Chronicle History: The Chronicle goes weekly after seven years as a biweekly. The timing is pure Chronicle: It's the bottom of the bust. The first year or so is hellish. Revenue grows by 20%, except twice as many issues are being put out. Once again, the difference between resources and liabilities is made up by people working incredible shifts.
The next three years will be the most event-filled in Chronicle history: The paper goes weekly, gets thrown out of and then reinstated in the HEB, the building is set on fire, and the office finally moves again, to its present home.
Chronicle Content: Another transition period. Michael Corcoran, Jim Shahin, Margaret Moser, and others leave; Kathleen Maher, who deserves her own chapter, will leave. Mike Hall returns. The paper goes through its rockiest period the first couple of years it is weekly, forced to produce so much more editorial and losing so many veterans. Everything, though, is defined by going weekly.
The first time I sold an Erwin Center ad, it was a big deal because some of their shows had gotten bad reviews. Right after I sold them an ad, another big advertiser miraculously called me back, and Nick walked into my office with a watermelon and a note saying it would be mine if I sold them an ad. I had a hard time not laughing on the phone with the client. That was a great bonus back in those days. I'll never forget the time we got Nick the paper's first barbecue pit and an engraved axe to chop up wood for the fire.
There are folks here I'm glad I brought on. I helped them start here. It feels good.
I began working with writers on some of the stories I was typing in, then with more and more of them, especially after Kathleen left, and I became managing editor. Some of it was just awful: Every crank, poet, activist, and Lester Bangs wannabe who would write cheap came through the door, and I remember a few times crumpling up manuscript pages and throwing them out the window.
But some of it was just great. Marion Winik's funny, heartbreaking, and bizarrely self-indulgent essays about the unbearable lightness of being Marion. Chris Walters' trenchant music stories that always connected every inconceivable thing to the topic at hand. Ed Ward's witty book and food columns, the latter under the name Petaluma Pete. Marge Baumgarten's smart film reviews. Nick's whimsical "Soccer Watch" column and Louis' passionate run-on sentences in the recently added "Page Two."
The first really personal essay I ever wrote was "Sixteen Pictures of My Father." When I first finished and re-read it, I was certain it would be of no interest to anyone except members of my immediate family. I thought maybe I would make copies for my mother and my aunts. Perhaps I'd also show it to Louis, since he was, like me, Jewish and knew the Jersey Shore. Louis published it in the May 12, 1989, issue. The week it came out, I saw people reading it around town: at Kerbey Lane, at the bar at the Hole in the Wall. I saw someone crying over it in a booth at Manuel's. This was the moment that I realized that the most personal, idiosyncratic details are what gives an essay its power. In articulating my very singular dad as specifically as I could, I had somehow touched the dad place in everybody. To this day, this is one of the best things I have written.
In 1989, impressed by the work of mine they had seen in the Chronicle, Texas Monthly assigned me to do an essay for them. The first one went deceptively smoothly, but the second was a disaster. Six months and four grueling rewrites into the process, they said they couldn't use it. I cried with rage and frustration, then took it to Louis, who ran "This Is Not My Beautiful House" as the cover of an August 1990 issue. NPR correspondent John Burnett read it and liked it so much that he called me and asked me if I wanted to try recording some of my essays for NPR. Soon I was a regular on All Things Considered.
It is just as I have insisted drunkenly to Nick Barbaro at parties and written floridly to Louis in the Acknowledgements of my books: I would never have had a writing career without the Chronicle. Though most publications say they want writers with distinctive voices, they don't. Either they turn you down flat, or they edit you and homogenize you until you sound just like everything else they publish. Only because the Chronicle gave me the freedom to establish a voice do I even have one.
One day, someone at the Chronicle told me that one of the managers at the Village Cinema had called to complain about how we had printed their matinee listings. Apparently, a rather irate customer had demanded that he get a reduced rate to a movie and had produced a copy of the Chronicle's listings as evidence of this claim -- listings that were somewhat ambiguous as to whether this particular showing should or should not be discounted. After talking with the theatre manager, I eventually came to the conclusion that the angry patron was my dad, a kind man but a notorious skinflint nonetheless. To save the family name, the listings were a lot more accurate after this unfortunate episode.
First, I was nervous as hell. I handed in my first story when I was sure no one was in the office. It was a personal account of writing a lesbian erotic movie, and I discovered that everyone, including the lesbian crew and filmmakers, were homophobic. Most of them wanted to use pseudonyms for fear of blowing their cover in the straight-film world. I dashed in, slipped the envelope into Louis' box, and fled. Days later, I called him, so tongue-tied I could only manage saying my name and the words, "I'm so nervous." To which Louis barked, "Don't be. I'm just another asshole. By the way, I liked your story. I want to run it."
