All in the Family

Bonded for life

Nick and Zeke Barbaro in the Chronicle's Production office, circa 1995 (Courtesy of S. Emerson Moffat)

The borders between "work" and "home" have always been blurred at the Chronicle. The hours can be long and strange. There's no off/on switch for reporters. The culture of an alternative weekly swings between shaggy and intense; there is always a deadline, and shared pressure will bond you for life. The people we work with become our family – sometimes legally (see: 40 years of Chronicle marriages and babies and, sure, some divorces, too). Meanwhile our true family – our parents and children and partners – have a habit of popping up in these pages, too, whether they like it not. – Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones

One Family's Life in Print

By S. (Susan) Emerson Moffat

Freelancer, 1984-1986; Contributing Editor, 1986-1994

It's the spring of 1987 and I've been writing for the Chronicle for a few years now, first as a freelancer, more recently as the staff food writer. Editor Louis Black – my ex college boyfriend turned wisecracking pal – runs the weekly editorial meetings with his trademark passionate delirium. Publisher Nick Barbaro sits silently like a shy moose, quietly rolling pencils in a desk drawer.

Louis keeps telling me how brilliant Nick is. "Tree falls in the forest, babe," I say. "What difference does it make if he never says anything?"

Zeke makes an appearance on the cover, as a supporting character in the story of the Chronicle's original canine mascot, Belton (Cover by Rollo Banks)

A month later, Nick and I are thrown together on a project, compiling listings for the Chron's first-ever Downtown Guide. Over lunch at the old Ted's Greek Corner, he hands me a forkful of spanikopita across the table. Halfway through the afternoon, I'm a goner. I go home only to pack and say goodbye to my shell-shocked beau.

My mother, herself a former reporter and editor, is horrified that I'm living with a publisher, typically the hard-eyed money guys in her experience. Then she meets Nick. "He's really more of an editor," she tells me. Agreed.

In four years, Nick and I are married; in five, we're driving home from the hospital with our new baby, Zeke. First stop, the Chronicle. Kid sees the office before he sees his crib.

Zeke grows up at the office, napping on the lap of film editor Marge Baumgarten, babbling to music writer Margaret Moser (always Marmot to Zeke). But as soon as he can walk, he's toddling to the production department, drawn by the glowing light tables, the ruby lith and waxers, the dangerously sharp X-Acto knives – all essential layout tools in those pre-digital years.

I stop writing for the Chronicle when Zeke stops taking naps. But we're both still in the office regularly, also at staff parties where the kid no doubt sees and hears far more than he should. By the summer he's 14, he's already working in production, building ads, laying out copy, and cutting his teeth on graphic design under art director Jason Stout.

Zeke's first cover design, 2015

With high school finally out of the way, Z turns down a scholarship to his first-choice college and instead goes to work in production as a full-time graphic designer (he's also fallen madly in love with an Austin girl, the captivating Camille, which no doubt weighs heavily in his decision). In a few years, he's production chief, and when Jason retires in 2020, Zeke steps into the art director role, in Jason's words "completing his Hero's Journey."

Today, the Chronicle's production department is fully digitized. The light tables are long gone, along with the knives, the waxers, and the big cardboard flats that used to fill the hallways every week as each physical page was laid out by hand before being driven (yes, in a car) to the printers.

Since the pandemic, most staff has been working from home, except for Wednesdays, when Zeke, Nick, and a core team of masked/vaxxed folks show up to put the issue to bed. The rest of the week, Zeke's working remotely like everyone else, wedged into a spare room with a washer and dryer, multiple guitars, and Camille's drum kit (yes, they married last spring, in a tiny pandemic ceremony in their own backyard on the 10th anniversary of their first date).

It's a small room, but there's just enough space for one of the Chron's banged up old light tables. Call it a family heirloom of a life in print.

Thanks for the Husband and Career, Auschron!

By Ada Calhoun

Intern, Freelance Arts Reporter, 1998-2000

I worked at The Austin Chronicle while I was finishing my B.A. at UT-Austin in Plan II Honors, specializing in Sanskrit. I started as an intern hired by Kate X Messer and wound up picking up freelance work there for 11 cents a word, mostly theatre reviews and profiles. My favorite assignment was also the most grueling – a block-by-block, store-by-store map of East Austin. My van had no air conditioning and I wound up drenched in sweat, but also that gig introduced me to the city in the best way. I fell in love with moon towers and Pato's Tacos.

