Barely legal 

At 20, the Current grows up, but not old

“The Current is an idea whose time has come. It is a newsweekly for those who love San Antonio, who care about her past and her future, who want to know not only what’s going on but why, who want an intelligent digest of the week in review, who want a good time in print the San Antonio Current.”

On April 3, 1986, Editor Linda Matys O’Connell introduced San Antonio to a new publication: not a glossy, socialite mag for jewel-encrusted trophy wives, but a scrappy, irreverent, muckraking paper staffed by gadflies and iconoclasts who started stories with sentences such as “Bubba is pissed.” They toiled in the basement of 110 Broadway, received countless parking tickets for stowing their cars in the alley, and juggled day and night jobs to make ends meet.

One year and a million bucks later, the Current was broke.

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But through the diligence of its employees and generosity of its owners — a total of four — two decades and several million dollars later, the Current is thriving.

Yes, there were lean times in the early ‘90s when the paper scaled back to publishing biweekly and ad revenue still could muster only 12 pages. There were flush times as new owners injected fresh cash and renewed hope. And there were many years of in-between.

The Current’s content has reflected the palates of its staff and editors as well as the Zeitgeist of San Antonio through the years: Mayor Henry Cisneros and Mayor Ed Garza, the Alamodome and Applewhite, Sandra Cisneros and Selena. Browse through the archives and you’ll find many issues grabbing headlines in the late ’80s resonate today: The San Antonio Symphony struggles to stay afloat. Residents along Highway 211 are mad about encroaching development. The Alamodome is more unpopular — and now empty — than ever. School financing still flummoxes lawmakers. Arts groups are still pissed about the City’s funding process. And the Spurs remain SA’s only major sports team. (Here’s a memorable quote from a November 1988 article on the Spurs: “Why is everybody so excited about this Larry Brown guy?” Answer: Because in 17 years he’ll coach the Detroit Pistons and get his ass kicked in the NBA championship by his former team. )

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The importance of alternative media cannot be overstated, especially now that San Antonio, like most U.S. cities, has only one daily newspaper. In 1986, the city had two: the Express-News and the Light, but no alt-weekly to counterbalance their dominance. Linda Matys O’Connell and husband Geoff O’Connell, who were steeped in the alternative newspaper tradition — she at the Valley Advocate in East Hampton, Massachusetts, and he at Phoenix New Times — were living in Louisiana and cast their eyes west.

“At the time, San Antonio was the most interesting city that didn’t have an alternative newsweekly,” says Geoff O’Connell, now a documentary producer on the East Coast. “We were really looking at being a genuine alternative. Like so many of these papers we wanted to give the cultural community a focal point and to connect with the community as opposed to being a generic left-of-center paper.”

The O’Connells rounded up investors, including defense attorney Gerry Goldstein and trial lawyers Pat Maloney and Phil Hardberger who, in typical legal fashion, cut a 500-page deal. The minimum investment was $12,500; most investors threw in $25,000. “I liked the idea of an alternative press,” says Hardberger, who eventually lost his investment. “It’s good for the city. I recognized an alternative can be more fun.”

(As a matter of disclosure, I didn’t know of Hardberger’s prior financial interest until he told me at an event last month. I joked that after his political career is finished, he can write for the Current and earn back his money at 15 cents-a-word.)

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Gerry Goldstein, who also invested $25,000, remembers attending a meeting in a building somewhere along the River Walk. “I was more interested in the voice of the grassroots population, something other than the establishment,” he says. “I was unhappy with the state of things.”

Although he never received a return on his investment, Goldstein says he doesn’t regret throwing money into the venture. “The satisfaction of having an alternative voice was well worth my investment. We were all big boys; we understood the risks.”

The idea of an alternative paper not only attracted readers, but also writers looking to expand their craft beyond boilerplate daily journalism. One of the Current’s original staff writers, Dwight Silverman, jumped ship from the Light and came on board in 1986. “The beginning was heady with all the cash,” recalls Silverman, now the technology editor at the Houston Chronicle. “I had a field day writing.”

Silverman and Matys O’Connell broke the story about Mayor Henry Cisneros’ adulterous affair, when the Light and the E-N were too timid to do so. “The daily newspapers had been writing around it,” Silverman says. “And Henry and I and Linda met in a conference room at the Convention Center. He got real emotional and cried. To this day, Henry won’t talk to me.”

Silverman, already a tech geek, also developed the Current Bulletin Board, a website-blog prototype. Via a creaky dial-up system, readers could access the major stories online, place classified ads, and participate in discussion forums.

