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Hard Times Claim Storied Press Outpost in Austin

Tough times have forced the Fort Worth Star-Telegram decided to shut down its capital bureau. As a former bureau chief, here's my farewell.

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If only Molly were here to see this.

I have said those words more than a few times since liberal columnist Molly Ivins left us, far too soon, in 2007.

But when that phrase came to me again last week, it wasn’t because she had missed out on something so rich that it would send her into column-writing ecstasy.

It was because of some news that would have made her very sad: her former employer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is shutting down the Austin bureau where we once worked.

Like most newspapers, the “Startlegram” is going through some tough times, and it has decided to at least temporarily close the bureau to redeploy resources.

Jim Witt, the editor, said in an email that the Star-Telegram would still staff the biennial legislative sessions, but would otherwise not maintain a permanent presence in the state capital.

“We’ve decided that for right now it doesn’t make sense for us to have a full-time reporter in Austin when the Legislature isn’t in session,” he said. “We will continue to send staffers to Austin when there is a story we want to do, and we will probably engage some freelancers to write stories on occasion.” (Disclosure: The Texas Tribune's content regularly appears in the Star-Telegram.)

The last Austin bureau chief, Dave Montgomery — Davey Joe to his friends — is expected to take a buyout this month and will probably end up freelancing, perhaps for the Star-Telegram.

It’s hard to imagine the Austin press corps without Dave, who has spent 46 years in the newspaper business, 31 of them at the Star-Telegram. The song “Young at Heart” was written for people like Dave, who has never lost his enthusiasm for reporting — and couldn't wait to get back to it after a relatively brief stint as an editor.

He has an uncanny ability to charm information out of people with his country smile and “aw shucks” demeanor, which mask his truly formidable reporting skills.

What’s even harder to imagine is an Austin press corps without a permanent Star-Telegram bureau, where respected reporters like Sam Kinch Sr. once wrote about an ambitious congressman named Lyndon Johnson, and where countless elections, political shenanigans and legislative sessions got the attention they deserved and that readers expected.

The paper's capital correspondents have helped interpret every major Texas political story of the modern era — from the 1970s-era Sharpstown banking scandal to Rick Perry’s recent run for president. And in 1966, Star-Telegram reporter Jerry Flemmons was the first journalist to climb the University of Texas at Austin Tower after Charles Whitman’s rampage.

This is not the first capital newspaper office to close, and it probably won’t be the last. But the demise of the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau is another troubling milestone for the newsgathering business, and it’s particularly sad for me.

I joined the paper as Austin bureau chief in late 1996 and spent some great years working alongside exceptional colleagues, John Moritz and R.A. "Jake" Dyer (and Carlos Sanchez before Jake replaced him). I also feel lucky to have shared an office with — and to have inherited a desk from — Molly.

In this era of media downsizing, an office with three full-time reporters and a columnist seems huge. But we were seen as a small bureau then — small but scrappy. Even when the bureau shrank down to one person in 2008, Dave carried on that feisty tradition. They said do more with less, and he did.

Dave had set up shop in the "dungeon," the name we reporters have bestowed upon the windowless press room in the basement of the Texas Capitol. Before that, the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau was in a spacious office on Congress Avenue, and it was more than a good news gathering operation. It was a central gathering point for reporters, PR types and government aides.

Nadine Eckhardt, Molly’s assistant and the wife of the late writer Billy Lee Brammer (author of The Gay Place), and who later married Congressman Bob Eckhardt, could be found there on most days clipping newspapers, telling stories and dispensing sassy advice. There might have been some booze in the lower drawer at one point.

Sadly, those days are gone. And soon, the far-flung outpost, from which the Star-Telegram vigilantly reported on state government will be gone, too. I don’t know if readers will figure out what they’re missing when Davey Joe walks out of the bureau for the last time next week.

But I sure will.

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