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100k editions later: What readers like most about the Statesman as it turns 150

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Shudde Fath, now 105, reads the Austin American-Statesman at her Westminster retirement community in 2020. She hasn't missed an edition since January 1939.

Editor's note: On July 26, we celebrate a milestone: The American-Statesman and its team of journalists has been a dedicated part of the Austin community for 150 years. Through times of triumph and tragedy, we've been here to tell your stories in 100,000 print editions and even more online in recent years. Help us create 100,000 more editions. If you're not already, become a digital subscriber today.

Happy sesquicentennial!

Every day since July 26, 1871, readers have held a version of the Austin American-Statesman in their hands.

As of July 25, 2021, that has meant roughly 54,796 days of uninterrupted journalism.

If you combined all the editions of the early Statesman with those of the American and Tribune, which the Statesman absorbed, along with multiple daily editions of the merged papers after 1924, the total comes to almost 100,000 chances to read our words in print.

More:From the editor: Austin American-Statesman turns 150. Our torch burns bright thanks to you

And that doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of stories and blogs — remember blogs? — published on statesman.com, austin360.com, hookem.com and our other digital platforms.

Last year, I interviewed our most loyal print subscriber, Shudde Fath, who turned 105 this year. At that point, Fath had read approximately 45,000 copies of the Austin American-Statesman. That’s because she and her then-newlywed husband, Conrad Fath, first subscribed to the paper at their garage apartment near the University of Texas campus in January 1939.

“Been taking the paper ever since,” Fath said with a laugh. “One big thing back then is that we used to get two papers a day: the American in the morning and the Statesman in the evening. We’d read both.”

Were those 100,000 print editions worth it?

In print and on social media, I recently asked what you liked most about the American-Statesman.

Then I promised to publish a selection of your answers on our 150th anniversary, as part of a series of stories about our history, which started in 2020 and will continue.

Of course, I should have started off with this request: Affirmative answers only; we already know about our faults, some of which are outside our control.

Still, like best friends who feel compelled to reveal what's really wrong with you, about half the mail complained about early print deadlines, inconsistent delivery, dearly departed talent or, always a favorite, allegedly biased coverage — either too far to the left or too far to the right.

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Thankfully, since our 150th anniversary should be a happy day, many shared what they liked most about our print and digital editions.

I'll leave the brickbats — and some of them were entirely reasonable — for the Letters to the Editor. A few of our readers replied with just the basic, concise facts.

Linda Holt limited herself to one word: "Doonesbury."

Others were a bit more loquacious.

"I like the Statesman because it provide(s) a digital version," Morris Williamson wrote. "I was getting inundated with paper and now enjoy only the digital version."

"First I read the obituaries," quipped John T. Davis, a writer and former Statesman music reporter, in a twist on an old saying, "and if I am not listed, I turn to the sports page."

The following excerpts have been edited.

Comforts of the Statesman print edition

Some of our readers very much enjoy the physical act of reading the print edition of the American-Statesman in the morning.

"It is probably a generational thing, but what I like about the Statesman is being able to hold an actual newspaper in my hand and read through it while drinking my morning coffee," Russ Harding wrote. "I do get the e-edition, but it is just not the same. I do read the afternoon update(s) online. ...

"Also, I like to do the crossword puzzles in the paper and not (having) to print them out, and the paper provides a good source for news,. I will continue to subscribe to the Statesman, as I would hate to think of the city of Austin without a daily newspaper."

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Reader Judy McPhail agreed on the topic of tactile print.

"I like to receive the paper daily and hold a printed paper in my hands," McPhail wrote. "I really like the complete coverage of the Longhorns. Sports is by far the best section of the paper! I like to know what's happening in Austin, including the entertainment — that's why the Wall Street Journal doesn't satisfy my needs totally."

Reader Molly Shannon waxed poetic about her idyllic mornings with the paper.

"There is, for me, no replacement in whatever digital form, of the joy that I get unfolding the paper as I sit in my cushioned teak deck chair that has been positioned next to the window that gets the morning sun, in my office at the front of my house, and start reading the advice columns — why must Carolyn Hax be relegated to the ad pages? She is the best in the land — and start doing the Sudoku puzzle and the Jumble," Shannon wrote. "From there on, I read the rest of the paper at my leisure, as it brings me news that does not make it to CNN. I have my double coffee — with ginger and real cream and two tablespoons of Canadian whiskey — next to me on a ceramic garden stool and inhale all that goodness. It is part of a happy retirement."

Newspapering runs deep for some readers

A certain number of our readers come from dyed-in-ink newspaper backgrounds.

