News of Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black’s retirement on Tuesday after 36 years as editor of the alternative weekly paper didn’t come entirely as a surprise, given that his increasing involvement in film projects lately has taken up much of his time. But the departure wasn’t something even Black himself saw coming until very recently.
Speaking by phone from Vancouver on Wednesday, Black says he made the decision while he and Sandy Boone, his partner in life and work, were in Cape Cod, Mass., last month. “It had never crossed my mind that I could leave,” Black said. “But once I started thinking about it, it happened very quickly.”
Former managing editor Kimberley Jones became editor-in-chief a couple of years ago, and Black’s longtime co-publisher Nick Barbaro remains at the Chronicle. “I’ve actually been in the office a lot,” Black says of his recent role at the paper, “but I was more of an adviser than a leader.”
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Barbaro and Black share equal ownership of the Chronicle, but Black says, “I’ll probably, for a nominal fee, be selling my part of the paper to Nick.” Barbaro’s mother financed the launching of the Chronicle in 1981; later, Black says, Barbaro gave Black his half-ownership stake in the business.
“It’s a point of pride that we’ve been independent, and we’re staying independent,” he says of the paper’s unusual status among larger American alt-weeklies, most of which are now affiliated with media conglomerates. They were courted, Black says, but always declined. “Everybody who bought weeklies made us an offer, and we didn’t even consider it,” he says.
One offer came in the 1990s from Phoenix-based New Times, which became Village Voice Media after a mid-2000s deal with New York’s best-known alt-weekly. The company “approached me and Nick at a South by Southwest,” Black recalls. They decided against it. “But we didn’t get back to them, and we found out later that they were furious with us, because they’d made a serious offer.”
Black says he expects to continue his involvement with SXSW, which he co-founded with Barbaro and Roland Swenson in 1987. “I’m a co-founder and senior director, I’m involved in introducing and presenting films, and there has been no significant change in my role” in recent years, he says.
“Roland is the visionary and genius and leader. We were really hands-on for the first 20 years, but that’s 31 years along now. And it’s grown so big; how if there’s a problem and I show up, people go, ‘Who are you?’”
Several projects loom on the horizon for Black. As a producer, he’s in the final stages of work with director Ethan Hawke on “Blaze,” a dramatic biopic about 1970s-’80s Austin troubadour Blaze Foley that also stars Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt. He’s also working on a documentary about the satirist Church of the SubGenius that Boone is directing.
As a writer, he’s finishing up a dissertation on the films of director Jonathan Demme “I’ve been working on it for most of my life,” he says. He hopes the finished product will earn him a doctorate from the University of Texas, where he got a bachelor’s degree in film in 1980. Pursuing a published Demme biography would follow completion of the dissertation, he says.
Black cites additional film endeavors (including episodic projects), continued work with local production company Arts and Labor, and other music and book possibilities as among the activities that will be getting his time and attention in the coming years.
“I get up every morning and do interesting things with interesting people all day,” he says. “It (the retirement) has very little to do with the Chronicle and a whole lot to do with other stuff I was doing.”
Though Black says he and Boone have considered spending part of the year in Cape Cod, he states flatly that “I am not leaving Austin.”
“I have an obligation to the city of Austin to do a lot of what I do, because it has been so remarkably good to me,” he continued. “I’m a kid from New Jersey who collects comic books and loves music and loves movies. I’ve had an extraordinary run, and it’s because of Austin.”