Page Two: Our 30th Year
Unrelated histories and unresolving fantasies
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he's growing old."
– Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho & Lefty"
"Oh, this rain
It will continue
Through the morning
As I'm listening
"To the bells
Of the cathedral
I am thinking
Of your voice"
– Suzanne Vega, "Tom's Diner"
"Fall and all attendant memories
Crowd the day with unrelated histories
Each year leaves its unresolving fantasies
To hang around each corner
Hang around each street"
– Suzanne Vega, "Anniversary"
The Austin Chronicle began publishing Sept. 4, 1981, as a biweekly. We had very little idea of what went into publishing a paper and basically no idea of what we were getting ourselves into. Over the next 10 to 12 years, we learned. And we learned a lot, because we had to learn almost everything.
Our educational strategy was quite simple. We managed to do almost everything wrong in every way it could be done wrong at least once. We were so successful at making virtually every mistake possible, it seemed that we were achieving such systematic inclusiveness that it was almost like we were working from the blueprint of an extensively tested model.
The next part of our educational innovation was that we tried very hard not to make the same mistake a second time. If by some fluke we did hit the same skid patch twice, then all efforts were redoubled so as not to do it again.
The first Austin Music Awards show was March 3, 1983. In March 1987, South by Southwest kicked off. The last biweekly issue was published in August 1988. In September 1988, the Chronicle went weekly.
During the first years, we made a big deal about every anniversary. Mostly this was because we were so relieved to have made it through another year, but it was also at least partially to get us to the end of the next one.
Personally, I think Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro never really worried that much about the paper one way or the other. I did. I was worried sick, day in and day out, for more than the first decade, at least. In the earliest years, I not only aged but also lost a part of myself that I would never find again. Lots of folks had similar experiences.
The Chronicle had been publishing for more than 10 years before I dared to entertain the thought that the paper might actually be around for a while. Still, though my state of near-constant worry did lessen, it really didn't disappear but instead mostly refocused. The paper's seemingly constant stressed and stretched condition maintained the tension.
So it turned out that for most of the Chronicle's second decade, I was almost as worried as I was during the first one. Certainly, I was not alone, though I probably did fairly completely occupy one extreme. The whole staff was focused on making sure the Chronicle continued and continues to survive and flourish.
"It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
Who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender."
– Leonard Cohen, "The Stranger Song"
Some number of years into publishing the paper, anniversary celebrations began to seem redundant and unnecessarily disruptive. The desire to create yet another big party to celebrate one more year survived faded for the staff. In the face of its constant, ongoing creation and publication, the Chronicle's day in and day out work schedule not only already pushes our staff closer together but also proves the very heart of the Chronicle.
When the Chronicle reached its 20th anniversary in September 2001, we decided that year we would do things differently. We planned to hold a big party and invite all the former staff we could find. We also invited them to submit their reminiscences. This was so past and present staff could tell the story of the Chronicle.
Months were spent planning and contacting those we knew how to get in touch with while searching for the ones with whom we had lost contact. The summer was spent soliciting, gathering, and editing pieces. A lot of time was spent collecting photographs as well as other art.
The issue was published Sept. 7, 2001. Early the next week, the world changed, and we all had a lot more to think about than the Chronicle's history.
Now we're at our 30th. But there is no closure to the story of a paper, no logical point at which to take a break. As much as it has a history, it's also a living thing: an oozing kaleidoscope montage where, in some cases, different people have different memories of what happened. Nobody finds any kind of access to a straight, linear, or unchanging history. Some past events loom important at one time, fade at another. There were legendary fights and inspired collaborations, embarrassing fall-on-your-face failures, and joyous moments of creation. There were those who didn't take credit and those who claimed credits they had never earned.
The Chronicle story is a massive, contradictory, epic narrative that is ever-changing: floating fragments of histories, Chronicle-centric fables, and long-established, much-practiced spoken tales, attached to one another in changing patterns.
Major Chronicle projects have always tended to travel like a wagon train guided by drunks, sometimes heading downhill so fast that the best hope is an easy crash. On occasion it gets lost; other times, much to everyone's surprise, a river is effortlessly forded, while only days later a light rain ends up messing up the food stores.
It's our paper, done our way and produced at our speed. The heart of our business and the pumping blood of our heart is the Chronicle. The big secret here is that the week-in and week-out issues are usually our treasures, more than poll results or special issues.
An astonishing amount of what the Chronicle has said it was going to do and when it was going to do it has been on target or very close. Still, we insist on our right to be stupid, to be lazy, and to make mistakes. If nothing else, this system has proven workable for many years.
Some of the genius of the staff is that it tends to combine procrastination with poetry and being late with sacred visions, so that when some special issue or issues take their own sweet time coming, we offer some gorgeous explanation as to how it could be no other way. Now think of this: If, after 30 years, we offered one special anniversary issue and a menu of various events, would that really be the Chronicle's style? Instead join us in this adventure as we try to discover our anniversary within the paper and our lives.
From Austin Chronicle Managing Editor Cindy Widner:
Our 29th anniversary was Sept. 4, and after its passing, we decided to start celebrating our 30th year right away.
It's all still evolving, but here's what we have going so far:
We're republishing the first year's issues online every two weeks (that's how often we published for the first seven years).
We are running vintage ads from some of our original advertisers in the paper and challenging readers to spot the old ad.
We are compiling lists of 30 notable (or laughable or lamentable) takes on the Chronicle's coverage, culture, and commentary from the past three decades. You can find it all on our website: austinchronicle.com/year30.