And there were times when I definitely felt out of place, inappropriate, and way too emotional. Kinda like a girl in a Boys' Club. I was sitting next to Mike Hall, who was editing my story about sweethearts with AIDS for the Valentine's issue. The whole issue was devoted to love in the time of HIV and AIDS. My story focused on 10 couples who were HIV-positive and how love and lovemaking had changed for them. The interviews were intense and intensely personal. Some changed my life. As we were reading through the final edited version, I think I sobbed. Or at least made a noise like a sob. Mike looked over at me and tears were rolling down my face. He patted my shoulder and stared at me.
When I wasn't embarrassing myself, I felt very pleased. I was thinking up cool stuff to write about: an exposé on topless dancers, an interview with pick-axe murderer Karla Faye Tucker, a profile of millionaire pornographer Charles Kallestad. I got lots of letters to the editor, which meant lots of people read my stories. Including the Boys. I was writing stories that made the Boys sit up and take notice.
Mostly, though, being in the Boys' Club, I felt a whole lot of permission to write about whatever I wanted and be taken seriously. Except for the flitting.
That's how I met Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth. Corky brought him to my room at the Hyatt, and I prostrated myself at his feet, telling him how much I loved (his then-band) Dash Rip Rock. Fred teased me terribly all night, which I loved. I was giving the running commentary as we drove around, and Fred would clap his hand over my mouth. "She is still talking!" he exclaimed.
Tony Paris, the music editor of Creative Loafing in Atlanta, was a veteran of the Van From Hell, having been along for the ride the first year we hijacked it. He was in front of the hotel that year and saw Jefferson Holt, REM's manager. "What are you doing?" Tony asked. "I'm waiting for the van," Jefferson said. "The van?" Tony asked in surprise.
"No," said Jefferson. "Not the Van From Hell." We felt very famous when Tony related the incident.
On the other hand, a lot of what appeared in the space was fun to write and I think fun to read -- stuff like bungee jumping in Georgetown, minor-league basketball in Wichita Falls, betting on the NCAA basketball tournament. In fact, the finest moment of my career as a sports reporter for the Chron came several years after I had given up the column, when I wrote a cover story on the somewhat dubious history of racial relations on the UT football team (October 8, 1993). The article focused on a then-unknown redshirt quarterback named James Brown. Three years later, Brown led the Longhorns to an upset win over Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game in St. Louis. Sometimes the alternative press gets it right after all.
For those who lack the musculature to actually play sports -- which is most of us -- sports betting takes its vicarious place. The most fun I had at the Chronicle was one brief football season when I joined the sports editor, Hugh Forrest, and picked the winners each week. My column was a way of flexing my biceps. Like millions of others, my way of being part of the game was to bet.
Ever wonder why shy men are screaming when the Longhorns are beating Baylor 42-7 in the fourth quarter? It's the point spread. If you have $50 on UT and have given Baylor 40 points, the blowout is really meaningful. You learn to love or hate teams not for their victories or defeats, but by their point margins.
The problem with picking teams in the newspaper is that there are no excuses. In a bar you can always claim to have been prescient when the mighty Sun Devils took a dive against the lowly Red Raiders. But in print your win-loss percentage arises from the pages like the flash of a terrorist bomb.
By midseason my picks were doing terrible. Under 46%. A monkey throwing darts at the newspaper would do better. I was defying probability. That is, I stunk.
Thank god for the inebriated sots at the Hole in the Wall. To drown my sorrow, I would amble over at happy hour. Walking in the door, some rummy on a bar stool would ask something like -- "Jeff, who do you like: A&M or Oklahoma State?"
It was incredible! In black and white I was a proven dummox. The only logical course to win was to bet against everything I picked. But my dear friends at the Hole in the Wall treated me like an expert. It was wonderful.
Soon I was visiting a trailer near the Creedmoor landfill, consulting a psychic about my problem. Ceremoniously, her advice rang with obscurity. "The stars reveal that mammalians lord over birds and reptiles."
So I would return and pick the fighting Aardvarks over the Eagles and the Bearcats over the Pea Fowl. It didn't work. But looking back, the sports-betting column became an exploration of boundless hope and our belief in magic. It was the best the writing I've ever done. Of course, nobody literate reads the football picks. Nobody ever complimented my sage material that was buried next to the want ads.
At the end of the season, my contract was not renewed -- I was saved from further humiliation. But thank god for the kind spirits at the Hole. Two seasons later they were still asking, "Jeff, would you take Texas and give 14?"
