The Work Matters
A look back at some of our most impactful reporting
By Mike Clark-Madison, Michael King, Dan Solomon, Amy Smith, Erica C. Barnett, and Jim Shahin, Fri., Sept. 3, 2021
There's always been news in this newspaper. We used to call it "Politics," and sometimes we still do, but we never did really limit ourselves to politics (parties, elections, etc.), even as we never really let go of our leftist leanings. For most of these decades we've dug deep into beats that interest us, where we thought we could be most useful, or find the answers to the questions that vexed you. We became experts in land use and city budgets and school finance and aquatic contaminants and criminal justice and transportation policy and energy regulation and now pandemic response. We had some help from actual experts but mostly we've learned on the job, because that was the news, and it was worth it. Here are some glimpses of why it mattered. – News Editor Mike Clark-Madison
Every Vote Counts
By Mike Clark-Madison
Contributing Writer, Contributing Editor, Staff Writer, City Editor, News Editor, 1990-present
In 2000, what is now the Long Center was still Palmer Auditorium (although its eventual transformation had been green-lit by voters two years earlier, today's concert hall would not open until 2008). And in the basement of Palmer Auditorium was where the paper ballots cast in Travis County elections were brought to be counted by fearsome large and loud machines and many election workers in an ad hoc bullpen. And around this bullpen, following the same round curve of that old shed that's transcribed today by the preserved perimeter beam of its roof above the plaza, were the TV setups and tables for press, campaigns, party clubs, and everyone who wanted to see the numbers as soon as they were released. There were no online returns.
So it was a big crowd, and in between us and the election workers – helmed then, as since, by County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir – was what subsequent generations of political events have christened the Spin Room, where supporters would gather to crowd the background of TV two-shots when their victorious candidates made appearances. My beat that cycle was Austin's first light-rail election, which would end up going down to defeat by 2,004 votes. Twenty years later, it became the Orange Line, now being planned and soon to be built as part of Project Connect.
Had it gotten those extra 2,000 votes on that cold and rainy day, you'd have been riding real transit in Austin for years now, and 250,000 or so of you would never have known Austin otherwise, but even though it lost by less than 1%, its backers were terribly pessimistic about the future. ("I don't think we get a second bite of the apple on this one," Capital Metro board Chair Lee Walker told me that night.) Once I finished reporting, and gathered up the last numbers of the night, I looked up and saw it was just me and Judy Maggio left in the spin room. "What else happened?" I asked, or something like it. "We don't know!" she said, or something like it.
Our former colleague Robert Bryce, who'd covered George W. Bush's career as governor and as a presidential candidate, filed a great gonzo writeup of what that was like above ground in the freezing rain at the big Bush victory party that blocked off all of Congress Avenue. By the time I headed home, the wind had picked up and rumpled zombies who hours before had been GOP club kids darted like squirrels in the streets, and the next morning the TV trucks from Palmer were camped out by the Governor's Mansion in what would become a media tent city for the next month. Our cover that week was jet black, with the faintest outline of a "W." Less than a year later, a war would start; it just ended this past week.
The Stories That Stick With Us
By Michael King
Assistant News Editor, 2000; News Editor, 2001-2015; Staff Writer, 2015-2020
Twenty years in the News department and thousands of Chronicle stories, not to mention almost as many official meetings (city, county, Legislature) endured, tend to blur in the memory. Among them are the relentless repetitions of the Austin and Texas news beats: battles over housing and highways, environmental assaults and defenses, voting rights and repressions, official attacks on women and minorities, criminal justice reform and deform, and the slow but still unending drip of state executions. Currently, readers should prepare themselves for the next round of reports on Legislative re-, re-, re-districting: a recurring education in how a (white, reactionary) minority of Texans – remember Tom DeLay? – maintains its illegitimate and undemocratic authority over the rest of us.