Ada Calhoun and Neal Medlyn, now and then (inset) (Courtesy of Ada Calhoun)

One day my roommate (we lived off Airport) came home with a flier and put it on the fridge. The show announcement featured a Xerox of the performer's driver's license alongside the show location: a gazebo in the park. My roommate and I went and were the only two people in the audience. At the next editorial meeting, I pitched a story on the performer. Wayne Alan Brenner said he'd heard about those shows and he wanted to do that story. Having seen a show of his already, I got the assignment, though Editor Robert Faires did say, "Don't be alone with him – he seems crazy."

In the course of writing the story ("Will Anybody Ever Love Neal Medlyn?," Dec. 29, 2000), I fell in love with the guy, Neal Medlyn. We've been together for 21 years. He's since become a successful performance artist and has done shows all over the world for lots more than two people. From the Chronicle I went on to work at Vogue and New York Magazine and the New York Post, and to publish books, including my first New York Times bestseller last year. Brenner hosted a BookPeople event for one book and my Chronicle pal Robi Polgar (with editors Chris Gray and Sarah Hepola, one of my best friends from those days) hosted one at the Carousel Lounge for another. Robert was right, though: That guy was crazy. I like crazy.

Life Between the Comic Book Panels

By Wayne Alan Brenner

Contributor, 1997-1998; Assistant Listings Editor, 1998-2000; Arts Listings Editor, 2001-present; Food Lieutenant, 2018-present

Times change and even the human-built environment reconfigures itself around us as we continue to age day by day. Slippin', slippin', slippin', as that eagle-eyed Steve Miller put it lyrically, into the future.

That's where we are now, from the perspective of this article I wrote ("Me, Ange, and the Interlocking Shadows of Trees," June 1, 2007) about my spawn and me and our love of comic books: We're in the future.

Yes, comic books. Where the story is often, the savants inform us, what happens between the panels. So picture me now, your diligent reporter grown older and more worn if not precisely wiser, in full portrait aspect in a panel we call the present.

And never mind all that's happened between this panel and that past panel, that framed moment captured as an Austin Chronicle feature. Never mind it, for you have your own unique narrative of being to fill in that gap. But, that it might provide a relatable glimpse of what it's like to be a parent – to be apparent – and to be a child, both of them wandering, awestruck, in a forest of cultural media ... maybe add this years-old article to your array of Enjoyable Distractions from the Endless Plummet Toward the Grave?

Our family is not so different from yours, after all: We're all here until we're not, until we're lost among the shadows of time – in which an infinitude of new and yet strangely familiar stories are forever being born.

Cover by Zeke Barbaro

My Favorite Reader

By Kimberley Jones

Screens Editor, 2001-2003; Books & Screens Editor, 2007-2013; Managing Editor, 2013-2016; Editor-in-Chief, 2016-present

I'm 43 years old and I've never stopped trying to impress my parents. No, make them proud. OK, maybe both. A couple weeks ago, when a reporter on The Today Show held up a copy of the Chronicle – the one with the cover that read starkly: "14 ICU Beds for 2.3 Million People" – I sent a screenshot to my father. A couple days later, I casually brought it up. "You never said anything about the email I sent you." Pop: "I didn't know I was supposed to respond."

Mom emailed me every Thursday to tell me what she'd read and liked in the Chronicle that week. Like a little book report. She'd quote me back her favorite lines from my film reviews. She got a kick out of Brenner's idiosyncratic voice. She loved Jason Stout's designs.

My parents have made the occasional cameo in these pages. I let Jason set fire to their hand-me-down Kindle for a cover photo shoot in 2012 – it was a story about print not being dead (yet). They were good sports about it. I wrote about our shared love of books, family trips to the Texas Book Festival, and the Joneses' affinity for Hot Dr Pepper (it's not as gross as it sounds). I wrote what I thought was going to be a straightforward piece about White Christmas that turned into a lament for my late grandmother. Mom told me she cried when she read it and then sent it to everyone in her book club.

Mom's influence was always there, even if it was invisible to readers. Last fall's Stress Issue? Bet you thought that was inspired by the pandemic. Nope – that was Mom's cancer that set that particular wheel in motion for me. She would have been really proud of that issue, but she went into the hospital the day after it was published, and that was that.

I wrote the obituary, because that's what happens when you're the writer in the family. (Eleven months later, I still regret a flashy verb choice. It haunts me.) By the way, it is an absolute racket, what newspapers charge to run an obituary. The Chronicle is a much more affordable option, even better when you get the family rate like I did. (Free.) A few readers left kind voicemails or sent condolence cards when they saw the obit. Their generosity astounded me.

Sometimes this job, it feels like writing into a void. I cannot tell you how meaningful it is when a voice comes echoing back. We're here. We're listening. We're in this together.

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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