By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Picture a gangly 10-year-old kid--his brown hair tousled, his face dusted with freckles, and looking more than a little like Beaver Cleaver--walking the azalea-lined streets of Highland Park, hawking his own newspaper.
He writes the stories and sells the ads, mostly to Highland Park Village merchants thoroughly charmed by the kid's chutzpa. He runs the business from small quarters attached to his parents' University Park garage. His dad covers the printing by Xeroxing copies at his office. The paper costs 10 cents a pop.
That was 1970. The prepubescent publisher was Ray Willets Washburne. He called his paper The Aardvark. He had 200 subscribers, and for a couple of years, he says, "it was a ton of fun."
But when it stopped being fun, when it got a little old, a little boring, Washburne decided to unload The Aardvark. He says he sold the paper to another kid in the neighborhood--for $500.
That is how Washburne, a 35-year-old Dallas real-estate developer and restaurant investor, says he got his start--as well as his inspiration--for a splashy, head-first plunge into the grownup world of publishing. "I used to deliver the Dallas Times Herald, too," he adds, a quarter-century later. "I've always been interested in newspapers and magazines."
Thirteen months ago, with all the subtlety of a howitzer, Washburne began assembling a regional publishing empire. He resurrected Texas Business, a monthly magazine that had been dead for six years. One week later, he purchased The Met, a free arts and entertainment weekly that competes with the Observer. Five months after that, Washburne launched Jackpot!, a free monthly tabloid for gambling enthusiasts. He hired a childhood acquaintance, former Park Cities People publisher Reid Slaughter, to run his burgeoning media operation.
Texas Business was to be Washburne's flagship. But in an era when the magazine graveyard is littered with noble start-ups, he had chosen as his showpiece an expensive glossy specialty monthly. Experts scoffed. In addition to the state's daily-newspaper business sections, regional weeklies like the Dallas Business Journal and Fort Worth's Business Press, the Wall Street Journal's weekly "Texas Journal" section, and countless national business magazines such as Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week were already available to Texas readers of business news.
"What are these guys going to be providing that other guys aren't going to be covering? I don't get it," Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy told The Dallas Morning News at the time.
But Washburne, buoyed by his 75-percent ownership of Texas Business, a handful of blue-blooded private investors, and his long-ago inspirational experience with The Aardvark--pressed on, undeterred. Promising to pour $2 million of his own money into the start-up, reveling in the heady prospect of building an influential and lucrative statewide magazine from scratch, he hired a publisher, editor, and five others away from the competing Dallas Business Journal. He was in it for the long haul, he told The Dallas Morning News--not just five or six issues.
Former magazine staffers say they urged Washburne to proceed at a reasonable pace. After all, neither he nor anyone he'd hired had ever run a magazine. But Washburne, bursting with boyish enthusiasm, set a breakneck schedule of four months to launch the magazine.
And launch it they did.
When the first issue of Texas Business hit the newsstands in June 1995, the staff preened over its 104 pages and boasted of printing 100,000 copies. Austin computer Wunderkind Michael Dell beamed on the cover. The inside included a list of the "top 20 corporate relocation cities in Texas" and ambitious coverage of three "zones"--Dallas-Fort Worth, Central Texas, and Houston--each of which had its own bureau chief. Inside the back cover, filling a column titled "Outsider," windbag CNN talk-show host Larry King wrote a tribute to Texas, complete with plenty of logrolling for buddy Ross Perot.
It was all downhill from there.
In late August, Washburne entered into a "consulting and marketing" partnership with The Dallas Morning News to prop up The Met. In late September, he put Jackpot! on the block; it would later be sold.
At about that time, Washburne also began shopping Texas Business. His rapidly assembled empire was in comparably rapid decline.
During the next two months, a number of Texas Business checks bounced, while Washburne sought unsuccessfully to sell the magazine. On November 16, most of the staff received pink slips. The November Texas Business--the magazine's last issue--had fallen to 80 pages. The operation was losing $200,000 a month. The magazine's cumulative loss was approaching $2 million--far worse than Washburne's projections.
Publication was suspended, after just six issues--not exactly the "long haul" Washburne had promised.
Finally, on December 1, Harvest Media Inc., a small Fort Worth publishing company, bought the magazine for an undisclosed amount. Operating with a skeleton staff and a promise to undertake the dubious editorial mission of serving as a "pro-business voice in Texas," Harvest missed several deadlines before a lackluster "January-February" issue with an outdated masthead finally hit newsstands in early February.
Today, former Texas Business staffers find themselves unemployed or struggling to build free-lance writing careers. Their anger and resentment toward Washburne, who they believe lied about his commitment to the project, is palpable. "It surprises me that I'm so bitter about this, but after going through all this, I've learned you can't take people at their word," says Dave Scott, a former Texas Business writer. "He just bailed out on us, on everything."