There are also a handful of stories that memorialized rare victories for justice – when some overmatched citizens, at long last, finally won vindication. Perhaps the most memorable Chronicle tale in that category was that of the Oak Hill Day Care "child abuse" scandal, in which Fran and Dan Keller spent 21 years in prison for crimes of which they were innocent – indeed, crimes that never happened at all. Jordan Smith was the dedicated reporter on that story, which took nearly 10 years to resolve – concluding (after Smith's departure for The Intercept) with the official exoneration of the Kellers and state remuneration for their ordeal. That bittersweet outcome would not have happened without Jordan's dedication and effort, and the story remains a testament to her work as well to the importance of independent journalism in Texas. (Smith's reporting on the Yogurt Shop murders, Rodney Reed saga, and the Lacresha Murray case are also worth recalling.)
I eventually followed Jordan's lead on the Keller case, and had a small editorial hand in the other stories. Among many valued and dedicated Chronicle colleagues, I was honored to work beside her.
Front Row Seat to History
By Dan Solomon
I don't remember why I got put on the story of the 2013 abortion bill that culminated with Wendy Davis' filibuster ("A Victory by the People," June 28, 2013). I remember that I had started hanging around the Capitol because I was curious about what was happening – but I was a culture reporter at the time, and my work was mostly about weirdo theatre companies and football.
But I was there, and a few days into it, folks at the Chronicle noticed that I was, and asked me if I wanted to write dispatches from an exciting week. There was a lot to say. Public testimony got cut off because hundreds of Texans telling their stories about why abortion had changed their life for the better had grown "repetitive." The state police banned tampons from the Capitol, out of fear that hundreds of protesters might rain them down upon the Senate Gallery. The Department of Public Safety claimed to have confiscated jars of poop, brought in by theatrically inclined demonstrators, that they somehow forgot to ever photograph or prove existed. Opponents of the bill, feeling helpless as they watched these events unfold from all over the world, started sending pizza – so much pizza – to the folks on the ground in the Capital Extension. The grounds of the Capitol had a constant thrum of energy in what is usually one of the most boring places in Austin. The bill's opponents, clad in orange, outnumbered its supporters, dressed in blue, but everyone could tell which was which, like rival fans at a soccer game.
Eventually, it ended: On the final day of the summer's special session, Wendy Davis performed her all-day filibuster. It was circumvented by the Senate GOP with minutes to go, and the orangeshirts in the gallery did the rest, shouting so loudly for the last 11 minutes of the night that no vote could be taken, and the clock struck midnight, killing the bill. (It was, of course, revived in a second session a few weeks later, where it passed, before being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.)
I don't know if the summer session of 2013 looms as largely over other people's lives as it does over mine, but it taught me lessons I'll never forget: To show up when I'm curious; that the heightened drama I sought from theatre and sports could be eclipsed by what unfolded on the floor of the State Capitol; and that when the powerful attempt to shape a narrative, it's the job of reporters to be there to say, "No, we will not yield, either."
The Displacement Blues
by Amy Smith
Assistant Politics Editor, Staff Writer, News Managing Editor, 1996-2014
One of the best things about working at the Chronicle was the freedom to combine my regular news writing work with avocational interests like music.
One story in particular ("Suspended in Time," Aug. 13, 2010) took me inside a community of musicians on the brink of displacement from a cluster of rental properties in a central South Austin neighborhood.
The properties were long a fixture on Wilson Street and included a dozen or so cottages, an old apartment building, and a ramshackle house. Several generations of musicians had either lived there or hung out there at one time, so it had a certain amount of historical lore that seemed magical to me. The story holds a special place in my heart because of it. I interviewed many of the residents past and, at the time, present. Photographer Jana Birchum took some wonderful photos of the residents, as did Todd Wolfson, who was friends with many of the Wilson Street crew.
Charlie Faye lived in one of the cottages at the time – this was 2010 – and had led a spirited resistance against the pending demolition of the cottages. They had been relocated to Wilson Street from the UT campus area in the late Sixties; why couldn't they be relocated again? While the landowner was willing to hand over some of the cottages, finding a future home for them proved an insurmountable challenge. All the buildings – the cottages, the apartment building, the house – were ultimately razed to make way for condos.
