In Point of Fact

Ken Martin Provides the Essentials

Last week, the warp and woof of breaking news forced the Austin American-Statesman to acknowledge the existence of a news provider that had recently celebrated the anniversary of its first year in action, a weekly newsletter called In Fact. Devoted exclusively to city politics and related issues, In Fact is reported, written, and edited by Ken Martin, formerly of the Austin Business Journal. Martin recently noticed that Councilmember Eric Mitchell's July 15 campaign finance report listed none of the addresses, employers, or occupations of the people who gave him money in the first six months of this year. Martin e-mailed Mitchell a query about this apparent violation of ethics law, and Mitchell replied with a characteristic invitation to kiss his ass.

The city's Ethics Review Commission put the matter on its July 30 agenda for discussion. Faced with thousands of dollars in potential fines, Mitchell amended his report a day before Martin's official publication date of Wednesday, July 24 (subscribers who receive the newsletter by e-mail or fax get it a day or two before everyone else). The Statesman, also true to form, downplayed the loose-cannon aspect of this typical Mitchell incident with a banal narrative twist. "Aide's work averts problem for Mitchell," the July 26 headline read, referring to Mitchell aide Donnetta McCall, who actually amended the finance report. After quickly mentioning Martin and his newsletter's role as catalyst, the story implied that McCall probably pulled her boss's fat from the fire of her own volition, the irony being that this is not an unlikely scenario).

For Martin, it was better-late-than-never recognition from the daily of his increasingly useful, even essential, role in the local media scene. In Fact appears once a week and only takes up four pages of letter-size paper, and aside from charts and sidebars contains no graphics whatsoever. It is an exemplary desktop publication, easily absorbed in 15 minutes, yet packed with enough information to make it worth keeping on file. Martin proves that one savvy, economical reporter can do the work of three or four salaried employees on a daily. He covers the waterfront with brisk efficiency, regularly breaks items that the daily neglects, and narrates complicated city processes with admirable clarity. Efficiency borne of stripped-down narrative style is key to a newsletter's success, and the reason political insiders and business types are willing to subscribe at $175 a year. For readers accustomed to stories garlanded with atmosphere or lengthy context, the machine-gun prose style of a good newsletter can be bracing stuff, a dose of news that costs more because it hasn't been stepped on (though the popularity of cheap online newsgroups suggests that it is becoming a less rarefied habit).

"Call it political retaliation or call it aggressive legal defense of an alleged corporate polluter, but it's legal hardball in anybody's league," reads a typical item. "An environmental group and a political researcher who attacked Place 1 council candidate Jeff Hart during the heated runoff election campaign have been slapped with subpoenas." That is about as concise as newswriting gets. From another story, "Two officers who fell from grace while in the Travis County Sheriff's Office (TCSO) now want redemption from voters so they can run the place," is even pithier. (Boldfaced names are a hallmark of newsletter style, functioning as signposts for readers whose antennae are tuned to certain issues.)

In Fact can be faulted on several counts, especially by readers who like their journalism dipped in curare. It tends to neglect the Machiavellian squalor of local politics in general and the sheer absurdity of bureaucratic process in particular. If you believe that chicanery infests the system to such an extent that harsh, unfair language is often required, In Fact may be too doggedly centrist for your taste. But it is steeped in common sense and driven by healthy skepticism rather than a false pretense to objectivity. There is every reason to think it will acquire interesting shadings over time.

Most cities above a certain size generate specialty newsletters, Austin more so because it is a capital city and a place where politics is a popular sport. What makes In Fact the best to come along in quite a while are the distinctive qualities of its creator. Ken Martin is 56 years old, the last 15 of them devoted to journalism, and he seems to combine an older man's maturity with a young reporter's enthusiasm. The two decades prior to that were spent in the Marines, a fact you'd never guess from his long white hair and almost professorial demeanor. His years in aviation electronics and accounting with the Corps give him an ease with detail and numbers that many reporters lack. And, perhaps because he never endured the deforming routines of daily reporting, he is not burned out and cynical like many a career journalist his age.

Martin can point to an unusually varied work history. After leaving the Corps in the late Seventies, he took a humanities degree at the University of Texas and found work in 1981 as a feature writer for Third Coast, a short-lived, excellent attempt at a local monthly that folded a few years later. Martin often spent as long as three months on a story, netting about $50 a week. In 1984 he assumed the duties of managing editor at the tiny Dripping Springs Dispatch, helping to grow its circulation from 800 to 1,400 readers over two years. From there he moved to general reporting at the Williamson County Sun,where a story he wrote on a corrupt county commissioner resulted in electoral defeat and indictment for its subject, and a National Newspaper Award for its author. Martin reckons the experience taught him a lot about ferreting information from public records. At the Austin Business Journal, which he joined in 1990, he won a second National Newspaper Award for a piece about a sleazy loan packager who had left a string of bilked clients, leased cars, and battered ex-wives from Temple to Manchaca.

By the time the Business Journal was purchased by a national chain in 1994, Martin was essentially running the show with his wife, Rebecca Melançon. The new owners had their own ideas about who would run things, and brought in their own people, as new owners will. Martin left the Business Journal in the fall of that year, decided he'd rather work for himself, and started In Fact in July, 1995. (Rebecca, the publisher of In Fact, took a job as managing publisher of the Texas Observer this January.) The publication recently weathered its first renewal threshold in good shape. "It's growing steadily, not as fast as I would like it to, but steadily," Martin says.

Martin acknowledges the special challenges of putting out a newsletter. "I try to work in-depth even though in this newsletter I don't have the space to write in depth. That was a big transition for me. I had to learn how to write tight, shaping something to fit a small hole while still being meaningful and complete." His news gathering is aided considerably by a contact database of 400 names, mostly acquired over 15 years of covering all three counties in the metro area.

Martin more or less agrees that he fulfills a classic watchdog role, and recognition in the Statesman was complemented earlier this week by a heated telephone argument with the daily's editor-in-chief, Rich Oppel (heated arguments with Oppel are rapidly attaining badge-of-honor status). Martin wrote a column last week regarding the Statesman's "agressive and deserved coverage" of the conflict of interest in the governor's office, where Bush's top aide is married to a state lobbyist. Martin then twists the knife: "Can the daily see no potential conflict of interest in [Statesman editorial writer] Jann Phenix being married to lobbyist Richard D. "Dick" Brown?" Brown represents 15 vested interests, including Freeport-McMoRan, electric utilities, and telecommunications companies. "How can Phenix objectively judge the inevitable conflicts between Austin's city government and the Texas Legislature, when her husband advocates legislation that Austin finds not in the city's best interest?" Oppel complained that Phenix's ex-husband is a mentor of Martin's, a fact Martin has confirmed in print several times, denying any revenge motive. "Where did you go to journalism school?" Oppel declaimed.

Excellent question! Martin didn't go to "J" school, he only took a few electives in the subject. He didn't have boilerplate inserted in his head when he was 20. That's why he's good. n

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