Raising a Red Flag

Former Bellaire High School student shakes things up in the Capitol

On a Wednesday afternoon in late October, about two weeks before Texas voters went to the polls to re-elect the governor and decide several close statewide races, the numbers somehow got loose.

They were poll numbers, the results of the Texas Poll, the most widely publicized pre-election poll in the state. The survey is carried out by the University of Texas for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain and subscribed to by most of the major daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in the state.

Usually, journalists at subscriber papers get the horse-race numbers a few days early, allowing them time to interview the candidates and prepare their stories about the results, which are held under an "embargo" until a certain day. In this case, the numbers were to be kept quiet until Saturday, October 24.

But Harvey Kronberg, owner and one-man staff of a small political newsletter in Austin, obtained the numbers from a source days before the release date. In fact, he got them hours before some of the poll's subscribing newspapers received their slow-moving faxed copies. Somebody leaked him the goods on Wednesday, October 21, and by 4:50 p.m. he had them posted on his web site, in a section called "Daily Buzz." "They're available to a handful of players deep inside the political process prior to publication," Kronberg says. "We got them and allowed everyone else to know what the insiders know in real time."

To the horror of the status quo.
At UT's Office of Survey Research, which does the poll, manager O'Neil Provost couldn't believe the stampede that followed Kronberg's posting. "One little newsletter gets this, and boom -- not only does the rest of the media have it, but all the candidates have it," Provost recalls.

Beverly Barnum, the poll's director, says she called newspapers and television stations the day Kronberg posted the numbers and told them the embargo was broken. "It really wasn't fair," Barnum complains, speaking from, of all places, an Internet conference in Atlanta. "We've already made many changes to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The power and influence of a single soul with a computer modem and some vital information became clear to the world last January, when cybergossip Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek on its own story about the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-lying scandal.

Kronberg, one of the most unconventional members of the Austin press corps, has taken a page from Drudge and is trying to bring the Internet revolution to the Austin political scene as well.

The 47-year-old Capitol observer, whose family has run Kronberg's Flags and Flagpoles in Houston since 1956, targets campaign handlers, kingmakers, lobbyists, the press and the politicians themselves for his newsletter, The Quorum Report, a twice-a-month political news and analysis sheet he's been writing since 1989.

Looking for a vehicle to relate the more gossipy, perishable items he picks up around town -- the kind of tidbits insiders toss around over drinks at the Austin Club or the Cloakroom -- Kronberg decided last fall to leap into Web journalism.

Although he and everyone else make the inevitable comparisons to Drudge, Kronberg's site is less shrill, less raw and less partisan than Drudge's, and more careful about distinguishing rumor from fact. "The inspiration was part Drudge Report and part TheStreet.com," says Kronberg, who began posting daily items in September. "I like the way TheStreet.com starts in the morning and updates as that day's market evolves. Of course, they have 20,000 subscribers and 12 reporters."

Kronberg has 800 newsletter subscribers, about 1,000 hits a day on his "Daily Buzz" (which he gives away free on the Web at quorumreport.com), and one reporter-editor: Harvey Kronberg.

Beyond that, the affable former street vendor is probably the only member of the Austin press corps who owns a 10-ton, 90-foot boom crane. It's part of a successful flag and flagpole business he and his wife, Michele, run out of their home-office-flagpole graveyard at the edge of the south Austin sprawl.

Kronberg's business background has relegated him to the rank of eternal arriviste among his reporter colleagues. Of the two nonpartisan newsletters in circulation covering state politics, Kronberg's is the perennial number two. Texas Weekly, with about twice the number of subscribers, is number one. It was built by one well-respected journalist, Sam Kinch, who has been covering the Texas Capitol since 1961, and was taken over last year by another, Ross Ramsey, formerly of The Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Chronicle.

"Off the record, Harvey's never been a reporter," says one press colleague, who nevertheless describes him as "extremely smart" and a "perceptive" observer. "As a result, he doesn't have that sort of extra bullshit antenna, or his isn't as highly developed after only doing this for, what?, eight, nine years."

This is the kind of thing you hear from journalists, who like to refer to themselves as professionals, even though anyone who can type is allowed to practice the craft. Kronberg says his motto is "It's better to be wrong than naive." Reconsidering that as perhaps "aggressively ignorant," he amends it to "It's better to be wrong occasionally than naive."

Kronberg may be self-taught, but his insights on the state elections in November proved better than your average pundit's. He nailed the GOP sweep. He also broke a few juicy items on his "Daily Buzz," pre- and post-election.

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