Point Austin: Poor Rich's Almanac

Three cheers for Oppel's 'Statesman'

Point Austin
Well, we won't have Rich Oppel to kick around anymore.

I've done it plenty of times myself, but now that he's announced his retirement, come June, I'm suddenly touched with ... not nostalgia exactly, but a sense that the Statesman editor's official departure will indeed mark the end of a local era. I've read (and subscribed to) the Austin daily for nearly 30 years (with a decade's interregnum spent in Houston, grimly watching two competing dailies become one). And in the main, I concur with Louis Black's judgment quoted by Ben Wear last week: "In many ways, Rich really improved the paper."

That improvement might not be readily apparent to more recent Austinites, particularly if they arrived from cities with more substantial, less derivative dailies (and those are generally not Cox-combs). But in 1977, when I first began reading the Statesman, it was irredeemably hidebound, often knee-jerk reactionary, and even more thoroughly deferential than it is now to Downtown business interests, UT-Austin stuffed suits, the then-conservative-Democrat state leadership, and the highway-and-real-estate culture that has dominated Texas cities for two generations. Oppel and the staff he hired considerably softened that deference, and more importantly, he brought (at least at first) the resources necessary to professionalize the paper, by which I mean simply an extent and standard of reporting that hadn't been previously possible. Some of this may simply have been a response to, and a consequence of, metropolitan growth – as Austin grew bigger and wealthier, so did its daily newspaper – at least until a few years ago, when the industry, Cox Enterprises, and the Statesman hit the wall. (And in the last few years, as the other bureaus were cutting back, something even seemed to have goosed the paper's coverage of the Capitol – for whatever reason, it got noticeably better.)

I also agree with Editor Black that the improvement under Oppel soon "flattened out." As our media reporter, Kevin Brass, described last week, the current Statesman increasingly appears hard-hit by industrywide cutbacks and is struggling once again – in very inhospitable circumstances – to find its way.


Who's Doing What?

I hope it does. Daily newspaper haters (they are increasingly legion, and on bad days, I count myself among them) tend to forget that we're really reading two interwoven but still distinct entities: 1) the editorial perspective/culture (which includes but is larger than the explicit editorials) and 2) the workaday reporting, which is informed by the editorial culture (for better and worse) but which is far more indispensable and much more threatened by the economic and cultural forces that are undermining the entire news industry.

At the Statesman, the editorial culture is generally deadening, often even pernicious: a daily, soporific attempt to stake a reassuring claim at the dead center of the current conventional wisdom. Nowhere has that pattern been more evident or more dispiriting than in the editors' somnolent windbagging on national politics and the Iraq war. But the paper's workaday local and regional reporting (uneven and bereft of insight as it can sometimes be) is part of the city's necessary cultural grain, the basic text of Austin. Setting entirely aside grand arguments about the First Amendment and the righting of public wrongs, we need daily newspaper reporters to tell us as much as they can manage (in their shrinking space), simply about what the hell is going on around here. Despite the demographic dominance of television and the endlessly ballyhooed Internet – where the most informative sites are generally those of major newspapers or their reporting surrogates – local, daily newspapers, including the Statesman, remain the best, fullest source of local and regional reporting.

I take plenty of pride in our work at the Chronicle, but it's a simple fact that we can't cover as much ground as the Statesman. On big, institutional stories – the miserable state of health care in Texas prisons, the UT-Austin athletic empire – they can employ resources we just don't have. We did excellent but necessarily intermittent work on Tom DeLay and the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee scandal; the Statesman's Laylan Copelin kept diligently on through the long months and is still going. Other than a couple of brief notices, we simply had to pass on the Pedernales Electric Cooperative story – the Statesman deserves credit for giving it the resources and attention it needed and then not letting it drop.


News Costs Money

We could all do without the latest Statesman thumb-sucker on rising property taxes or bipartisan cooperation or the grim foreign-policy choices faced by our poor, beleaguered U.S. war-makers. But Austin will be a poorer, less informed, and less lively community if the Statesman continues to shrink and a younger corps of daily reporters cannot be apprenticed to take its place here in the central human activity of information gathering and distribution. I hear people, even some young journalism students, insist that the Internet and its army of enterprising, instant-commentating bloggers can seamlessly take the place of all those dead-tree reporters, who spend hours working the phone to get a few nuggets of verifiable information for actual publication. Nobody seems to wonder who will pay those bloggers for their fleeting and instantly replaceable opinions; and more importantly, absent working reporters who must make a living in order to do this work, just what the hell will those bloggers have to blog about?

I better stop there, before I begin to sound like one of those baleful Statesman op-eds about the dismal future of literacy and civility. (That's among the reasons we don't run op-eds here, despite dozens of wannabes e-mailing us regularly to do so.) I expect soon to return to pounding the daily for incompetence and cluelessness. (Here's a thought: Did you notice this week the editors are now considering whether the unjust, illegal, and immoral war they've supported so dutifully has gone on a little too long?)

But for now, as Rich Oppel promises soon to begin his longest fishing vacation, I'll lament for a moment the diminishing health and prospects of the American newspaper and most especially our local avatar thereof. Call it my three cheers for the Statesman reporters and staff members. May the Fred Zipp Era bring them more light, energy, and a better return on their hard and persistent labors.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Rich Oppel, Fred Zipp, Austin American-Statesman, Laylan Copelin

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