Page Two: Printing the Legend

A brief history of Austin's improbable weekly, 28 years on

Page Two
There are some deep and dark secrets here. There are no details on any romance or feud that's decorated the almost three decades of the Chronicle. There are precious few biographical details here. Instead, it's the story of a journey that began in a very small and almost private way but is now part of the history of Austin and part of the stories the city tells others about itself. The Chronicle has also become one of the main tellers of Austin tales to Austin.

The narrative includes restaurants, clubs, comic books, pulp magazine stories, old TV commercials, and toys found in cereal boxes. There are many pieces, some as dominant as others are submissive, including rock & roll, love letters, photographs, bad times and good ones. There are over-the-top drunks, cheap pot, long nights that went on for days, and friends who are still working with us, as well as many others long gone and even some now dead.

In a sense, this is the story of a card game that's gone on for 28 years, while in so many other ways, it is the memory of a silent film. It is a catalog of lives lived, histories told, and nearly three decades of art/culture (theatre, music, film, poetry, fiction, comedy, performance, photography, etc.) as an unending, durational theatre piece in an endless hall of mirrors.

You Play the Black, and the Red Comes Up

This issue of the Chronicle you are holding in your hands is Vol. 28, No. 49 (publication date: Aug. 7, 2009). There will be three more issues published in August, closing out this publication's fiscal year (Sept. 1-Aug. 31). The last August issue will also mark the end of The Austin Chronicle's 28th year of publication.

The first September issue, Vol. 29, No. 1 (publication date: Sept. 4, 2009), initiates the new fiscal year while also marking the beginning of the paper's 29th year.

Now, at 28 years gone, surviving another year is not even an issue. But it wasn't always that way. In the beginning, almost nobody expected the Chronicle to make it for very long, including almost all Austin media observers, as well as a significant number of the paper's own staff members.

This group did not then include, nor has it ever included, Nick Barbaro, the paper's co-founder and publisher. It has, however, as often as not included me.

The Chronicle barely survived its first decade – but it did. Gripping the edge of the abyss with little more than fingertips all too much of the time in the beginning, we found things eventually got easier, and then easier again. Gradually, the paper went from just barely surviving to actually almost thriving.

No Pockets in a Shroud

Even long after the Chronicle was clearly established and finally successful, the gamblers, media pundits, 40-hour-a-week wordsmiths, and contented, enlisted journalistic support staff continued to shake their heads as they told us they had been certain that there was no way the Chronicle would survive.

The first issue of the Chronicle was published the first week of September 1981. The publishing schedule was biweekly and would stay that way for more than half a decade. Each year, between 24 and 26 issues were published (the variant being which days of the week certain holidays occurred on, especially Christmas and New Year's).

The paper came about because many of us – especially Joe Dishner, Ed Lowry, Barbaro, Jeff Whittington, Sarah Whistler, and I – deeply believed that Austin needed and deserved a publication like the Chronicle. To us, this meant a publication like The Village Voice but not really exactly like the Voice; we envisioned a far more "Texas" publication and, even more, one that would be of and about Austin. (The above list of names is obscene, by the way, in its exclusion of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who contributed so much.)

Most of us gave not even the most fleeting thought to the possibility that these were jobs we would end up doing for the rest of our lives. I'm pretty sure neither Barbaro nor I planned on being at the Chronicle much longer than that first year – not that either of us had any plans at all. But not having a plan is a plan; lacking ambition is still an ambition. Dishner wanted to make movies. Lowry wanted to teach. Barbaro was certain that there were convenience stores where stocked cases of Coors still needed to be unstocked. I just wanted to sleep. Dishner and Lowry left; Nick and I stayed.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride

Early on, all reason and planning disappeared. Our lives were sucked up by the endless day-after-day of doing the work that needed to be done. Back in the beginning and for the longest time afterward, each time the Chronicle reached another anniversary, it was hysterically welcomed and feverishly celebrated. Usually no one was more surprised than the people putting out the paper that it had made it for another year.

