Column Calamity

Changes continue to bubble up at the Houston Chronicle under new editor Jeff Cohen, and two of the paper's high-profile columnists are the most recent targets.

Cohen, people at the Chron say, has told columnists he wants them out there being reporters, not just recycling press releases or offering up Deep Thoughts that occurred while dropping the kids off at the school-bus stop.

The most obvious change so far is the departure of longtime business columnist Jim "Enron's Great!" Barlow. Word is that Cohen lectured Barlow on his work habits and lame column content, and Barlow balked at changing.

Within a few days his final column appeared. After 15 years as columnist, Barlow wrote on June 23, he was retiring. There was no mention of Cohen, although Barlow pointedly thanked "the thousands of people I've interviewed over the years."

A more subtle change is affecting Metro columnist Thom Marshall, who's been tepidly taking up column inches for a dozen years. Marshall, who had been working at home, has been told to work out of the newsroom and to get more of a reporting edge in his pieces. (An early result was an interview with media darling Rusty Hardin -- about DWIs, not Arthur Andersen.)

Readers of Marshall's column can only hope that the get-out-of-the-house edict brings back his 1998 series of Key Map pieces. In them, Marshall told -- in numbing detail -- how he planned to pick a location at random from the Harris County Key Map and go explore.

"Doing a Column By The Numbers" was the accurate ensuing headline. He went to Stafford and stopped at a greenhouse. "A nice woman in the office said most any other time someone might have had time to show me around and visit," he reported, "but they were right in the middle of the big Valentine's Day rush and everyone was just too busy."

The Key Map columns lasted only a few months, but they're treasured by aficionados.

Complicating matters when it comes to Barlow and Marshall are their spouses. Barlow is married to Susan Bischoff, the deputy managing editor who putatively has a news role but focuses largely on society and fashion stuff. Marshall's wife is Jane Marshall, the paper's features editor, who oversees entertainment coverage.

Another columnist in for a change is Leon Hale, the love-him-or-hate-him country-tales columnist (we like him, for what it's worth). Hale will now be covering two-car fatals on the Katy Freeway and predawn blazes at apartment complexes.

Actually, he'll still be spinning yarns about the Depression and coping with this modern world. He'll just be moved from the front of the Metro section to space elsewhere in the paper.

A Thousand Words

Houston's KHOU is owned by the Belo Corporation, which is based in Dallas. (Dallas is a city north of here.)

Belo, which also puts out the Texas Almanac, has used pictures from that publication to provide a selection of photos on KHOU's Web site that Websurfers can use to create wallpaper for their computers.

There's a group of photos for each of Texas's largest cities. And what do Belo and KHOU want us to think of when they think of Houston? Well, there are shots of the Johnson Space Center and the Ship Channel and a 1965 photo of the Dome. There's the "75-story Texas Commerce Tower," which, not to put too fine a point on it, has been known as the Chase Tower since the days when we all were just getting to know Monica Lewinsky.

There's a photo of players warming up at "Enron Field." We'll give them a pass on not catching up on that relatively recent name change, but what's the deal with the player being shown? Instead of any Astro (note to Belo: they're the local team here), the guy tossing on the sideline is Pudge Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers.

And there's one other photo in this panoply of all that is bright and beautiful in Our Town: a glamour shot of Enron's downtown headquarters. Just in case everyone hasn't gotten enough of that crooked E from countless reporter stand-ups on the news. (The photo caption makes no mention of any recent unpleasantness, by the way.)

In case you're wondering, the Dallas shots don't include any picturesque views from the Sixth Floor.

There's a nicely vague description of an Austin photo, too: "A statue -- on the south side of the Capitol -- dedicated to Civil War soldiers," it says. Which is true enough, as far as it goes.

It doesn't specify which Civil War soldiers. We're sure, however, that there are some folks out there who would just love to have desktop wallpaper featuring a fighting Confederate embodying all the glory of the fabled Southland.


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