest. The Chronicle has done very poorly in these awards.

Respect: Although I was the one who founded the AltWeekly Awards, aside from Michael Ventura, Robert Faires, and the unexpected first-place win of Jordan Smith in the crime reporting category this year, the AltWeekly Awards have passed the Chronicle over.

Thus The Austin Chronicle is very proudly one of the few publications in the country that can, with only the slightest hesitation, refer to itself as a non-award-winning weekly.

Most of the time, in order to win journalism awards you have to submit a discrete, formal entry for each piece from your publication you wish to nominate. The awards committee doesn't just read through papers looking for winners. We almost never nominate stories. We really don't have the time.

When we do enter, we rarely win.

At least with the AltWeekly Awards, I argue that this is because the awards have evolved to the point where they honor the weeklies that are the most like the glossy magazines, with very long, in-depth stories beating out most of the others. I might as well quickly add that there is a not-surprising consistency of tone to the winners all sharply critical, often adversarial, and all plunged into and covered by the dark, damp, smothering swamp of modern life.

Few papers, for example, cover politics the way the Chronicle does. More often than not, many papers engage in the type of "gotcha! journalism" in which a City Council member is exposed to be self-serving, using public money to enrich him or herself, and/or to be found with an underage boy or girl or animal of any age.

Sour Grapes: Now, when I very tentatively offered up this suggestion, I was quickly accused of sour grapes and unseemly whining. For one who has long nursed sour grapes to their bitterest end, as well as mastered many forms of whining, this was not unexpected but nevertheless discouraging.

Individual staffers and different departments are welcome to enter this competition each year, which is how Smith took first place. But a couple of years back, I decided that the Chronicle would no longer make an organized, across-the-board effort to try to enter work in every category.

Obviously, the above is lit fireworks for negative quips about the Chronicle, and – I hope just as obviously – I don't really care.

After entering articles and reviews by any number of our talented writers, year after year, without ever placing, I gave up. As far as I was concerned, the awards were nothing. Now, I try to always operate by Popeye, the Sailorman's totally sensible life prescription, "I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam." Along these lines, I know what I know, and I know this is wrong.

Celebration: The Chronicle's 20th-anniversary cover story was about the time some goons drove a golf cart into a swimming pool at a place we had rented for a party and my over-the-top reaction. This issue, in contemplating our 25th, I ponder our woeful lack of honors. Mostly, I think, this is because this paper is what the staff creates, as a reflection of the greater community's (in other words: "your") activities.

It has really been a privilege, a blessing, and an honor to get to do this and to do it for so long. I'm not kidding; not only did I never expect this little adventure to turn out the way it has, I never thought I'd embark on any project of which I would be so proud for so long. This paper is its staff and its readers. The staff abides me, they contemplate Barbaro, and they work with a passion, an intelligence, and a commitment that awes me.

Readers: It's been year after year, for 25 years, with next year another one. Each year has been interesting and challenging in its way. Many of them have even been fun.

Now, I hope I speak for Nick and the entire staff when I say (and truly do mean) thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you readers, advertisers, staff, freelancers, supporters, and critics. I hope we have earned your attention and consideration.

But I also have to add, paraphrasing Abe Lincoln, that to all of our readers some of the time, and some of our readers almost all the time, "screw you." We certainly didn't get wherever it is we are by pandering to readers. I doubt that they engage with us because they expect us to be well-mannered and subdued. And sometimes we're a bit more honest than reasonable, more passionate than disaffected, more engaged than objective. The Chronicle is what it is – and that's not all that it is, because it is the staff and it is you, the readers.

I don't know about you all, but I wouldn't have it any other way. May this ride continue as long as it should! end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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