Actually, I have to clarify that statement. Almost regardless of what happened during the 12 months of each year every year, I was always worried sick about the health of the paper. As I had all my life, I kept expecting the worst, spending much of my time deeply depressed about the ugliness I knew was coming. Every August, I'm amazed that the Chronicle has notched another year, but that by no means has ever been affirming enough to put even a small dent in my Great Wall of China-sized worries. Most of the staff knows better than to ever be upbeat around me.

But that was me. Barbaro (aka the Captain, the title that Rollo Banks long ago unfortunately bestowed upon him), on the other hand, has always had an outlook that makes Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman's "What, me worry?" philosophy seem like puritanical, fatalistic determinism in comparison.

When the Chronicle finally went weekly in September 1988, almost immediately it faced far better-funded competition, as a Downtown monthly publication also went weekly. The quality of the publication gave me no pause, but its more than ample coffers and stated intention of driving us out of business had me upset, unnerved, and a bit panicked (none an uncommon state to me).

This other paper had more pages, more color, more marketing, and promotion money, as well as any number of more and far fancier distribution boxes than did the Chronicle.

Now, when hit by any storm, I amp my hysteria up to match its intensity, while Barbaro just keeps on keeping on – not exactly ignoring, but at least not paying any attention to it.

Over the years, I have learned that sharing my constant, deep, paranoid fears with Barbaro leads either to my being ignored by him or to unrelenting ridicule. Particularly when my reactions drift to unreasonable extremes, he most often retaliates cruelly. Basically, it's because he can't believe that I've once again worked myself up to such an outrageous state for reasons he regards as not even worthy of notice.

Not that my attempts at self-restraint have ever really worked, and on this occasion my self-restraint was gone immediately:

"Nick! Nick!! What the hell are we going to do? What? They have more pages, more color. ... They are printing more copies of each issue, and they have so many more and so much nicer distribution boxes than we do!"

This introduction to the Armageddon I knew we were facing and was prepared to verbally lay out for him – capturing every gruesome and potentially fatal threat in full, excruciating detail – had barely begun to emerge from my mouth when he quickly cut me off. "Well," he said in his most annoying, laconic, Jimmy Stewart tone, "I think we should do just what we've always done: concentrate on putting out the best Austin Chronicle that we possibly can."

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

In three weeks, it will be 28 years that we've published. By then I hope not to even mention it.

I don't really expect many of our readers to believe this, but what the hell. Over the years the Chronicle has become, if anything, even more the paper we had hoped that it might.

There's been a vision to this journey that Barbaro, the staff, our readers, and I have shared, one followed for almost three decades now. Other than the first decade (and that was probably mostly me), it's been a blast and still is. More often than not, doing this work is fun. It is also always exciting and a privilege to work with the staff that we get to work with to put out this publication for you, an audience that makes our constant, ongoing, and unrelenting efforts to just put out the best paper we can absolutely worth it.

Sure, over these 28 years, readers have written in with terrible things to say about us. Many think their attacks are so devastatingly brilliant and witty that we've been left wounded, bleeding, and near-dead by the side of the road, while they've also exposed the two-dimensional worthlessness of the Chronicle.

We are happy they are so self-satisfied. Now, I probably shouldn't point this out, but I really am regularly taken aback that so many miss the obvious. The Chronicle is very much a combination of ideas, criticisms, observations, and tastes. The idea that these attacks, even when inanely vicious, leave us hurt and flopping about like fish on dry land is silly. It would be exactly the same as being convinced that a Mexican, Ethiopian, Thai, or hot sauce chef would be devastated if presented with a box full of every wonderful, way-too-hot, and desirable spice unique to his or her cuisine.

That's right: We were all hoping for a mix so bland as to be tasteless, but boy, did you show us. All I can really say is thanks.  

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 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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