The Press: 15 Rounds and Counting

In November 1989, a scrawny, 48-page tabloid took to the streets of the city, looking for a fight.

The new Houston Press was trying to prove that -- despite the many publications that had perished before it -- an alternative newspaper could be a success.

That first issue showed the irreverent approach that would continue in the years ahead. "Firesale of the Inanities, or 'God, I love to go negative!' " the cover feature shouted. It took former mayor Fred Hofheinz to task for his failed comeback campaign against incumbent Kathy Whitmire.

And if Whitmire was grinning at that article, she would later find out about the take-no-political-prisoners approach of the Press. After her losing re-election campaign later, Whitmire's picture graced a cover -- along with the headline "Road Kill."

Politics vied with more perverse subjects, such as a transvestite road contractor sharing some of the secrets of cross-dressing. There was a heavy component of arts, music and event listings, with an article on local-boy-made-good Lyle Lovett.

A total of five ad account executives were part of the fledgling staff that put out 50,000 copies. Developer Niel Morgan had funded the independent start-up, spawned in part by a buyout of the obscure 713 publication.

There were natural contradictions, of course. The Press, born in contemporary offices outside the Loop, usually concentrated on life on the other side -- within the Inner Loop.

No one was immune from the scorched-earth journalism. Press writers loved to sear the influential sacred cows that were often protected by the city's mainstream media.

Dailies might have gushed over a school superintendent; readers of the Press followed the investigative stories revealing altered district dropout rates, test-cheating or even sweetheart deals with alternative-school contractors.

In 1996, a Press columnist pursuing leads about corruption showed up unannounced for an interview at a Friendswood home used by a then-congressman under questionable circumstances. The embarrassed politician tried to get criminal charges filed, claiming the Press staffer had invaded and committed battery on workers. The evidence told a far different story.

And a federal marshal found out about the reach of the Press in 1998. He went on leave after the newspaper chronicled him joining in at a karaoke fund-raising gala to croon Sinatra's "My Way" to a former port commissioner recently convicted of bribery in a City Hall sting.

The weekly also has ferreted out stories exposing graft and mismanagement in the city's public works operations. Coverage of the arts could even be hard-hitting, questioning how a museum director could get a fat bonus while employees were being bounced by budget cuts. The Press raved about rapper Carlos Coy; it also provided extensive coverage of his conviction for molesting a girl.

Montgomery County logger Roy Criner discovered the dogged style of the Press when it picked up on a tiny blurb in an area paper. A series of Press articles revealed the flawed investigation and rape prosecution of Criner in the 1986 killing of a young woman. The articles were instrumental in gaining freedom for an innocent man who spent ten years in prison.

The Press has gained a reputation for exhaustive investigations, although its takes on sudden tragedies -- from the bonfire collapse at Texas A&M to the explosion of the space shuttle -- gave it a unique immediacy as well. When other publications were still calling Enron's collapse a mere bankruptcy, the newspaper was already describing it for what it was: a massive financial fraud.

Houston's own backyard was the favorite hunting ground for dogged stories, although the Press has dispatched writers across the nation and across borders. One staffer wound up in Mexico City on the trail of Benny, an area elephant smuggled into a Mexican circus.

At times, the Press hosted its own circuses. They've come in occasional spoofs -- a "Blight Savers" organization hell-bent on preserving seedy areas, or a call for killing and eating stray animals.

Then there have been the great Press sacrifices in the name of consumerism, such as the staff turning the newsroom into a test lab to see if the headshop plant salvia actually addled our senses like native shamans said it would. (The concensus: Smoking a few bowls and chewing half a bush brought a brief, giggly, heavy-limbed high that turned into a dull headache.)

Just meeting deadlines has been a balancing act. During one prolonged energy blackout, the next edition was cobbled together from an emergency newsroom in a downtown hotel.

Over the years, staffers and even owners have changed in the ever-evolving publication. In early 1993, concerns over editorial freedom brought the resignations of the publisher, two editors and the art director.

Late that year, founding owner Morgan sold the Press to the Phoenix-based New Times chain of alternative newsweeklies, which had purchased the Dallas Observer two years earlier. In 1998, New Times also bought the assets of the venerable, on-again, off-again Public News weekly and closed it.

By then, the Press had moved its home base to a high-rise just outside the Loop in the Galleria area (hey -- even skyscraper rent was cheap in the oil bust!).

New Times moved the paper in 1998 to the current location on Milam in the southern section of downtown. The quarters, now called the Houston Press Building, were built in 1927 as the auto showrooms for the Shelor Motor Company. The building is best known for the Suzanne Sellers facade artwork, which turned two barren brick sides into images of an ornate windowed structure of an earlier era.

The building also serves as a repository of the rewards for not being afraid of taking risks: a few hundred honors from journalism organizations, both national and regional.

Staffers and the paper itself have been recognized by the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Writing Awards, the Medill School of Journalism's John Bartlow Martin Awards for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, the University of Missouri's Lifestyle Journalism Awards, the Magazine Awards of Western Publishing's Maggie Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the National Association of Black Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and other national organizations.

National anthologies have picked up Press features. Food reviewers have feasted on major honors by the James Beard Journalism Awards, the Association of Food Journalists and other culinary groups.

Of course, the ultimate honor is a decade and a half of doing much more than just surviving as Houston's alternative newspaper.

Weekly press runs have more than doubled since that beginning in 1989; publication sizes have almost tripled, and the staff has grown tenfold since the launch.

And most of all, the Houston Press has made a place for itself in the wacky world of Houston. The annual special issues and events -- Best of Houston honors, the Music Awards, fun runs and more -- have woven themselves into the fabric of fresh lifestyles for the Bayou City.

After 15 years, the foundation has been laid. And, just as with that first edition, the fight rages on.

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