Among the hot topics of the day was the ill-fated Applewhite Reservoir, marketed by its proponents as a way to wean San Antonio from the Edwards Aquifer. (Had voters passed the Applewhite proposition, Toyota would be somewhere else today.) Katharine Martin covered the Applewhite controversy and the dustup over the Central Library expansion in the mid-‘80s. “I took the longer view, and did analytical pieces. I loved doing that; there was never a dull day,” says Martin, now adviser to the Trinity University newspaper, the Trintonian. “I was young and starry-eyed by the whole endeavor.”

“We wanted to give the cultural community a focal

point and to connect with the community as opposed

to being a generic left-of-center paper.”


Original owner Geoff O’Connell

Tom Chamberlain, now a technical writer in Austin, also was a member of the original staff. “There was a sense it was the new, hip, cool thing and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Chamberlain, then the Current’s music writer. “Linda and Geoff gave me tons of leeway to write. There was an interesting arts and music community and we banded together; it was a survival thing.”

By 1987, the days of wine and roses were over. Employees’ checks were bouncing. Silverman remembers arriving at the office one day to find the door had been padlocked because the rent hadn’t been paid. “At Geoff O’Connell’s instructions,” Silverman says, “I broke in and stole the accounts receivable files.”

Out of seed money, the paper scraped by until the O’Connells sold the Current to Bob Walton of the Dallas Observer in 1989. Through the early ‘90s, the paper struggled, going biweekly in 1991, but still managing to cover important issues of the day such as the AIDS crisis, Ross Perot’s presidential run, and the development of the Blue Star galleries, which were new on the scene.

Mike Hood, who worked for the Current on the business and editorial sides, came on for a mere $6,000 salary in 1989. He left in 1998. “I believed in the paper and thought the city needed it,” says Hood, who still lives in San Antonio. “The paper grew and people loved it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

With new owners from Dallas, the Current covered the Branch Davidians, the re-emergence of downtown, and SA’s entertainment scene, including its reputation for being the heavy-metal capital of the U.S. Former Art Director Bill Ramsey, now a graphic designer at The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, also covered entertainment from 1992-1996. “They needed someone who could do five or six things,” he says. “People had dismissed the Current, and we had a fresh start. We weren’t blazing trails, but we had fun. At the time, alternatives were supposed to do snarky criticism, but it was all in good fun.”

In the mid- to late-’90s, the Current raised its profile in the city and pushed its page count to the 40s. It covered in-depth the fallout after City Council, led by Mayor Howard Peak, defunded the Esperanza Center. As a court later ruled, Council acted illegally because it revoked the funds after receiving pressure from right-wing groups over the center’s left-leaning political stance and its gay and lesbian film festival.

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When the Current was again sold in 1998 to Ron Williams, owner of Metro Times, an alternative weekly in Detroit (and a Current sister paper), Debbie Nathan was hired, and later won an award for her long, controversial profile of author Sandra Cisneros, “La Sandra.”

“I was pretty scared of that piece, not the political reaction, but there were parts I didn’t think I understood well enough,” Nathan recalls. ”We got the most mail we ever had. Half liked it and half hated it. It got people thinking.”

Now a freelance writer in New York City, Nathan also probed the right-wing political power of SA billionaire James Leininger and the entrapment practices of the local park police.

However, Nathan, who had children in school, never felt comfortable in San Antonio, in part because of its educational system. “I loved the work and the newspaper, but I felt like it’s not good to criticize a place unless you love it. I didn’t love San Antonio and it never got any better. I was very conflicted about it.”

During Nathan’s tenure, the Current printed the infamous phallic cartoon that spoofed the Alamodome and the Spurs.

Many businesses banned the Current after the cartoon appeared. Nathan attended the meeting in which editor David Bennet and the staff decided to print it. “We all hated the Spurs’ stadium. We were trying to figure out what to do to have a strong issue about the stadium and combining Freudian masculinity and athletics.”

In 2000, Williams sold the Current to Times-Shamrock, a privately held, family company based in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Now a hefty 60-plus pages, the paper focuses on local and Texas issues, with an emphasis on the environment, politics, and the arts.

In 2006, the Current operates in a different media environment than its 1986 counterpart. (Thankfully, you don’t have to dial in to access the website sacurrent.com). In the era of soundbite-driven stories, government propaganda disguised as news, and media consolidation, independent publications and voices are vital. Halfway into the first decade of the 21st century, the Current is leaning toward magazine-style journalism, combining short stories with longer, in-depth pieces. The list and the soundbite might still be in vogue at the Express-News and WOAI, but we think people are hungry for more.

“It’s still around and the city has supported it,” says Katharine Martin. “It’s very much what it was intended to be.”

And we don’t have to worry about the door being padlocked any more.

