By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
How things have changed. In 2004, the Houston Press profiled Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress blogging software and a student at the University of Houston. At the time, a blogging community was developing in Houston. But blogs were still relatively new — not everyone understood what they were, and the story referred to them as "online diaries."
In the years since 2004, the debate over whether blogs were a legitimate information source came and went. The traditional media huffed and puffed as it saw bloggers growing in influence, then gave up and joined them. These days, both the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press blog like crazy.
As for our community of local bloggers, it has flourished. And we've decided it's time to recognize some of the great ones. After culling through the Web and polling friends and the Press staff, we came up with a list of bloggers we think are leading the pack. (The Press blogs have absorbed some of the city's best into their rosters; obviously, we love them, but they won't be featured here. Some of the bloggers we're including write in more than one place, including the Chronicle and its entertainment site, 29-95.com.)
Most of these bloggers have day jobs; there's a couple of lawyers, a teacher, an employee of an energy firm. Some have been blogging forever; some started in the past year. They cover a range of topics, from humor, to politics, to art, to real estate, to sports, to music, to law, to life in general, to food. In fact, we picked two food blogs — one with recipes, and one without. (You guys know how much we like food at the Houston Press.)
But all the bloggers we picked have one thing in common — they're really passionate about something, and they want to share it with the rest of you.
Jenny Lawson's slogan is, "It's only offensive to assholes." Her humor blog, The Bloggess, has loads of fans — she gets around half a million hits per month — but she's good at pissing people off, too. What Lawson does is satire, and some people will never understand that.
Case in point: Not long ago, Lawson went to the grocery store for Diet Dr Pepper and could only find cans emblazoned with the phrase, "Diet Dr Pepper. There's Nothing Diet About It." So she went home and wrote a blog entry — a "knock-off post," she calls it — about the baffling ad slogan. "So is this 'diet' or not?" she wrote. "Because I'm confused. One of these things is a lie."
The post got picked up around the Internet and eventually landed on AOL as its lead story. ("I didn't think AOL existed anymore," Lawson laughs.) Lawson was held up as a confused soda consumer, and Dr Pepper was called for comment. As is often the case, the Internet was out for blood — people called Lawson an idiot, said she should be sterilized. "I went back and wrote a disclaimer," she says. "By the way, this is satire; this is how this works...People were still furious."
The Diet Dr Pepper blog is a good example of what Lawson writes about — things that amuse her, like finding a mushroom that looks like a boob. And she does it in her own inimitable, slightly neurotic voice. Lawson is surprised by the attention she gets. "I think, 'Well, that's weird, why would anyone follow me?' I don't think I would read my blog. It's about dead kittens and vaginas. And I always think, 'This is it, this is the post that I put up where everyone will run away.'"
But the fans keep coming, and they keep rallying behind her bizarre causes, such as trying to get William Shatner to unblock her on Twitter (and succeeding!) or just spreading a little joy. One day she Tweeted, "You know what would be awesome? If for no reason at all we all just randomly screamed 'WOLVERINES!' once today. That would be awesome." Lawson has around 35,000 followers, and so many people indulged her, she later noted in a hilarious Bloggess post, it was a Twitter trending topic an hour later.
OFF THE KUFF
On March 2, during the Texas primary elections, Charles Kuffner checked in with the readers of his blog, Off the Kuff. He'd be at his precinct convention and then planned to watch the results come in. Promising to post about the primary soon, he told his readers: "We'll figure out What It All Means later."
That is exactly what Charles Kuffner does so well, and one reason why he has such a loyal readership and sphere of influence. "My degree is in math, and I'm a numbers guy," he says, "so when I get the data from the County Clerk or the Secretary of State about how the vote went in individual precincts, I load it into Excel and see what it can tell me. And you get some interesting stuff that way if you're a numbers geek like me."