"My dad worked for The Associated Press for about 25 years," Graham Keever wrote. "So, as one might imagine, when I was young our house was filled with newspapers. We took the Statesman. We took the Austin Sun. We took something specific to the Legislature and local politics, the name of which I have forgotten. We may have received one of the Dallas or Houston papers in the afternoon."

He picked up the habit early and stuck with it.

"When I was in college, I spent the Monday through Friday mornings of the week of the Texas-OU game rounding up copies of the Statesman, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Daily Texan to ensure I didn't miss even the tiniest nugget of coverage," Keever wrote. "I continue to read the Statesman because I think it provides an honest window on the world. ... I can trust the content and I believe the reporters are concerned with the truth."

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While at least one woman has written to me during the past year to say how disappointed she was that the Statesman did not, when she was young, allow girls to be carriers, men tend to see that early morning ritual through the haze of youthful memories.

"I became a paperboy for the Statesman at 11 years old in 1971 and threw papers through high school,"  David Lundstet wrote. "Back then the paper cost $2.99 per month, and I went collecting through Brentwood with a sack of pennies. I started out on my bicycle and my dad would drive me every Sunday. My favorite memories of him are the coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts after we finished.

"I was able to buy two cars doing that route, and it instilled a work ethic in me that I would later use during my 28-year career with the Austin Fire Department. Although I am digital now, I still have fond memories of folding papers, securing them with a rubber band and carefully delivering them to my neighbors."

In 1924, the American-Statesman was headquartered at the southwest corner of Brazos and East Seventh streets. The Driskill Hotel looms behind the newspaper offices.

Wanting opinions, left and right

Few sections of the newspaper churn up more emotions than the editorial page. Nevertheless, a fair portion of readers like its mix of political opinions.

"I turn first to the Letters to the Editor because I like reading what my fellow Austinites think about the issues of the day," James Tracy wrote. "Then I read the editorial columns. Enjoy especially Dana Milbank and Leonard Pitts. I know I'll learn something while being entertained."

"I love my Statesman for its expression of all points of view," Peter Brown said. "I look forward to starting each day with your valuable reporting and clear thinking. I appreciate, too, your cutting through the tough talk we often hear from our state's government by balancing it with our more normal baselines of lucidity and freedom. Thank you!"

"I have always enjoyed the editorial section of the paper and particularly like the 'right' and 'left' commentaries," John T. Wende wrote. "I have heard it said that the Austin paper leans far too much toward one side of the political spectrum, but you'll always print both the 'right' and 'left' point of view. That's called 'balanced.’”

From an early age, Shannon FitzPatrick figured out how to interpret the disparate news elements for herself.

"I learned to look critically at the paper and observed that newspapers in other nearby areas tended to lean on sensationalism, rather than an unbiased look at what was going on in the area as well as the state and nation," she wrote. "I began to subscribe myself as an adult to keep up with the world around me. The journalism has been professional and with writers like Ken Herman and guest columns by writers like Leonard Pitts and Molly Ivins, I have been consistently enlightened, entertained and inspired."

"I’ve been subscribing to the Statesman since I moved to Austin in 1985," Rona Distenfeld wrote. "It’s helped me learn about and connect with my community, and kept me informed about issues statewide. There has been humor from John Kelso and Ken Herman and tenacious coverage of law enforcement and politicians. A good balance, presented evenhandedly, and with a minimum of typos and grammatical errors. Keep it up."

The Statesman puts our city and its culture into context

As important as breaking news, political reports and opinions, sports, and business stories are, readers tend to cherish the way the Statesman interprets the city's culture on a daily basis. 

"My wife and I were just talking about this very subject recently," Tip Giles wrote. "As Austin residents since 1979, we have been faithful Statesman subscribers all the years. We have seen the paper change in many ways, but it always had a familiar feel. 

"I guess the readings we enjoy are the ones written by reporters from our own city. Back in the day, John Kelso — we were actually subjects of two of his columns — Mike Kelly, Kitty Crider and others like yourself gave us reason to read. 'Home Town Feel' is something that gives people comfort — reading about your own city by one of its own gives identity. So, keep up what you are doing!"

After moving here in 1994, Bob Knaus and his family felt the paper was a great way to get to know Texas.

"Columnists Mike Leggett and Ken Herman and others taught us what’s behind the news," Knaus said. "I also like the coverage of high school sports, even though I’m from the Northeast. I tell my friends about the Hutto Hippos and the results from the small towns with great names — Palestine, Dime Box. It is evident that the staff of the Statesman really cares about Austin and what goes on here — good and bad. I’m an online subscriber and it’s the first thing I open each morning."

Now a digital subscriber as well, Lalitha Krishnan feels that reading the Statesman is a must for her and her husband.

