Tag Archives: austin american-statesman


Stopping the presses (an ode to paper and ink)

It’s hard to write a love letter to a printing press. They’re big, ugly throwbacks, a steel-clad gnarl of gears and rollers and blinking control panels attended by black-fingered guys in coveralls with “Lou” stitched on the chest. They smell like ink and grease and machine oil (the presses, I mean. Well, the pressmen too). I love them all the same.

Next week, my old paper, the Austin American-Statesman, will stop printing onsite and start outsourcing the job to facilities in Houston and San Antonio. Which means the end of any late-breaking news in the printed paper because of the earlier deadlines required to ship papers to Austin every morning. And it means 100 very dedicated people will have to look for new jobs.

I understand. Newspapers have been struggling for years, the loyal ink-on-paper customers are a dying breed, and you gotta save money where you can. But it still makes me sad.

IMG_0012I worked at newspapers for 24 years, and they all had that mysterious sanctum that housed the presses. If the newsroom is a newspaper’s brain, the pressroom is its gut, the place where the messy stuff happens. For me, the Statesman pressroom was where magic happened: aluminum plates bent by hand around hard rubber rollers that would spin and roar while rolls of paper the size of Yugos unspooled into the thing’s maw. Those old offset presses would shudder and clatter and the ink would churn in the glass-fronted gearworks and crisp, folded newspapers would roll out the other end by the thousands.

I used to lead the occasional newsroom tour – mostly for my University of Texas journalism students – and the pressroom was always the highlight. We’d start in the newsroom where the reporters cubicled: fluorescent light, computer screens, fingers tapping at keyboards. Standard office scenery. (I secretly wished someone would jump up mid-tour and yell into the phone, “The truth, senator! All I want is the truth!” Never happened.) So, on to the presses.

Down the long blue linoleum hallway, past the vending machines. You feel them first. A warehouse full of running presses will set the floor buzzing and tickle the soles of your feet as you get closer. Then you hear them: a low metallic thrum that vibrates in your chest. Through the metal doors, the noise drowns all conversation and you’re wrapped in that inky industrial exhale. I memorized a few fun facts that I’d shout at the students: each press can spit out however-many thousands of papers per hour, each paper roll would stretch 2.3 miles if you unrolled it (or whatever it was, I had a cheat sheet). Most of the students were too busy gaping and pointing to listen.

IMG_0019Then we’d file down the narrow little stairway to the dimly-lit room beneath the presses where giant paper rolls rode grooved tracks in the floor, following some mysterious mechanical choreography before they were loaded into a press.

I remember ducking into the pressroom in 2002 with David Hafetz and Maria Henson to watch what we thought would be a landmark story come off the presses. Those were exciting days at the Statesman – the staff was still big and growing, the dot-com bust seemed like a temporary blip, and few of us saw the digital cliff ahead.

David had spent a year reporting and writing the story of Jacqueline Saburido, a Venezuelan exchange student who’d been horribly disfigured in a car wreck and was desperately trying to find a surgeon who could repair her face and hands. I’d been the editor – my first really big story since crossing the aisle from reporting – and Maria (a veteran editor) had swooped in to rescue us when David and I lost all perspective inside that massive story (which ended up running as its own section of the paper).

We walked along the flanks of the presses, watching the paper web whir through the cylinders, images flashing on the paper with each revolution like a jittery old movie reel. We snagged a few fresh copies and flipped through them quickly, enjoying the feeling of a long, hard journey finally transformed to ink-and-paper reality. Then we climbed the metal stairs on Big Blue, the vertical German press that had just been installed (the Statesman had to literally raise the roof to accommodate it). We climbed to the top catwalk, where downtown Austin was perfectly framed in the windows, washed in sunset colors.

It’s still my favorite pressroom memory. I get a little inky just thinking about it.



Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

The Leap (an intro to this blog)

“Leap, and the net will appear.”
– John Burroughs

I don’t remember the first time I heard Burroughs’ quote, but it got stuck in some random fold of my brain and stayed there for years, a little mantra that I believed, but was always a little too chickenshit to actually follow.

Until now.

A month ago, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter — after 23 years as a journalist — to make one big, all-in attempt at turning myself into a fiction writer. I’ve been dabbling for years, writing short stories and fragments of novels that I invariably set aside when I got distracted or lost my fragile fiction mojo. Then a few years ago I took a three-month leave of absence with the blessing of my bosses at the Austin American-Statesman (God bless them) and holed up in a friend’s cabin in southern Colorado to take another stab at a novel. I had a rough idea for a story, but I made the 14-hour drive from Austin without an outline or character sketches or any other real preparation. I remember sitting down at the laptop that first day: Okay, you wanted to write a novel. Type something.

Tap. Tap-tap. Sigh. Tap-tap-tap.

I wrote 1,500 words that first day in June 2011. For the rest of the summer, I wrote 6 to 8 hours a day, six days a week, and by the time I went back to work in September, I was up to 110,000 words (and still wasn’t finished). Now I knew I could sit down every day and do the work (regardless of whether the work was worth a damn). The following summer, I burned up my vacation to go back to Colorado and finish the manuscript. I came back with a 147,000-word draft of The Hotel Imperial.

I asked family and friends to read it and give me feedback. I did a quick round of edits. I found an agent who agreed to take a look, then got my first rejection. I put the manuscript down. Got busy again. Told myself I’d dive in again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

It didn’t happen. I’m just not one of those people who can work a full time job and work on a novel in his spare time (did I mention I’m easily distracted?). I needed take a big leap of faith and commit to fiction full time. So I got my financial house in order (paid off debts, paid off my car early, etc) and in April I sold a rental house I’d bought with my parents (God bless them too), which gave me the nest egg I’d need to actually do this. And now I’m actually doing this. Which is both really exhilarating and really scary. Where’s that net again?

I’m a first-time blogger, so this will be a messy process at first. I’m doing it so my family and friends can keep tabs on my progress, and to hopefully build a “platform” (which everyone says I need as a fiction writer). And to document what will turn out to be the most transformational decision of my life. Or the stupidest. That ending hasn’t been written yet.