Kuffner, who works in the IT industry, does the kind of in-depth analysis you won't find elsewhere. "The analogy I use is, we're like the Golf Channel on TV. I provide in-depth coverage on a topic that only so many people have an interest in — people who want more than what they get out of newspaper and TV, who's writing for a broader, more general audience. I can do what I do — I can drill down into numbers, I can interview all these candidates — because that's the sort of thing that the people who come to my site are looking for."
It's hard to believe that when Kuffner started Off the Kuff back in 2002, he envisioned it as a sports blog. He'd had a sports column back when he attended Trinity University, and after he stumbled across a friend's blog, he thought, "This is cool; this is what I want to do." But he quickly found that what he was most interested in — and had a lot to say about — was politics. He got his first big interview, in December 2003, with Richard Morrison, who was starting his campaign against Tom DeLay in the 22nd Congressional District.
That was a big deal. In the early days, it wasn't always easy for Kuffner to get interviews with the candidates (today the interviews are a big draw for the blog). He'd try to track down their contact information, and if he got them on the phone, he'd often first have to explain to them just what a blog was. "Nowadays," he says, "people do tend to know who I am, and as often as not, they approach me."
Robert Boyd started blogging about art so he would stop being a couch potato. "I wasn't getting out and seeing shows, so I deliberately forced myself to get out and start seeing what was happening around town," he says. "My thinking was purely to have a reason to get out of the house."
At first Boyd, who studied art and art history at Rice University and works at an energy company, began posting about art on his other blog, Wha' Happen, which he started in 2006. But he eventually created a separate art blog, The Great God Pan Is Dead, last August, incorporating his previous art writing into the new site.
He describes Pan as "a blog that deals mostly with art in Houston and comics anywhere, but is not exclusively about either one of those two subjects." It's a readable, photo-rich blog that's a good primer for anyone curious about what's happening in Houston art.
Boyd, who collects work from local artists as well as original art from comic strips, has a broad scope. "I like a lot of things that are conceptual," he says, "but am wowed by people who have great realistic painting chops. There's not a particular style that I like." Elaine Bradford, Kathy Kelley, Dario Robleto, and Dan Havel and Dean Ruck are a few of his local favorites.
Of course, Houston provides endless opportunity to discover more. "I think Houston's got an amazing art scene," he says. "I think there's some fantastic artists here. The University of Houston turns out some really great students...The CORE program brings people to Houston who end up staying, which is pretty amazing. There's a ridiculous number of institutions that are promulgating interesting art."
And Boyd's getting off the couch to visit them. Asked how much art he sees each week, he mentions what he's seen in the past couple of days: shows at Koelsch Gallery, Rice's new Matchbox Gallery, Kingwood Lone Star College, the Blaffer Gallery and Hello Lucky. "That was pretty typical," he says. "I try to see everything."
In other hands, the evacuation plan for the Turnberry Tower Penthouse might not have been a source for such hilarity. But Houston real estate blog Swamplot, ever attuned to the absurd, gleefully noted that the 11,860-square-foot behemoth had nine and a half bathrooms — including one with its very own terrace! Swamplot's conclusion: "People at the top aren't so different from the rest of us. They just need to pee more often."
Swamplot has been lovingly tapping into Houston's ridiculousness since 2007. "The punch lines do pretty much write themselves, don't they?" Gus Allen, Swamplot's founder, wrote the Houston Press in an e-mail. "What other city tries so hard to be like so many other, better places, and yet fails so spectacularly? Houston is such a dork...and yet it's our little dork."
That's not to downplay the serious reporting found on Swamplot. For example, the site has done a spectacular job covering the implosion of Houston construction company Royce Builders. "We weren't the first to report that Royce Builders was going under — I think it was Isiah Carey from Fox 26 who smelled something going on there first," says Allen. "But after we linked to and added to his report, we began to get tips from former employees and homebuyers about what was really going on behind the scenes. The more we posted, the more tips we got...So we were able to get deep into a story other media outlets never really got into."
