Mangled Triangle

The Triangle's New Look

Don't breathe a sigh of relief -- the crisis is hardly over.

The Texas Triangle, the Lone Star State's premiere source of news affecting the gay and lesbian community, had at least a temporary reprieve from the grave last month with a buyout from a group of investors headed by Dallas businessman Todd Cunningham. The Triangle's problems have been storied on these pages before -- despite being an excellent source of news with top-notch reporting, the quantity of revenue hasn't matched the quality of content, and last fall the paper actually went out of business for a week until public outcry convinced then-owners Kay Longcope and Barbara Wohlgemuth to keep going. But giving it the old college try still wasn't enough to fill up the Triangle's bank account, and now Longcope (now editor-in-chief) and Wohlgemuth (still the general manager) have handed their creation to someone who can, hopefully, provide it with the capital infusion needed.

However, Cunningham is bringing more than cash -- the 28-year-old owner of Angle Media also has changes in mind for the look and feel of the Triangle, and is hardly a hands-off publisher. And so far, Cunningham's desire to "micromanage," as one insider characterizes it, has both an upside and a downside.

Cunningham -- whose newspaper experience consists of editing a high school paper, journalism studies at the University of Oklahoma, and running a marketing and ad services company that caters to newspapers -- began his reign at the Triangle with a design makeover, instituted by Dallasite Donna Aldridge. That redesign played havoc with the paper's production process last week; Shadrock Roberts, a former Chronicle designer brought in to the Triangle on a two-week contract, says he explained to Cunningham why many ideas in the design were either unworkable or just plain poorly conceived, and he and managing editor Dan Quinn then worked 19-hour shifts reworking everything. The first issue, dated March 20, wasn't too bad (well, except for an embarrassing center spread created by Aldridge featuring a story that should have jumped to another page, but apparently didn't, and just ended in mid-sentence), but Cunningham decided he wasn't seeing eye-to-eye with Quinn and Roberts, and they were fired. "We wanted to go in a certain direction... and we believed we needed a change at managing editor," was all Cunningham would say, although he complimented Quinn's abilities. (As well he should -- week after week Quinn practically wrote the entire paper.)

The second redesigned issue (March 27) didn't fare as well -- post-Roberts and Quinn, the paper badly missed its Wednesday night publishing deadline, and the new look can be charitably described as hideous; the center spread screams out, "Help! I don't know a thing about page design!" Even the Triangle's old design, itself no work of art, was superior; one could probably find high school papers that look better.

Centerspreads from the March 20 (top) and March 27 Triangles reveal a need for a design editor.

On the money front, at least, Cunningham could bring about some improvements. Since its inception, the Triangle has aimed to be a statewide paper, and Longcope says, "With Todd taking over as publisher, it reinstitutes the Dallas-Fort Worth market that we had to vacate several years ago. He's well-known and respected in Dallas.... We're opening a Dallas office... and it's right in the heart of Oak Lawn [a gay-friendly area of Dallas]." If Cunningham can do a better job of turning up ads from Dallas than the first incarnation of the Triangle, he could provide the stability needed when the Houston and Austin ad markets go through the lean spells which Longcope says nearly killed off the paper, and perhaps facilitate a long-desired expansion into San Antonio.

Longcope also says the Dallas office will house a full-time reporter, which brings up another issue the Triangle must confront -- if Cunningham can generate more revenue, it could also allow the Triangle to offer better pay to writers, especially freelancers. Although pay for freelancers is miserable throughout the newspaper world, the Triangle's frequent requests for free contributions constitutes highway robbery.

"We pay very little," admits Longcope, adding that "We hate nickel-and-diming people." She says that she's glad that her paper has attracted good writers and allowed them to get their names in print, but "My biggest hope right now is that people will have a better chance of getting paid for their work."

That should only make great writing even greater -- the Triangle already has won deserved national awards for its news coverage (including a National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for excellence in journalism, for which they competed head-to-head with mainstream news sources), and money will naturally attract quality reporters even more.

One question that remains unanswered is whether the nature of advertising will change at the Triangle, and whether it will affect the editorial direction of the paper. The Triangle has always shied away from club and phone-sex ads in the past, a fact that could have made it easier for Quinn to expose the contentious debate over the opening of a gay bathhouse in East Austin. Quinn -- who has very little to say regarding his firing -- says "it will be clear [from the advertising accepted] that Kay and Barbara no longer own the paper." Cunningham would only say, "The advertising policies of the Triangle have not changed." But if he wants to get over 40 pages per issue, as Longcope says he does, some changes may be in order (the latest issue was only 32 pages, down from 40 the week before, but better than the 20-24 that the Triangle had averaged in recent months).

From the looks of things so far, the Triangle would benefit from a clear division of responsibilities -- Longcope and Wohlgemuth obviously have made some financial mistakes, errors that Cunningham's business experience could avoid in the future. On the other hand, although he has some experience with media, the new owner clearly is a bit green with newspapers and probably should stay out of the news and production rooms. And both should look to hire someone who knows how to design a newspaper.

Echoing my sentiments regarding The Texas Observer in my last column, I wish the best of luck to The Texas Triangle through its current financial problems and transition -- they are serving a need that no one else is adequately covering. Losing this voice would deprive gays and lesbians -- and straights, for that matter -- of a tremendous resource.

Vexin' the Texan

The saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but bureaucrats have never understood that simple wisdom. Two weeks ago, the board of directors of Texas Student Publications (TSP) threw away a longstanding tradition that has served The Daily Texan well by stripping the student-elected editor of policy-making power, and handing the authority over to the TSP-appointed managing editor. The editor now presides over nothing more than the editorial/opinion page of the University of Texas student newspaper, a mere figurehead with no power to decide which stories to go after or who to investigate. Those decisions now go to the managing editor.

This transfer of power isn't quite the crushing blow to student autonomy that Texan editor Tara Copp and her many supporters (including student government leaders and past Texan editors such as Texas Monthly executive editor Paul Burka, University of Arkansas journalism professor Hoyt Purvis, and noted author Willie Morris) would have us believe -- the TSP board, which oversees the operations of the Texan, the Cactus yearbook, KVRX student radio, and KVR-9 student television, is already student-dominated, with six elected students, three members of UT's journalism faculty, and two UT-appointed media professionals; and it has voted to expand student representation from six to 10. Rather, it is merely a dilution of student authority over the paper -- but for no apparent good reason.

The board almost did away with the elected editor post altogether in favor of an appointee system, with some board members arguing that only one other student newspaper in the country hires its editor by a popular vote of the student body; the transfer of power to the managing editor was a compromise. Current managing editor Jennifer Schultz and TSP general manager Kathy Lawrence (neither of whom voted in the decision) argue for the new system, explaining that the person in charge of the direction of Texan news content shouldn't be a political figure who must curry favor with students, and should be accountable only to the truth.

That romanticizes the way journalism works, but has little to do with reality. Professional news rooms are just as politicized as op-ed offices, with the political bent of publishers and advertisers often showing up in "objective" news copy (and editors and reporters who don't comply often find themselves out of work). At least in the case of the Texan, the news content was instead influenced by and accountable to its readers, the students, first and foremost.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 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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