Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Professional Journalists Populate Austin PR

Get Me



Word that former Austin American-Statesman editor Rich Oppel is now working for Public Strategies prompts me to proceed with a post that I’ve had in the making for a few weeks. Public Strategies “ … helps forward-thinking organizations assess public opinion and risk, and develops strategies for managing corporate reputation and uncertainty. Much of its practice involves managing high-stakes campaigns for corporate clients, anticipating and responding to crises,” according to its web site. It’s a high falutin’ way of saying “public relations”. (It also may signal that Oppel’s group of investors is out of the running to purchase the Austin American-Statesman where he was editor from 1995-2008.)

Oppel joins a legion of professional journalists who came to Austin, flourished, and stayed. Last February I posted a piece talking about the useful role that public relations people and publicists play in the news business. It would be truly amazing if a newsroom knew of everything going on and what it all means because their reporters are so good. The truth is that there is a steady flow of news releases into Austin’s newsrooms crafted by the very people who used to write the news.

Once again, being the 49th market, Austin is a destination, but that has always been the case for people in all sorts of professions including journalists. True, some do move on to other markets, following a dream. Others find their dreams here. Oppel is just the latest, high-profile Austin journalist to make the leap to the so-called “dark side”.

Others from the American-Statesman include Mike Cox who worked for the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Transportation. Bill Collier worked for Bob Bullock when Bullock was Comptroller. He returned to the newspaper briefly before signing on with Freeport McMoRan. David Matusik has worked for the City of Austin public information office for years after covering city hall. Similarly, Roxanne Evans covered education before moving to Washington D.C. She returned to Austin and is working in the public information office at AISD. David Frink covered business; now he is in business, working for Dell.

KXAN TV (NBC) seems to have contributed the most members of the PR, publicity, communications community. Rich Parsons covered the legislature. He’s press secretary for the Lt. Governor’s Office. R.J. DeSilva crossed over to the Comptroller’s office about the same time. Veronica Obregon left the Hill Country beat to work for Austin Community College communications. Now, she is at the state Department of Agriculture. Cathy Conley and Larry Brill who anchored “Firstcast” for years are both self-employed handling communications accounts. Susan Risdon was a reporter here and in Dallas/Fort Worth before returning to Austin where she set up a PR business. Kaye Beneke is an early KXAN/KTVV TV reporter who is now handling publishing for the Texas Medicaid & Healthcare Partnership
. Also from that early era, Larry Todd was news director. Later, like many of us, moved back and forth in and out of journalism, but notably worked for the Department of Public Safety and for Bob Bullock when Bullock was Lt. Governor. Another early news director, Doug Matthews, went into PR here after leaving broadcasting. Bage Anderson was a photojournalist who moved up to CNN in Dallas before opening a PR shop in Waco with his wife (only a hundred miles from Austin). Nefty Gonzalez was chief photographer. He now works for the Attorney General’s office here. Gray Moore was sports photographer. Now, he is shooting sports for the glory of the The University of Texas and loving it. Julie Shields was an award-winning education reporter who is now a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards. Both Russ Rhea (Weatherman and Anchor) and former capitol reporter Gene Acuna now work for one of Austin’s top agencies, Tate-Austin. Acuna also was a spokesman in the Governor’s office and City of Austin Public Information Officer. Pam Jackson Crowther, former Hill Country reporter, and Matilda Sanchez-Vichique, former producer, work for the Seton Family of Hospitals.

KVUE TV also is sending several in the PR ranks over the years. Larry BeSaw, former assignments manager, and Brent Annear, former photojournalist both work for the Texas Medical Association. BeSaw was an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Austin American-Statesman before jumping to broadcast journalism in the early 1980s. Also from that era, former news director and executive producer Bob Buckalew is still in Austin operating his own communications business. Anne Wentworth, former reporter and producer, worked with Buckalew for a while. She went to UT and got her teaching certificate. Anne is teaching elementary school now. Gail Granberry, the station’s first news director, now works for the Seton Family of Hospitals while her husband continues to work in “the business”. Former reporter Andy Saenz is now director of communications at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. County and court reporter Karen Sonleitner became a county commissioner. Travis County has no PIO. The last I heard, former anchor Shari “Kathleen” Campbell was producing video for the Texas Department of Health. Keith Elkins, who also worked for KTBC, KEYE TV, and the Texas Lottery as PIO is now Executive director for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas which relocated to Austin. Gail Phillips, deceased, was a reporter who later became public information officer for the Austin Police Department. Michelle Middlebrook Gonzalez left KVUE to work in the City of Austin Public Information Office, rising to be its chief before moving to the Seton Family of Hospitals. Craig Bean worked in news in Waco before handling public affairs for KVUE. He has been with the Texas Association of Broadcasters for several years.

KEYE TV has contributed fewer. Mike Schneider handled assignments for both KTBC and KEYE TV. He is also with the Texas Association of Broadcasters. Neil Spelce was first known best for his award-winning reporting of the Texas Tower sniper in 1966 for KTBC AM and TV later opened his own public relations business. He eventually returned to the anchor desk at KEYE TV in its early days. His daughter, Cile Spelce, also was an anchor and capitol reporter for KEYE before going to work for The University of Texas System offices here in Austin. Alexis Patterson recently began work in the Austin Community College communications office.