Allen doesn't do Swamplot alone. He works with other writers, and he relies on people in the community. What Swamplot has done on the demise of the Wilshire Village Apartments is a great example of that. The blog's efforts to get to the bottom of the complicated saga of the 70-year-old apartments at the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, whose tenants were evicted before it was razed, have taken, well, a village. Swamplot has continually asked its readers to help unravel the mess, and they have complied.
The latest on the property is that it will be turned into a Montrose H-E-B. What would Allen like to see happen there? All the players, together: "I'd like to see Matt Dilick, Jay Cohen, all the former residents of the apartments, city building inspectors, the officers of Wedge Real Estate Finance, and maybe a few sharp-witted Swamplot commenters all mysteriously stuck in the same H-E-B checkout line," says Allen, "for a period of several weeks."
When Houston got the Texans in 2002, nobody was happier than Stephanie Stradley. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, we have a miracle here,'" Stradley says. "Houston wasn't supposed to get an NFL team, and they did."
Stradley, who's had season tickets since the beginning, was a finalist in the team's ultimate-fan contest — four times. The finalists got to run out on the field with the team waving a Texans flag. "I got to do that four times, and it is the most amazing experience in the entire world," she says.
But for Stradley, football isn't just about tailgating or wearing goofy outfits on Sundays, although she does those things. She's also a serious student of the game — "I don't purport to be a football expert, I just pay a lot of attention," she says — and back around 2004, she was frustrated that she couldn't find more in-depth information on her team. Stradley started posting on message boards, and eventually started writing for the Houston Chronicle's FanBlog: Texans. Today she blogs for AOL FanHouse and for the Chronicle as Texans Chick.
A popular 2006 blog post by Stradley is a good example of what she does — write about topics she would want to read about, but isn't seeing. Amid the media's coverage of the city's disappointment that the Texans had landed Mario Williams and not Reggie Bush or Vince Young, she hadn't read much about what Williams could actually do. So she compiled "The Ultimate Mario Williams Compendium," with all the information a fan could ever want about his prowess as an athlete. The blog was both useful and prescient. Today, of course, Williams is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL.
A lawyer, Stradley also blogs about sports and the law. She likes to get silly, too, advising fans on "NFL Attire: What Not to Wear." Stradley isn't afraid to call her team out (see "Texans Defense Is the Worst in the NFL," October 2009), but win or lose, the Texans have a true fan in her.
"Houstonians have had a unique opportunity in that we are getting to see how you build a team from scratch, and it's been interesting just watching that process," she says. "You can be a fan only when times are good, but in my thinking, a team needs their fan base more when they're struggling to become good."
People love to bitch about the Houston music scene's lack of exposure. But David Cobb is someone who has actually gotten off his ass and done something about it. He started his blog, Houston Calling, seven years ago.
"My focus is to help the local scene," says Cobb. "It is just a labor of love. I was sick of going to shows and it would be just the bands, their moms, and the bartender and me. It still happens, but it's gotten a lot better. I'd like to think that I'm a little part of that, but it's a big city and there's a lot of good bands."
When he started Houston Calling, Cobb says, "I basically sent e-mails to almost every band I could find in Houston online. I would hit their MySpace up to interview them." Today Cobb is still at it, but often the bands come to him. "I get tons of e-mails and tons of music from bands who are not only coming to town but also local," he says. Right now he's also posting each day on bands playing South By Southwest.
Cobb, a project manager at a consulting firm, has been a music lover all of his life, and his wife shares his hobby. Some bands that are really standing out to him right now are The Gold Sounds, Chase Hamblin, Robert Ellis, Roky Moon & Bolt, and Something Fierce.
It blows Cobb's mind that more Houston groups haven't found national success. Mentioning successful bands from other cities, he says, "We have bands just as good. Why are those bands nationally known and the musicians in Houston having to work five jobs?"