"From Lifestyle columns to cooking ... to reading about the music scene, movie reviews, your history articles, the Statesman has been a part of our lives since we moved to Austin over 20 years ago," she said. "We read the Statesman even on vacations abroad and anywhere in the USA. My husband cannot start his day without reading the Statesman. So thank you and your fellow columnists for doing an amazing job and for keeping this paper alive. Looking forward to several more years of happy reading."

Chad Simpson likes the Statesman for multiple reasons, and he receives the physical paper every day of the week.

"I generally appreciate and trust the talented reporters of the Statesman, especially when it comes to their work shining a spotlight on the antics of less trustworthy elected officials," Simpson wrote. "I also want to add that, as a sport fanatic, I find value and greatly appreciate Golden, Bohls, Davis and others who inform me through their stories and cause me to think more deeply through their reporting and opinions on local, regional and national sports. ... I’m happy to continue to have Scott Burns be a part of my Sunday mornings. I also want to toss in some appreciation for Peter Blackstock and Deborah Sengupta for helping to keep me in the loop on the music scene in Austin."

Please keep investigating

This newspaper's renewed and intense focus on investigative reporting, which, historically speaking, was not a priority during its first 100 or so years, has been noticed.

"The Statesman's extensive reporting on Javier Ambler's 2019 death was crucial to my understanding of both institutional racism and the dangers of allowing TV shows to film police officers as they're pursuing and detaining individuals," Robin McMillion wrote. "I wonder if Ambler would be alive today if 'Live PD' had not been filming that night. Until the Ambler story broke, I had thought very little about 'Live PD' and similar shows. I'd also assumed that most racism in American institutions was due to 'bad apples.' The Statesman's coverage, plus the extensive coverage of George Floyd's murder, has made me better able to understand what's going on in the country."

Newspapers can help directly

A good number or readers testified to their productive engagement with newspaper reporters, editors and photographers.

"Years ago I was the tennis coach at Bowie High School, and I frequently called the sports desk to report tennis results," John T. Wende wrote. "Even though it was a painstaking procedure, the sports reporters took all my information and reported all the scores in the newspaper. Doesn't sound like much of a big deal, but some of those kids who played tennis had never received public recognition for their efforts, and seeing their name in the newspaper was a really, really big deal."

Wende also relayed a detailed account about how he and other crossword puzzle fans successfully lobbied to keep two puzzles — one hard, one not so much — in ongoing circulation.

"The photography is often amazing," Shannon FitzPatrick wrote. "I miss the paper format, but I do appreciate the ability to email articles to friends and colleagues and quickly look up previous editions. Keep the local reporting with professional journalists — it makes the Statesman great!"

One of the Statesman's most faithful readers — and correspondents — Fannie Cavasos Hewgley has been engaging with the staff for 56 years.

"I moved to Austin from Alice, Texas, in 1963 when I was 23," Cavasos Hewgley wrote. "I went to work for IRS and became a subscriber soon after. In the ensuing years, as the Statesman moved several times, I worked for Parisian Paytons, Lydia, Boyd, Starr and Wilson CPAs, the Public Utility Commission and finally the Texas Education Agency Legal Office. I was married, widowed, remarried and had different names and addresses. But what never changed was my subscription and addiction to the American-Statesman, culminating with my working relationship with the hardworking reporters who were engaged in investigative reporting.

"I have been retired since 1997, and during the 56 years I have been a subscriber, the American-Statesman remains my one great source of information. And though rarely touted, I have the best home delivery professional ever!"

Having fun with the newspaper

Again, I received plenty of complaints, too, some of them fresh and helpful, some folded into complimentary comments. Then again, certain readers clearly had fun writing to me about the paper.

"Let’s face it, you’re just too big," Dennis Caruso wrote. "It’s hard to manage you every morning on the kitchen table. We take up so much space that my partner complains I’m taking up her area and mine too. So if you could go on a diet and shrink just a little so I can better manage your size I would greatly appreciate it, and so would my partner."

"Truthfully, I like the entire newspaper for in-depth coverage that TV news condenses," Darrell Champeau wrote, "or doesn't cover at all. I clip and mail some articles to family in Wisconsin. Then I wrap my garbage in some of it and toss it out in my garbage can. Save most of it to recycle." 

"Not to sound too dramatic," Chad Simpson wrote without irony, "but I believe the Austin American-Statesman does contribute to the better parts of my life."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

More about the Statesman's history

We began publishing articles of the newspaper's past a year ago, and we will continue to do so.

Born to shine a light on Austin 

The Statesman’s most loyal subscriber 

Inside the Statesman’s very first edition 

Denouncing the views of our founders 

We found images of 13 newspaper homes 

Austin’s newspaper began to grow up 

The Statesman goes to war 

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