By Lisa Sorg


Judging the book by its cover

At a gallery event last week, I bumped into San Antonio Express-News Editor Bob Rivard, who seemed a little surprised to hear that the Current is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But he did recall the paper’s iconic first cover, an illustration by Keith Graves featuring tax watchdog C.A. Stubbs strangling the Tower of the Americas. The Tower’s long elevator shaft looks like the neck of a banjo, fitting since Stubbs prides himself on his pickin’, using it once to upstage former Mayor Howard Peak in a political debate. “GASP. Can S.A. survive C.A.?” the headline asked. Houston developer Tilman Fertitta, whose company now holds the contract on the aging phallic symbol, would answer yes, we can and have, but that type of pithy, provocative question is what drives the alternative press.

Perhaps to recover the conversational advantage (newspeople hate to be the last to know), Rivard opined that the Current doesn’t produce such interesting cover art anymore, but Current readers, who pick up the weekly paper in greater numbers than ever before, don’t seem to agree. In any case, they can judge for themselves at four gallery events this year, held in honor of the paper’s 20th anniversary. At each party, framed digital prints of notable Current covers will be auctioned off and the proceeds will be donated to the host organization.

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The May gallery event will take place at the McNay Art Museum and will feature the best of the Current’s political covers, from Kinky Friedman to “Jotos del Barrio” to the PGA Village. Collectors also can choose among Editorial Designer Julie Barnett’s Altweekly Award-winning covers from 2004: female impersonator Jimmy James, “Reading, Writing, and War,” and “Coal, Coal Heart.”

In July, the Current will hang a selection of great arts covers at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, including “The Second Coming of Danny Geisler,” featuring the artist’s clever critique of American holiday consumerism and Mideast policy, and a hot 1999 triptych starring César Martínez and two of his portraits. And we promise that Liliana Wilson’s controversial painting of two topless indigenous women, which graced an August 2002 issue, will not be draped.

Music will be the focus of the November event at Triangle Project Space, where collectible covers will include portraits of Alejandro Escovedo, the late Doug Sahm, and Mark Greenberg’s dynamic 2005 photo of Buttercup mid-jump.

But first we’ll take a chronological stroll down memory lane with “20 years of the Current,” January 20, at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, featuring a selection of covers from almost every year the Current was in print (archive management fell off the list of priorities for a while in the mid-’90s, when the paper was struggling for its daily bread. See related story, page 10). Available to the highest bidder will be the cover from Debbie Nathan’s controversial and award-winning profile of Sandra Cisneros, which used a grand portrait of an imperious La Sandra by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz. Mayor Hardberger signed a 1990 cover featuring a familiar-looking, young environmental attorney with a push-broom mustache. Another bittersweet favorite of the staff’s is the November 19, 1992, cover documenting the day the San Antonio Light went dark.

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A newspaper or magazine’s vital statistics are always on display for any reader to interpret: Number of pages, ratio of wire stories to original writing, ad space, and, of course, the cover. More than just an enticement, the cover serves as a guide to how the paper would like to be read. Following its splashy 1986 debut, the Current embraced a newspaper format, running stories on the front page accompanied by graphic illustrations. A cartoonist’s rendering of the Dillodome is all that decorates the January 12, 1989 issue. Although the text-heavy covers and two-color printing that characterized the late ’80s and early ’90s may have had much to do with the evaporation of the Current’s founding slush fund, they also reflected a paper that saw itself as an antidote to the establishment-friendly dailies (and now daily) that ran unchecked over the era’s newsprint. Not a rebel paper so much as an anti-Rebel paper that would honor no sacred cows.

The current Current staff still works to embody that ethos: Responsible reporting and criticism that puts its readership first and isn’t afraid to say what less-independent presses are thinking. But our contemporary covers reflect the paper’s shift toward a magazine format with an emphasis on design as well as in-depth news and culture coverage. The addition of photographer Mark Greenberg in 2000 made it possible for the editors to rely on first-rate color photography, which has yielded some of the most memorable covers in the paper’s history: His portrait of playwright Sterling Houston, his photo of Southtown arts patron Mike Casey, and his image of San Antonio State School resident Kenny for the August 18, 2005, story “Homeward Bound,” all of which will be auctioned off this year.

As the Current’s recent awards demonstrate, today’s paper can compete with any altweekly in the country, for design and content, but we do expect that first C.A. Stubbs cover to be a hot item. Stubbs, who appreciates his own myth as much as anyone, even autographed it for us and offered to show up at Blue Star with his banjo. If Rivard comes, too, we’ll give them five minutes on stage to duke it out. I’m betting on C.A.

Elaine Wolff


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