Houston Calling is a music lover's attempt to help. "With the Net anybody can find anything," he says. "If I post something and someone in Japan buys it, great, that's what I want to happen. I don't want musicians to have to struggle to make ends meet. It's ridiculous."
It was about a year ago, March 26. Criminal defense attorney Mark Bennett was asleep. His phone rang. "Listen, Mark, I've got something for you," said a voice on the line.
The tipster told Bennett that First Assistant District Attorney Jim Leitner had a plan to force "whales" — cases the state thought would be so easy to win, they'd be like shooting whales in a barrel — to trial instead of letting the accused plead guilty. Apparently, the idea was to give new prosecutors some experience.
Bennett shared the scoop on his blog, Defending People. "Forcing an accused who is willing to plead to reasonable punishment to instead try his case isn't justice; it's bullying," he wrote.
The next day, the Houston Chronicle ran a story on the plan, calling it "a 'whale' of a bad idea." Bennett was interviewed. "It's unethical," he told the paper. "A prosecutor's job is to seek justice, not win easy cases." Leitner, the story said, would not proceed with his plan. The whale story is one of a few Bennett has broken on his blog.
Bennett works with his wife out of a house in the Heights. He started his blog three years ago. In that time, it's become influential in local legal circles — and quite a resource for criminal defense attorneys. "I'm not writing for everybody," he says. "I like to write for people that have the same interests I have. Those are more toward the criminal justice system, criminal cases, how to try cases, how to deal with judges, how to be in the business of being a criminal defense lawyer."
But Bennett's blog isn't dry. His 16 Simple Rules for Jury Selection — which includes the Nike Rule, the Blind Date Rule, the Shrek Rule, the Improv Rule and the Beer Pong Rule — is a highly readable, and apparently quite useful, guide. According to Bennett, criminal defense lawyers from different parts of the country have reported using his rules, and winning with them. "That's really in the criminal defense lawyer's spirit," says Bennett. "Most of us look at each other and say, 'That's not really a competitor, that's someone in the same business as me.'"
How choosing a jury is related to Shrek and beer pong — you'll have to read for yourself.
BLOG CON QUESO
Back in 2006, Laura Mayes was spending six months on maternity leave from her job at a Houston ad agency. The busy professional, who had been working since she was 14, felt stuck at home. "All of a sudden I had all this time and this new baby, and I didn't know what the heck to do," says Mayes.
She started taking pictures of her son Harry and sending them to her sister in Boston. In fact, Mayes e-mailed out so many photos, her sister decided to give her call. As Mayes recalls, her sister said, "I like you, and I want to like my nephew, but I'm not thrilled with either one of you right now. Stop sending me so many photos. Here's what you do: Start a blog...I'll look at it at my leisure and show Mom how to do it, too." At the time, Mayes, says, "I thought blogs were pretty cheesy." But she mulled the idea, and one night, having a glass of wine, she came up with the name Blog Con Queso.
What started out as a way to share photos with family quickly became more than that — it became Mayes's creative outlet. She started blogging about whatever was on her mind. Besides being a mom, she wrote about designing her home, clothing, music, recipes, her thoughts and goals. And pretty soon, after she did a post wondering what color to paint her dining room and got a large response, she realized that people were reading her.
What followed is a testament to the power of the Internet. Through her blog Mayes connected with Gabrielle Blair, author of the blog Design Mom. She did a few guest posts for Blair, they hooked up with another blogger and a plan was hatched for a Web site called Kirtsy, which is kind of like the content aggregator Digg, but for women.
Kirtsy launched in June 2007, and at the time, says Mayes, "We really did it for ourselves, thinking this was a way to share content." Today Kirtsy is a profitable business, and the site's best content has been gathered into a book, Kirtsy Takes a Bow, edited by Mayes, who left her ad agency job last April. But of course, says Mayes, "The Queso is where it all began."
Things did not go well when Albert Nurick visited Rise & Dine in The Woodlands. The service was erratic, the menu was difficult to navigate and, worst of all, the food sucked.