KTBC was the starting point for many of us. Dick Ellis who started there in May, 1970, left to work for the City of Austin public information office. He later returned to the business at KVUE. Now he is the public information officer for the Leander School District. Kevin Buchman ran the assignments desk at KTBC before taking over the public information office for the Austin Police Department. He is now PIO at the City of Austin Water Utility. Capitol Reporter Mike Rosen is now handling public information for U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul. And, yeah, I started at KTBC AM in June, 1970. I was selling time, but a year or so later, I was back in news on KTBC TV. I left to work for the State Bar of Texas and the Comptroller’s office. I returned to broadcast news in the late ‘80s first for KVUE and then as managing editor at KXAN. After finishing my master’s, I did a short stint (Long enough to renew old friendships and make new ones) at KEYE TV. Now, I’m doing PR and publicity on my own again.

And there are others. Terry Young wrote for United Press International before a long career with Read-Poland. He’s still at it with PeopleStuff Communications along side Larry Brill’s wife. Ann Arnold, executive director of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, was a capital reporter for United Press International and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before becoming the first female press secretary to a Texas Governor, Mark White. Kathy Walt wrote for the Houston Chronicle in the capitol bureau before going to work for the Governor’s Office. She is now deputy chief of staff. Andy Welch, the communications chief for the Austin Independent School District, had his own radio news feed network in the state capitol. Elizabeth Christian worked for the Los Angeles Times and co-owned a weekly newspaper in California before returning home to Austin to run her future husband’s (Bruce Todd) mayoral campaign and then form her own agency. Oh yeah, her father was George Christian, one of Austin’s most revered advisors to United States presidents and others. Christian started his career as a sports writer for the Temple Telegram and political correspondent for the International News Service. He later was press secretary for Governors Price Daniel and John Connally before being wooed away by President Lyndon Johnson. After the Johnson presidency, Christian returned to Austin and opened his own agency.

Whew. I am confident that I have left out somebody. Feel free to add to the list by commenting. The premise is clear, however. Scores of us came to Austin, succeeded in journalism in Austin, put down roots in Austin, and stayed in Austin. If they weren’t here, they got back here as quickly as they could.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

I'm very impressed with this list of accomplished journalists succeeding in more worlds than TV/radio/print.

NewsMcNabb said...

I just remembered Ted Burton, former Executive Producer at KEYE who is executive vice president at Enviromedia, one of Austin's coolest agencies.
Also, the other half of CS Media is David Swafford, former KTBC reporter/anchor. The "C" is Cathy Conley.
There will be others. Jim

Bage Anderson said...

Jim, your post was very informative and I recognized some old school names there that I had wondered.. "Whatever happened to.... " I had no idea there were so many of us former journalists who had turned to the "dark side" and became a "flak" or "flack" whichever spelling you prefer. I think former journalists can make the best PR practitioners, if they can get beyond feeling it is beneath them to pick up a phone and pitch an editor. We try to employ them here at my agency but some, believe it or not are too intimidated to practice media relations because they often receive the same treatment they used to dole out. It makes regret the times when working at CNN Dallas I would give PR folks a hard time. As you might imagine we were inundated daily with pitches. "That's right, that's what I said.. there is no fax machine in this bureau.. at least not for you."
An edict had come down not to publicly give out fax #s to PR folks as too much paper was being used.
So to all working journalists out there who might read this ... Please appreciate PR folks like me who might one day give you a call to pitch a story. As a former journalist I don't want to waste your time or mine, so I am judicious with who for what and the time I call. Keep in mind that especially in this era of tight money and the death rate of media outlets, you may find yourself on the "dark side" sooner than you think and it is not as easy as I make it look.

Lisa Glass said...

Hey, you forgot about me! I'm thoroughly offended. Not really. I took Gene Acuna's role as Communications Director at the TX Secretary of State's Office when he left to do PR for the Railroad Commission &/or Governor's office. I can't remember which came first for him. I landed at in 1998, doing PR, and have been here ever since. As a native Houstonian, I'm MUCH happier calling Austin home.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Geoff Wool -- don't make me remember the name of that state agency -- it's changed so many times ! Health and Human Services Commission ?

Eric Poteet said...

Annnd....Jolene Devito, formerly of KXAN, now doing the PR-consultation gig with a DFW firm.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: I keep thinking of others.

Rhonda Pennington Price who is now doing communications for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Sonta Henderson who was KXAN's top courthouse reporter is now doing communications for AAA.

Also, I need to include Sandy Dochen. Sandy covered the capital for me when I was news director at KLBJ AM in the early '70s. He later rose to news director. He left news to run Congressman J.J. "Jake" Pickle's local office. Now, he's with IBM.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget about former KVUE reporter and KEYE asst. ND and ND Melanie (Cox) Fish who now does work for Enviromedia.