I thought it a strange question, since it was the beginning of my third pre-employment interview with the Chronicle mustafas, the first being with Roland Swenson, the second with Louis Black. The position in question was that of running the classified ad section of the paper, which at that time consisted of two to three biweekly pages of counterculture snippets, musician ads, and the always entertaining personals. Yet there was publisher Nick Barbaro, asking me this while lying on the floor of his office (soon to be my office, heh heh), reading copy, and pushing some sort of small, wheeled toy over red carpeting. Carpeting that looked like it had been pulled out of the old Hangin' Tree Lounge when the city tore the sucker down to widen South Lamar.
"Well, this is my third interview. I guess, yeah, I wanna work here."
In fact, in July 1988 I really didn't know a thing about the Chronicle workings or the newspaper business. And I'd had serious disagreements with the paper's lame coverage of Austin country music in the mid-Eighties. I was a professional musician and worked in the retail music-store trade. But I had management and marketing training from ACC, and my friend Kyle White, a Chronicle ad rep, said I'd dig working in their "nonstructured environment." I needed a rest from the music biz, and besides, Kyle told me "Hey, they'll teach you the newspaper business." Nonstructured is my bag. I applied.
My interview with Roland basically consisted of him reciting a litany of reasons why he felt the running the classified ad department of the Chronicle was a crap job. I'll hate it, he said. However, I'd been in professional music for 20 years. I'd had intimate relationships with crap jobs -- and without a steady paycheck. Roland's monologue didn't do shit to dissuade me.
The interview with Louis was more interesting. Like Roland, he knew of me as a musician, but he wanted to know if I was "Chronicle" or not. He dug the fact that I had written some music reviews for the old L.A. Free Press back in the early Seventies, and dropping LAFP's publisher Art Kunkin's name seemed to impress him. Okay, cool running so far.
Back upstairs. "Yeah, Nick. I think I'd dig working here." That seemed to satisfy him. Interview over.
I loved working at the Chronicle for the greatest part of the 10 years I spent behind the classified desk. In those wonderful early days, whatever needed to be done, well, it simply got done by whoever was there that night. Ad reps did paste-up. Distribution guys helped in classifieds. We all humped it every issue. We learned that putting out a weekly was more than twice as hard as putting out a biweekly. We reinvented the wheel over and over. We celebrated each issue every Wednesday night at the Chili Parlor. We all "pissed in the same hole," as my dad used to say. Over the years I did well, made some good money, learned some great lessons, made some incredible friends. I watched the Chronicle and the classifieds grow into a real editorial and economic force in Austin. Sorry, Roland. It was a good job, after all.
In one of the "Media Clips" installments from the late Eighties, I blasted the Statesman for an article that unfairly blamed a host of unsolved downtown criminal activity on a group of disaffected youths whom the paper had labeled "people in black." People literally came out of the woodwork to tell me how much they agreed with what I had said. In fact, more than 10 years later, I still have people who thank me for writing it.
HEB and Barton Springs Chronicle History: The Chronicle has been weekly for one year. Times are difficult. On Wednesday, October 4, 1989, as a result of a complaint by pro-family, anti-gay, anti-porn activist Mark Weaver, the Chronicle is thrown out of the 17 HEB stores it was distributed in. The Chronicle's position is to step back and say, "HEB had every right to throw us out, but it's time that Mark Weaver stopped dictating the standards of the community." There are letters and protests -- one organized by the wife of a future council candidate whom the Chronicle didn't endorse -- that are totally beyond our control or even knowledge. And in a way, it is the first time we really know we have a following. Mark Weaver is the Chronicle's Halloween Mask cover, dated Oct. 27, 1989, and by the next issue, Chronicles are back in the HEB.
The next summer, the long-simmering battle over development in the Barton Springs watershed comes to a head in an all-night City Council meeting that the Chronicle helps instigate. SOS is born, and Jim Bob Moffett is the obvious choice for our next Halloween mask.
In retrospect, of course, it's all good, even the bad. Every time I'd crumple up a piece of someone else's work and throw it out the window (almost always in front of an audience, usually Daryl, who would cackle with glee), I'd wait a minute, go down and retrieve it, and type it in. That, for better and worse, was the kind of place the Chronicle was.
The steady pounding of their drums went louder and softer as the doors to the old council chambers on Second Street opened and closed. It was a pounding that everyone in the chambers heard, yet silently agreed not to acknowledge. The drums became the ongoing, not-so-subtle voice of the pro-Barton Springs throngs who either couldn't get into the chambers or believed that their opinion was better expressed outside, on the street. And it certainly made for good TV. Regardless of the weather, if there were demonstrators outside the council chambers, the TV heads were there, active backdrop at the ready.
