Page Two: For the Fun of It
Reminiscing on 25 years of 'The Austin Chronicle' and looking forward to what's next
September 1981: The first issue was a disaster. A calamity so legendary that, for much of a decade, copies of it were not allowed in the office. During the first couple of years of the Chronicle, I vowed never to look back at that time fondly; it was so exhausting, overwhelming, and destructive. I felt like I was drowning, that I was wrong in decision after decision, but I had to keep making them; that I was operating way above my range and my abilities, but if I stopped to breathe, it wouldn't just be me that drowned (which is not to say I was uncomfortable; failure had always been my co-pilot). In a way, I focused all of that on one issue, Vol. 1, No. 1. It was the green kryptonite reminding me of just how inept I was as a crew member on this sad voyage we had undertaken.
The disaster, to be more accurate, was just the cover. Designed by Micael Priest, it was a composite photo of Richard O'Brien: one-half his face from Rocky Horror Picture Show and the other half from his new movie, Shock Treatment. At the last minute, Priest put a dab of purple into the corner of each eye to emphasize the madness.
The printer misread the instructions. The cover as printed was all purple; it was saturated in purple with a ghostly head peeking out. It was beyond hideous, and this was our very first issue. A radio station that we had structured a partnership with canceled because of the cover. It created deep scars.
Calendar pages are flipped by a sharp breeze.
September 1996: In the 15th anniversary issue, we reprinted the whole first issue. Finally looking at it again, after all those years, I realized I had missed something.
The Chronicle believes in words, many would say to a far too great extent. We created this paper because we thought a similar publication didn't exist in Austin, which would be the perfect home for one. The idea was completely driven by content; editors and writers started it. Sure, the lack of business people proved brutal in the beginning, and we had to painfully learn about the vast majority of this enterprise that has nothing to do with content.
Once past the cover, the issue was brimming with good writing (I didn't become editor until Year 3, so I'm not bragging on myself). The issue included Ed Lowry on the return of 3-D films, Nick Barbaro on Frederick's of Hollywood, Robert Elder Jr. and Diane Jane Morrison writing on politics, with reviews by Harvey Neville, Sarah Whistler, George Coleman, Greg Beal, Jeff Whittington, and Chris Walters. There was a long interview with John Sayles by Ed Lowry and Nick Barbaro, while legendary writer Howard Waldrop contributed the cover story on Richard O'Brien.
Many things were in place. We took politics and culture seriously and would write about them with as much intelligence as we could muster. Ed Lowry taught us to write straight across to our readers, never down to them. There was a lot of room for growth, but there was promise as well.
For the record: Shock Treatment, our cover-featured film, never actually opened.
October 1981-2006: Over the years any number of writers have worked for the paper some to contribute a piece, others to work for years. Many of the writers have impressive careers. In so many of the cases, the pieces they wrote for the Chronicle are still among the best writing they've ever done. This is not to suggest that their writing hasn't continually improved. They have gone on to write for newspapers and important national magazines, to write books and make movies. But what they wrote for the Chronicle, whether because of intimacy or youth, passion or street values, still stands out. Then, as now, this paper was of and by the community. When you write for your neighbors, you hear from them from the cashier at the supermarket, the convenience-store clerk, the bus driver, the dry cleaner, the waiter, and the librarian at your neighborhood library. Publishing in the Chronicle has always meant immediate feedback, the publication just a linking system for the staff, the advertisers, and the community.
March, April, May 2006: It was the time of propositions 1 and 2. Cruising the Web I came across a blog discussion of how responses to letters in "Postmarks" were now appearing more regularly. Bloggers speculated, "Could the Chronicle writers be such thin-skinned wimps?" I agree with the sense of the arguments that writers get to have their say in the issue, and the only responses to letters should be factual corrections. This is Chronicle policy. But when we went online, writers were permitted to respond to letters, but the responses were not to go in the print issue. Through misunderstandings, mistakes, and my inability to pay attention or stay consistent, more responses were being printed.
The bloggers were right, but I still thought they had missed a point. The proposition debate did not just invite the usual name-calling and dismissal of writers and their opinions. This time out they questioned the integrity of editors and writers, attacking them personally on ethical issues.
After 25 years, here's the point: We do this because we care and because we believe in it. Sure we've grown more cynical, but we aren't jaded; we may pretend to disinterest or only display a certain casualness about the Chronicle. Don't be fooled. We are on a mission and always have been. If someone doesn't care, there are a lot easier jobs to be had than working here.
As hard as we might be and as much as we have been through, we can be gotten to. Most of the time we are too busy working, moving forward, and preparing the next issue to notice. We can't be stopped, corrupted, or subdued, but we can grow very tired and feel overwhelmed.
What you hold in your hands is a paper as honest as we can get it, created for you and by you as represented by the staff. It's the only thing the Chronicle has ever tried to be, a community newspaper for this community. When that stops working or stops being fun, well then Barbaro and I will probably move on. But the truth is that it's now as much fun as it's ever been. We don't just create this paper, we're fans. We can't wait to see what's going to be in the next issue and the next and the next.
If Austin wasn't the community it is, then we couldn't do this, and if we had to do something different than this, we wouldn't have. So after 25 years we are, as always, humbled by our staff their talent and commitment and forever grateful to you, our readers.