Page Two: Community Sourced
Moving backward and forward, toward the future
In many ways, I've always thought of the Chronicle as being a publication along the lines of the rural and very local Vermont newspapers, usually covering a number of small communities, that I used to read when I lived there. These were the kinds of papers that would always run a notice when a few of us traveled up from Boston with our friend Everett to visit his home in Bartonsville, Vt. There would be a photo of Everett and us, all looking rather scruffy, standing in front of a VW bus. A local kid home for the weekend with friends never struck me as anything worth reporting, but these papers were celebrations of the mundane, reporting on all activities in the communities they covered.
The Chronicle doesn't indulge in exactly the same kind of detail because, among many other reasons, there is such a dramatic difference between Vermont and Austin. The Green Mountain State's entire population is just slightly north of 625,000, 95% of whom are white. Austin alone has a population of more than 790,000, about half of them white. There are slightly more than a million people in the greater Austin area (Travis County). Only 7% of those are in rural areas, compared to more than two-thirds of Vermonters.
Clearly, the kind of paper that serves a few counties in Vermont is not going to be much like the Chronicle, no matter how I perceive it. Still, in many ways, though on a vastly different scale, the ambitions of the papers are not all that dissimilar.
The Chronicle has always been Austin-centric in its coverage of political, cultural, economic, social, and educational issues. This doesn't mean we cover only Austin; we also deal with state activities, as well as national culture and politics, but overwhelmingly our focus is on the community from which we emanate.
Being so centered on Austin may seem painfully, narrowly focused and reductive – but it really isn't. This is because we cover an extraordinary and diverse community, one that boasts a voracious appetite for culture, history, politics, technology, science, and the future. True, it is also one beset with many of the problems of modern urban areas, and focusing on the town does not mean whitewashing it nor denying its flaws.
A couple of weeks back (July 15), I wrote in "Page Two" that the Chronicle is currently "in the midst of a long-term, comprehensive consideration of every facet of the paper. The idea is to clear one's head, shaking off the idea of the paper as it is in order to reimagine it. This involves thinking about what the paper is supposed to be – what serves readers, as well as what they expect – which means considering not only the overall construct but all the different, significant parts of which it is composed."
What is always amazing about such a sprawling, ambitious project is how to work through it in a rational and comprehensive way. Essentially, you are dealing with a Rubik's Cube somehow combined with a game of Jenga, in which every change affects the whole. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up being focused on the arcane while far more important areas are mostly overlooked. Dealing with such a mammoth, multileveled, and formidable structure that is also delicate and completely intertwined can drive one crazy. Invariably, after having cooperatively discussed and reasoned through a section to the point where one feels some goals have been reached, someone will come up to blithely ask any number of questions that end up completely undermining the work that was just thought finished.
In that same July 15 column, I also noted that "[a]s extensive and thorough as this major consideration is, it doesn't necessarily mean there will be dramatic structural changes."
The basic philosophy behind the Chronicle hasn't changed since we began publishing. The best way to explain it is by telling a story (one I've told several times before).
The Chronicle was a biweekly publication for its first seven years, not going weekly until the fall of 1988. (At the same time we went weekly, a Downtown publication that had been monthly also went weekly – only they did so with more resources and much more substantial funding than the Chronicle had.)
A number of weeks into our new and brutal schedule of weekly publishing, I was getting a little frayed. Finally, in a panicked, near hysterical state, I approached Publisher Nick Barbaro, waving a copy of this other weekly publication.
"Look at this!" I yelled as I waved the issue around. "They have more color than we do, and they publish a lot more pages than we do every week. Not only that, they have so many more and far more attractive distribution boxes. What are we going to do?"
Whereas I lived in a state of panic, Nick was calm; whereas I was always scared, Nick was certain.
"Well," he responded, "I think we are going to do what we've always done: put out the best Chronicle we know how to do."
Since the paper started publishing, long before that encounter, until today, over two decades after it, and on into the future, there's never been a better description to explain the relationship between the staff and the paper – to make sure we publish the best Chronicle that we are capable of producing.
'Austin Chronicle' Changes
Some changes have already taken place, some will over the next four weeks, and by our anniversary issue (Sept. 2), there should be a redesigned and refocused Chronicle.
'PAGE TWO': The column will run at about half the length it has, with a complementary blog to launch soon.
POSTMARKS: Currently, we are including more feedback from our readers by not only printing almost every letter we receive, but also picking out choice and appropriate excerpts from posts and comments on our website.
'TV EYE': After a great run of more than a decade, this column has ceased. Our deepest gratitude to Belinda Acosta for the great job she did.
BACK OF THE BOOK: There is reshuffling going on in the back part of the Chronicle, but it hasn't permanently settled yet.