"The French toast was a gloppy mess; it had been soaked in egg for too long, then undercooked; the middle of the Texas toast was wet and raw," he later wrote on his blog, H-Town Chow Down. "The bacon was very thinly sliced, greasy, and limp. Only the hash browns were serviceable, although they were no better than what we'd expect from IHOP or Denny's."
In an age when too many bloggers — especially food bloggers — are relentlessly positive, Nurick isn't afraid to speak his mind (although he has plenty good to say, too). "If I don't like something, I will absolutely say it," he says. "I think you have to. It's much more helpful to hear about something that's not good as opposed to something that is good. I won't go out of my way to find some tiny place no one's heard about and just trash them. But especially if some sacred cow is getting a lot of press and traffic and it's not very good, it's an important service to say that it's not as good as people are saying."
Although Nurick, who works in Web development, has written about food here and there for many years, H-Town Chow Down is about a year old. The blog is a good source for Houston restaurant news and opinion. Nurick visits all types of eateries, but since he lives in The Woodlands, there's a lot of coverage of places there, and there's an emphasis on comfort food like burgers.
Nurick is a good example of a blogger who takes advantage of social media. He got on Twitter at the same time he started the blog, and Twitter seemed silly at first. But, he says, "I completely understand the value of it now." Following the major players in the Houston food scene gives Nurick ideas for his blog. He learned about well-known local chef Randy Rucker's new project, Bootsie's, that way, and he may have been the first to cover it.
Nurick's background in food? "I started eating at a very early age, and I've kept it up almost every day," he says dryly, adding, "I love food. I am fascinated by it." Just don't expect to see any recipes on H-Town Chow Down. "I don't cook," says Nurick. "I'm very challenged in the kitchen."
BLUE JEAN GOURMET
Nishta Mehra was having a difficult time. She and her partner, Jill Carroll, had finally put down their treasured pet, Lucky Dog. She was an old dog, and it was time. But that didn't make the experience any easier. "Our whole family life revolved around that dog — coming home to let her out, feeding her, changing her diapers, baking her dog bones, rubbing her belly," Mehra wrote on her blog, Blue Jean Gourmet. "She was my first pet, Jill's faithful hunting partner and a source of much joy and comfort to both of us."
To make matters worse, Lucky Dog died the day before Mehra and Carroll were supposed to give a party for the Hindu Festival of Lights, Diwali. They thought about canceling, but then decided, "What better time to have a houseful of people we love? Not to mention, what on EARTH would we have done with all of the food I had already made?"
Mehra, who teaches English, went on to describe a killer party and, of course, the bounty of dishes she served at her feast — Indian fruit salad, grilled Halloumi cheese, lamb koftas, saag paneer, channa masala (North Indian chickpea stew) and many more delicious-sounding courses. It was all paired with the bright, vibrant photos that make her blog look so good, taken by her collaborating photographer, Sonya Cuellar. The story ended with Mehra's recipe for guava cocktails — which she christened "Lucky Dogs."
That entry is typical of Mehra's style. She says she wants to "bring you into the kitchen, and cook you a meal, and sit you down and tell you a story." It's a storytelling blog and a recipe blog, all rolled into one. And although Mehra started Blue Jean Gourmet a little less than a year ago, she has quickly gained a following.
Mehra puts a lot of time and thought into the recipes she shares. Some recipes are original; for others, she'll decide she wants to make something, find multiple recipes on it, test it, tweak it and share her own version. She learned some of the recipes from her mother. "I grew up watching her in the kitchen," says Mehra. "She's one of those mothers who doesn't measure anything and tells you, 'Oh, a handful.' Lately, I just follow her around with a notebook and make her do them four or five times, then she makes me do them."
There's plenty of Indian recipes on her blog, but Mehra writes about all kinds of cuisines. And she has a promise for readers. All her recipes are "no fail," she says. "I've done them over and over again."