A Niche of One's Own

Capitol Times Casts Wide Net in Covering News

Austin's newest African-American oriented paper is headquartered in these tony West Lake Hills offices.

photograph by John Anderson

You couldn't help but notice the new kid in town. In city hall's free newspaper racks, amid the many community papers - many of which are simply in black-and-white and poorly designed - one paper stood out. It had to catch the eye - plenty of color, clear photographs, and a decent design that, if not great, is at least on par with many mainstream dailies. But this new entry into the market is indeed a weekly, and it's Austin's newest African-American-oriented newspaper - The Capitol Times.

And to borrow a phrase from the Austin American-Statesman, it's not your same old black community paper. Since Dec. 5, publisher Sedric Walker and editor-in-chief J. Frank Hernandez have been putting out a paper that clearly refuses to fit any preconceived notions of what an African-American paper should be, and certainly doesn't confine itself to East Austin.

It's tough to figure out what's driving The Capitol Times. What we do know from Hernandez is that he and Walker are the sole proprietors of the paper, which has no outside investors. But beyond that, what are Walker and Hernandez's journalism backgrounds? How did they finance the start-up of this rather professional-looking paper? Are there any political alliances that readers should know about? And who owns it? (A check of DBA records with Travis County listed Hernandez and Walker as having the rights to the paper's name.)

Good luck trying to find out - Walker bluntly admitted that he doesn't trust the Chronicle, and calls to his office were consistently transferred to voice mail or "I'm really busy right now." Hernandez later explained, "Our standard policy is that we don't do interviews. We don't want to create the news, we want to cover it." Other members of Austin's black publishing community declined to comment on their new competitor and/or didn't know anything about Walker and Hernandez. But reading the Times quickly reveals that they are not simply trying to squeeze one more paper into a niche that is already filled.

Clearly, Walker and Hernandez are aiming at the higher-income black Austinite. The first hint at this, aside from their design, is their address. The veterans of the black publishing community, The Villager and Nokoa: The Observer, both publish out of the heavily minority-populated 78702 area code, and the younger Austin Sun - which also uses color, but frankly is not quite as sharp on design - works from South Austin (although it is part of a chain based in Houston). The Times, on the other hand, is headquartered at the tony Westlake-area address of 1250 Capital of Texas Highway, Two Cielo Center, Suite 300, in a pretty ritzy office building.

The advertising offers another clue: While The Villager and Nokoa do sometimes have ads from major banks or insurance companies, their ad space is dominated by churches and small businesses which can't afford an agency to make up a slick ad, and both have big lottery ads and other government ads. The May 18 Sun had few ads at all, although it did snag a quarter-page placement from DoubleTree hotels. (We haven't been able to find a copy of the Captiol City Argus lately for a comparison.)

In contrast, although the Times does carry some of the government ads, the April 3 issue was dominated by a huge, four-page insert from the Edward Jones investment agency explaining different investment funds, IRAs, capital gains taxes, and college funding. Two pages later was an ad for a Jamaica vacation package. The May 29 issue featured big ads from car dealers (business even The Austin Chronicle has failed to drum up) and Foley's.

But the most important difference is the editorial copy. Although there is always some story on a black-related issue on the front page, it's not necessarily dominated by such news. The May 29 front page was topped by a story on the proposed route of State Highway 130, the placement of which will greatly affect East Austin, but the remainder of the cover had more generic news about Veterans Day, the death of Phil Hartman, and the new Jim Carrey movie.

Inside the paper, one finds a travel section authored by Karen Sims of Peeks Travel Service, promoting vacations in the Poconos or Jamaica - the former placed prominently above the Jamaica ad. And other than the "Book Corner," which does spotlight African-Americans, the entertainment section is no different from any other newspaper's, including reviews of Godzilla and The Odd Couple II. Its food section has included a feature on low-calorie Greek recipes.

The Times is certainly less pointed in its political commentary - in fact, Hernandez and Walker's regular editorial tends to meander without making a point at all. Contrast that with Nokoa's claim to be "America's Leading Progressive Weekly" and its frequent publication of editorials on the front page, indistinguishable from news stories.

On the other hand, the Times is pushing for coverage of Austin's political scene - Hernandez broke stories on allegations that the campaign manager for Travis County Commissioner candidate Ron Davis may have illegally used the phones of Texas Campaign for the Environment to conduct Davis' campaign business, and speculation that race may have played a role in the firing of former UT basketball coach Tom Penders.

