In the year since he took over as editor of the Houston Chronicle, Jeff Cohen has made most of his changes behind the scenes, as far as the general reader was concerned. Now he's made a big splash that even casual consumers will notice.
Rick Casey, the well-regarded longtime columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is coming to the Chronicle to be the paper's most high-profile writer.
That's good news for Houstonians -- unlike most of the sleep-inducing stable of columnists who colorlessly fill the pages of the Chron, Casey is known for stirring things up with well-reported pieces about local issues. He's considered to be one of the state's best Metro columnists, although to be frank that's not saying all that much.
"What I do is kind of all over the map, but it's always intensely local and, I hope, not too terribly predictable," says Casey, 56, who's been a San Antonio columnist for 16 years.
The process that saw Casey come to Houston is like the one that saw Dick Cheney become vice president: Cohen, a former colleague from the defunct San Antonio Light, asked him if he knew of anyone who'd make a good Metro columnist; Casey racked his brain and came up with himself.
In what we hope isn't an indication of more Houston's Great! cheerleading to come, Casey says his decision was triggered partly by a visit here to catch some baseball. "I went over to spend the weekend watching the [St. Louis] Cardinals, and I was really struck by how downtown had changed and had gotten a lot of life to it," he says. "It was like Boston or New York, and it got me to thinking about living in a big city again."
Many details are still to be worked out, such as how many times a week he'll write (it's three times a week in San Antonio) and what will happen to current Metro columnists Thom Marshall and Leon Hale. Rumors have Hale moving to the features section and Marshall as up in the air as ever.
Since few places can grumble like a newsroom, there has been some muttering about the hire. At a time when tight Chronicle budgets have reporters stretched and scrambling, there's been grousing about bringing someone in with a big salary, a personal research assistant and a private office.
Casey at least puts to rest the rumor about a personal research assistant. "I'm not expecting a full-time assistant," Casey says, "but the Chronicle has a lot of resources that I will be able to use." (Cohen doesn't discount it: "We're going to make research and writing as easy for him as possible," he says.)
Casey starts at the paper in mid-June; he'll take some time getting acquainted with the city and start writing by the end of the summer, no doubt accompanied by a publicity campaign.
Let's Put On a Show!
The computers at KHOU -- apparently overwhelmed with preparations for the following day's sweeps-month report on "Flesh-Eating Flies" -- crashed in the middle of Channel 11's 10 p.m. newscast May 14.
It resulted in a charmingly low-rent broadcast, once the station got back on the air after a few minutes of blackout. Anchor Lisa Foronda was sitting in a chair in the newsroom, away from the desk, and apologized for the delay. Then, ever the trouper, she segued into sports, tossing it to Giff Nielsen.
At which point she got up out of the chair, walked off-screen -- the camera recording it all, not moving an inch -- and Nielsen took her seat. And her little lapel microphone.
Ducking to get into the frame, Nielsen then robotically read his prepared script for the night. A script that, unfortunately enough, had been written to go along with video of highlights that weren't being shown. So instead of a just-the-facts round-up of who won the Astros game and who got the key hits, Nielsen narrated his way through a sequence of plays (that we couldn't see) before giving us the score.
He then politely handed the lapel mike back to Foronda and vacated the chair as she returned, again with the stationary camera recording it all.
We were expecting to next hear an update on the A/V Club meeting and Friday's school lunch menu, but it never came.
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We are very glad that rival KPRC didn't lose its graphics the same night. Otherwise we would have missed its trenchant life-saving tips on how not to explode.
The station's Investigators did a (perfectly fine) piece on the dangers of leaking storage tanks under gas stations. It ended with a graphic on how to tell if leaking gas is threatening your home (in addition to flesh-eating flies, we guess).
The two tips: a) Your grass starts dying mysteriously; or b) There's a strong smell of gas when you dig up the ground.