The Chronicle, of course, was a key part of covering the controversies that raged during that period. And compared to the soporific debates of today's City Council, where deals are made before they ever reach the dais, the controversies that raged from 1988 to 1991 were exciting and tumultuous. And those controversies -- over water quality, endangered species, development, and the future of Austin -- were infinitely more engaging than the other work I had been doing at the Chronicle, that of dance critic. So within a few months, I was focusing almost exclusively on the battles between the environmentalists and the developers. And many of those same battles are still being waged today.
The sides in the battle were clear. And from the get-go, it appeared the environmentalists had the upper hand. They had the issues on their side. The people were on their side, and they were ready to demonstrate at the drop of a hat. The developers, meanwhile, were hamstrung by the ongoing inanities of Freeport-McMoRan's cartoonish CEO, Jim Bob Moffett. And no matter what they did or said, the developers knew they were losing control of the City Council.
During that time, the Chronicle became the de facto voice for the environmentalists and also a strong counterweight to the atrociously biased coverage that was appearing in the local daily. Indeed, the Chronicle's coverage of the fight over Barton Springs played a significant role in rallying the more than 800 citizens who showed up at council chambers on June 7, 1990, to voice their opposition to Moffett's proposed development on Barton Creek.
In retrospect, it's hard to tell how much the Chronicle's political coverage effected any change or helped guide the subsequent decisions on growth. But it's clear that those few years of tumult helped define the Chronicle's voice and place in the community. For that, I'll always be proud.
I had little hope the fluffy thing would see the light of day in a rag devoted to serious politics and serious criticism of film, art, and music. But it did, and it spawned several years of first-person essays, some of which I think were the best writing I've ever done and most of which I cringe to think about.
These essays led to a weekly column, "Hearth and Soul," waaay in the back. I begged for questions from Chronicle readers about home improvement, to which I handed out dubious advice. It was a wonderful fun.
Well, I say they had no idea. It's possible they did, but somehow figured that a new column written by a departee of the downtown daily with a large readership was still a good bargain.
So I showed up on the Chronicle's doorstep burned out and depressed. This was no fault of the American-Statesman, where I seldom broke a sweat in the 16 years I wrote film reviews and other things for them. Burnout just happens -- though not to everybody -- and the cure, if and when it comes, is spontaneous and leaves no signature.
Rehabilitation took only a few weeks, and the juice returned in part, I think, because of the encouragement and gentle handling provided by literally every Chronicle staffer with whom I came in contact.
By the time I came on board, the Chronicle was already a well-entrenched force in town, feared, respected, and reviled by all the right people. And not just as an alternative to the Statesman, but as a vocal advocate for those whose voices don't have access to a corporate megaphone. Needless to say, the paper is enormously meaningful to the Austin's film and music communities, and always has been.
If you don't follow local politics closely, you probably can't appreciate the depth and doggedness of the Chron's reporting. Booming growth, the airport boondoggles, SOS, City-Council shenanigans -- the big issues of the day always got intense scrutiny and lots of copy. I was constantly amazed at how much reporting a relatively tiny staff produced.
So here I was among a lot of talented, dedicated people, and there wasn't a week during my six-year stint that I didn't feel intimidated by the high concentration of intellectual firepower under that homely building's roof. I certainly didn't want to let anyone down.
One measure of a newspaper or magazine is how management deals with difficult writers. "Difficult writer" is a redundancy to some, especially copy editors, and the Chronicle has had its share. Or so I am told. While I was aware of famous falling-outs and screaming matches between writers and editors, the bottom line is that this newspaper is a safe house for head cases. It takes real leadership and real patience to deal with writers' storied volatility, aversion to deadlines, and sensitivity to criticism.
I'm the guy who goes down to the Statesman's printing plant at 4am when they are running the Chronicle and does a press check. I can actually say "Stop the presses" if I find a mistake.
It was either Roland Swenson, Louis Meyers, or Louis Black who began to call Gerald [McLeod] and me Akbar and Jeff after the Life in Hell characters. This did not reflect our lifestyles in real life. And no one has called us that in a long time.
We used to play softball and called ourselves the Ramsey Park Irregulars. Then we played Frisbee over on 28th Street. Since moving to our current location, we play volleyball at least two or three times a week. It started at a summer Chronicle party -- we put up the net and never took it down. There's a core group of players that includes Lindsey "the Kid" Simon, Lee "Hillbilly" Nichols, and Serena "Bitch" Horn. They call me "Hammer." In the last couple of years, we've played Texas Monthly and Planet K and won. I think Texas Monthly thought our style was rather unorthodox.
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