Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Austin is Austin, and why SXSW is here

David Carr, NY Times media critic, gets it. Click the headline for the direct link. Chronicle&st=cse

The Media Equation
In Austin, a Thriving Weekly With a Mission

Published: March 22, 2009

Every day at the South by Southwest conference in Austin last week, I would leave my hotel room for events, and at each door in the hall, there would be various copies of complimentary newspapers. For the whole week, none of them, ever, seemed to be picked up. Over the course of a few days, as the Web and film conference gave way to the music festival, the papers sat, still as gravestones and almost as ominous.
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Curious, I hung in the hall and watched as the other people at the hotel, mostly younger, would leave their rooms, already staring into cellphones and PDAs — ignoring, or perhaps not even seeing, news they stepped over that was physically packaged and shipped many hours before.

They were riveted by news on the small screen, most of it up-to-the-minute and highly personal — a recommendation from a friend about a band or film to see, a blog post about a missed conference panel, or a feed of festival updates. Twitter, the text message application that came to prominence two years ago at the festival, was far and away the dominant news platform for the conference.

As a rule, these are not folks who want to know anything about yesterday, which is what most newspapers are about. Then again, these people would have never been thrown together were it not for, of all things, a newspaper.

The Austin Chronicle, a weekly newspaper as funky and idiosyncratic as the town it covers, continues to thrive with a relentlessly local news agenda — state government, the school board and the City Council, along with deep coverage of the arts — and a willingness to lead, as opposed to simply criticize, in artistic matters.

At a time when daily newspapers seem to be going away at the rate of one a week and weeklies are madly cutting to stay afloat, The Chronicle, which has revenue of approximately $8.5 million a year, has not laid off anyone, has no plans to do so, and its business is off just 7 percent in the last three years.

Part of the reason may have to do with price (free) but there is something else afoot. The Chronicle is knit into civic and cultural life in Austin to a degree that may make other newspapers nervous. While other regional news outlets do house ads and commercials about their connection to the community, The Chronicle started the South by Southwest conference, its founders have helped finance local filmmakers, and when you step off the airplane and see a huge bookstore branded with The Chronicle’s name, it’s clear that the weekly plays big for its size.

Louis Black, The Chronicle’s editor and founder — along with Nick Barbaro, the paper’s publisher — does not want to tempt the angry media gods. A very conservative person in some regards, he points out that the business has lived on cash flow since the outset and never has taken on any significant debt or partners. They own The Chronicle’s building and the building where the festival is set up.

The festival was founded by Mr. Barbaro and Mr. Black, along with their friend Roland Swenson, back in 1987, which, come to think of it, is just about the time that the newspaper took off as well. After taking a big hit from Craigslist — “let’s just say that the unlicensed massage category suffered significantly,” Mr. Black said — the newspaper has been stable and healthy.

It’s best not to generalize too much about a newspaper that covers a city whose unofficial battle cry is “Keep Austin Weird,” but there is a palpable connection to The Chronicle here. Many people will also point out that Austin is a notoriously liberal, literate place, but that hasn’t done a lot for The Austin American-Statesman, which, like so many other daily papers, is in decline and up for sale.

“They are a big part of the story here and always have been,” said Frank Hendrix, who owns Emo’s, a club here, and was overseeing three stages during the festival.

It’s an old-school love kind of love. The newspaper’s Web site, in spite of Austin’s reputation as a tech-savvy place, has never been a particularly remarkable one and is still basically a companion to the print version, which is crammed with all manner of editorials, deep political coverage and lots of articles rendered in almost unreadable small type.

“We don’t do gotcha journalism, our coverage is very policy-oriented, and always local, local, local,” he said. “Even during the Bush years, which were a very big deal here, we never put anybody that wasn’t local on the cover. We don’t do out-of-towners.”

Last Thursday night, sitting outside the Hilton Austin and later walking Red River Street, which was a riot of music performances and noise, Mr. Black said that the festival and the newspaper have been pretty much hand-in-glove all along the way. It’s hard to think of another American city where the newspaper has served as an engine for innovation. South by Southwest now has three vibrant legs — music, film and Web — that come together to create a stool that is the envy of every other American city.

“All of it has to do with Austin, and not us,” Mr. Black, who also produces films including “The Order of Myths.” “Apart from all of the music here, when Richard Linklater hit it big with ‘Slackers,’ he not only didn’t move away, but began helping other filmmakers. Mike Judge, who did ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ same way. Robert Rodriguez as well.”

“We have a critical mass of culture, of government, of people who like to read, that makes this a good place to have a newspaper like ours.” A cop walks by and high-fives Mr. Black, which is not the general relationship between most newspapers and local law enforcement, but The Chronicle’s footprint is so deep here — millions and millions of dollars are flowing into the city this week — that people generally think that what’s good for The Chronicle is good for the community and vice versa.

It was getting on toward 11 p.m., which is high noon during the days of the festival, and Mr. Black dropped me at a club. I watched him walk down the street and he couldn’t get three steps without someone stopping him to say hello or tell him thanks. Imagine that: a newspaper man being one of the most popular guys in town.



Swede Hill Slim said...

could have sworn there were four founders of know, that banjo player. I thought you said this writer got it.

hank alrich said...

That's what happens when somebody comes down from NYC thinking "they get it", and takes the word of those who turned SXSW corporate, which is the reason Louis Meyers sold his interest to his former partners.

Louis is actually about the music, and the musicians. Witness his back-from-the-brink executive direction of the International Folk Alliance.