I am grateful for the opportunity to write about the Wilson Street journey, and I have Charlie Faye and Jo Rae Di Menno to thank. Faye served as the voice of a newer generation of Austin musicians and Di Menno, who lived in the apartments during the Eighties and early Nineties, provided a wealth of history and context. Today, Faye is raising her daughter in South Austin and is still making music. Di Menno lives in an apartment complex on Manor Road and runs a PR business called Hard Pressed Publicity. I am proud to call them friends.
NIMBYs vs. YIMBYs: Then, Now, and Always
Assistant News Editor, 1999-2001
"Grow and Prosper" (Nov. 19, 1999), a feature about the then-uncertain expansion of Hyde Park Baptist Church, was my first long story for the Chronicle and one that covers themes I'm still passionate about today: neighborhood-level politics, tensions over how to best share urban space, environmental concerns, and "Save ____" battles over land use and zoning, which I cover regularly for PubliCola, the website I started in Seattle. When reporting this piece, I remember standing in the recently flooded backyard of a resident whose house was a few doors down from the church's existing garage, thinking about how strange it was that an evangelical religious group's imperative to grow impacted something so completely unrelated and basically invisible – the groundwater level in the neighborhood – which in turn impacted neighborhood residents' ability to enjoy their homes. Since writing this story, I've gone on to write dozens, maybe hundreds, of pieces about neighborhood battles over growth and development, NIMBYs vs. YIMBYs, and the impact of poor land use decisions, but this remains the template for me, and I'm still proud to point people to it as an early example of the nerdy topics I've made my beat for the past two-plus decades.
By Jim Shahin
Politics editor, 1984-1989
Looking back, I feel lucky to have served as the Chronicle's first politics editor, though at the time – what with the low pay (I made $400 per month) and dysfunctional workplace – it felt more like volunteering for a particularly grueling form of community service.
The Chronicle was doing important stuff during a pivotal time, and the politics section, which grew from my half-page column to a number of pages by several reporters, not only established the pugnacious DNA of the paper's political voice but was at the center of the changes that still buffet Austin to this day and helped shape outcomes. Indeed, I often say that the Chronicle didn't have a readership so much as a constituency. It didn't just report news, although it did some of that. It took a stand. It articulated a progressive vision of Austin that successive political editors and writers have voiced for their times.
The Chronicle started a Council Watch column that delved into the nitty-gritty of policy making. It rooted around in the muck of campaign financing to reveal who was pulling what (and whose) strings. It covered issues often ignored or misrepresented by the Statesman. Occasionally, it even flew from its nest: I reported from the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, and, in 1988, a ragtag crew of four (including Robert Draper, who would go on to become one of the biggest names in political journalism, and the late investigative/advocacy journalist Daryl Janes, who would later write a column for this paper) traveled to Atlanta to send back dispatches from the Democratic National Convention, highlighted by electrifying speeches from presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and keynote speaker Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
"Quality of life" was the mantra of the day, a somewhat nebulous phrase that everyone understood. It conveyed the public fear of losing the city's laid-back, quirky character and its vital and beloved natural resources to rapid development. (The city's population was a little over 400,000, less than half of what it is today.) I was named politics editor in 1984, just before the influential 1985 City Council election. The Chronicle was aggressive in backing managed-growth candidates who were vastly outspent and, except for mayoral hopeful Frank Cooksey, largely unknown. Their unlikely victory was so stunning and resounding that it even reached the pages of The New York Times.
The Chronicle, already an arbiter of artistic and cultural life, was suddenly taken seriously by the political world. For the first time in its (albeit short) history, it ran political endorsements. Along with its support of the 1985 Council candidates, one of its early successes was opposing the seemingly inevitable move of Mueller Airport to Manor. For greater representation and accountability, it favored single-member districts, which, in 1988, voters turned down, but the system of governance was ultimately approved by voters in 2012. (Vindication!) With its newfound cred, the Chronicle sponsored a symposium of activists, developers, and politicos to discuss Austin's future.
The future is never what you expect. The thing is to care about it. My good fortune was to help record and comment on the times, which then seemed as pitched as they could be (little did I know, did any of us know, how pitched they'd become), and, in so doing, along with many others, help establish a scaffolding for the Chronicle's political coverage to come.