The Capitol Times is a paper that merits close scrutiny. In many places it is pretty lightweight, but it shows flashes of being able to impact local issues. With the money that is obviously behind it, that impact could be greater than its predecessors in the African-American newspaper market, and definitely could reach outside the East Austin area that many people - perhaps mistakenly - think of as the center of Austin's black community.

Good Golly, Miss Rollye

The 1996 firing of shock radio host Rollye James from KLBJ-AM - and subsequent comments station employees made about her - may now leave her $715,000 richer. That's the amount a jury in State District Court awarded James on May 27 in her lawsuit against the station, wherein she sought damages for both the cancelation of her contract and libel.

James was fired after on-air suggestions that President Clinton and the first lady should be shot - comments which earned her a visit from the Secret Service, but ultimately never resulted in any charges.

Steve Gibbins, James' lead counsel (she also was represented by State Rep. Terry Keel, the former Travis County sheriff ) said the larger of the two awards, $545,000 for libel, was based on three items: a fax which portrayed her as a witch, and two published comments by LBJ Broadcasting vice president and general manager Mike Crusham.

Gibbins provided the Chronicle with a copy of the fax, which allegedly went out to advertisers. It has a picture of James on a broomstick with the words, "Ding! Dong! the [picture of James here] is gone!" followed by text reading: "Good Golly! Miss Rollye has taken her leave, From her sarcasm and opinions we have reprieve, The Woman and Week from Hell is behind us, So for lunch in your office with food you will find us! Please allow 590 KLBJ Radio to feed you today - I'll be by around 11:45 with yummies from Friday's to share with all of you."

The comments from Crusham were taken from quotes in The Rockford Register (10/27/96) and Radio World (12/11/96). The Register wrote: "Crusham... called James' remarks inappropriate, but said they were not the main reason the show was pulled from KLBJ-AM. According to Crusham, `We've had some disagreement in the show's direction...' " And in Radio World: "He thought James' show `was going to be a little more down the middle and not necessarily mean or vitriolic.' `James' show was getting increasingly more mean-spirited.... It wasn't going in the direction I originally thought we were going.'"

James' attorneys successfully argued that in fact, KLBJ knew exactly what it was getting when it took her on, so Crusham not only libeled her by saying she had changed direction, but the station unjustly terminated her under a contract provision which stated that James' on-air show had to be similar to audition tapes which she had used to land the job.

Scott Gillmore, vice president of LBJ-S, the company which now owns KLBJ-AM, said "Obviously, we're very disappointed with the verdict." Asked if LBJ-S would appeal, Gillmore would give no comment and referred all questions to the station's lawyer, Roy Minton, who was unavailable for comment at press time.

What's difficult to figure is why KLBJ and the family of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which owns the station, were so shocked by James' comments. Sure, suggesting the president should be taken out borders on illegality (and of course, JFK's assassination made LBJ president), but this is the station that broadcasts Rush Limbaugh every weekday, an equally vitriolic right-winger whose own comments on Clinton fall only marginally shy of James', and who has made a career out of bashing many programs that LBJ initiated. One would think that their ire might have been raised long before this.

Life & Arts & Science?

Last week, "Media Clips" commented that the Austin American-Statesman's "Life & Arts" section was expected to be light reading, but didn't have to be. Perhaps contradicting this, we have to ask, why was a really important controversy buried at the bottom of that section last week? Two scientists are currently suing the city of Austin, saying that its cleaning procedures of Barton Springs Pool are violating the endangered species act. The lawsuit is highly suspicious because the two scientists previously have not been at the forefront of Austin's environmental movement, and their lawyer, Robert Kleeman, is known for representing developers. Whether there are hidden agendas in this suit is a matter worth investigating, but the Statesman hasn't really done so - until Saturday.

No, the daily didn't whip out a hard-hitting expose from its news department - it had feature writer Patrick Beach wander around Barton Springs asking swimmers for their opinions and conspiracy theories, and dropped it into "Life & Arts," bottom of the page. This matter is too important for that kind of treatment, and deserves a front-page account by an investigative reporter. (For the Chronicle's latest look at the lawsuit, see Salamander Setback.)

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