Met Memories

Sure, this column is full of cuss words and self-indulgence. So was my old paper.

Throughout the rest of 1993, we would meet at the place Stagen had designated as our new offices: a horrific office space above the Green Elephant Bar and Grill, half a mile from SMU. At the bar, Stagen would conduct his highly scientific surveys about what Dallas readers wanted in an alternative to an alternative weekly. I would suggest story ideas or section titles, and he would ask the wait staff at the Elephant if they liked my suggestion. If they didn't, it was vetoed. At the time I was upset, but now I realize how well it prepared me for the journalism-by-focus-group approach that I would later encounter at daily newspapers.

Although he didn't know exactly what the final paper would look like, Stagen knew the office environment he wanted to create. "Dude, we're gonna have beanbags. When you come in to the lobby, there will be beanbags and a juicer. If you want fresh juice, bam, throw in some carrots." He was starting to worry me...and I him, because the waitress with the pierced tongue had better suggestions for editorial content than I did.

In early 1994, we finally raised our seed money of $250,000, having done so through a long and arduous process that cannot be fully explained in this limited space (read: we begged and whored ourselves like junkies). We had a sales staff of three young women, an edit staff of three (myself, college friend and suburban newspaperman Joe Guinto as managing editor, and UNT alum Kelly Kitchens as calendar editor), and a college student/art director, Chad Tomlinson, who had helped do graphic art design for the Observer. Our coup: Most people made $18K to $21K. I was the salary heavyweight at $28K. We hired John Lewis, onetime film critic for the Observer, as our lead critic for $40 a review. Our biggest problem: Two weeks before our debut, we had no stories, a few borrowed computers, and we were already running out of money.

The crew, year two: row one: moi; row two, left to right: Joe Guinto, Marina Isola (now at Architectural Digest), Keven McAlester, Joy Dickinson; row three: Tim Rogers, Scott Kelton Jones, Chris Shull, Gregory Kallenberg, some dude, Kim Harwell.
The crew, year two: row one: moi; row two, left to right: Joe Guinto, Marina Isola (now at Architectural Digest), Keven McAlester, Joy Dickinson; row three: Tim Rogers, Scott Kelton Jones, Chris Shull, Gregory Kallenberg, some dude, Kim Harwell.

None of which seemed to matter when I considered our publisher's off-the-cuff summation of what this paper should be: "Dude, we're gonna be the paper for people who don't read."

Me and the self-congratulatory part of this story

The publisher and the editor were holding each other in the parking lot of the Dallas Museum of Art, scared and weeping, waiting for the debut issues to arrive. The launch party was ridiculously packed--people in expensive cars just kept arriving, crowding into the front room, waiting to see the first issue of the upstart Met. Since said upstart had gotten to the printer 24 hours late, we doubted they would.

Hours into the party, a truck came barreling into the parking lot, stopping just short of the DMA's front entrance. It carried half of its Met payload. The other half had come flying out on the Dallas North Tollway, and radio reports suggested that southbound motorists were considerably upset about it.

Inside, an editor and the publisher's mother were hidden in a back room, furiously gluing poster-sized pages of the first issue onto corkboards so the patrons at this swanky affair could easily see the typos. We didn't care. We'd been awake for 48 hours; we just wanted everyone to see the fruits of our labor. Instead, they saw our need for a copy editor.

I strolled up to my oversize editor's note, which I didn't even remember writing, and read it for what seemed like the first time.

"For me, there was no epiphany...I'm sure our publisher and salespeople would say Dallas needs this...but we're not saving Dallas here. I do have some modest goals--find good writers; run stories for no other reason than they make me laugh...but I hope we never consider ourselves 'vital' to Dallas. That attitude, common in the media, is exactly what we're trying to avoid. Above all, we just want to entertain and inform our readers."

Made sense. The old political game: lower expectations, surprise them when you do your job well. What it didn't say is that during the next few years the paper's goal would evolve into something at once more grand and juvenile: Let's always surprise them, we said, with great reads, perceptive arts criticism, dumb-ass fart jokes, and everything in between. It came to be considered a truism that a cover story could be approved if it met one of five criteria: a) it made us laugh ; b) it featured gratuitous profanity or sexual content; c) it was unbelievably, over-the-top, sickeningly self-indulgent; d) it had solid literary or journalistic merit; e) a writer we trusted said, "Trust me."

With such varied guidelines, we were able to cover any and all stories. We were, I think, consistently more interested in humor, high and low, than any weekly newspaper in the country. We had a full-time humor columnist from day one; the staff of The Onion wrote a cover story for us before you ever heard of the paper. In the "sell-out issue," we paid homage to a great idea (each and every story was sponsored, as was the cover) first done by the late, great national magazine Might. Its founding editor, Dave Eggers--currently the hottest thing in the national literary scene because of his debut book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius--cowrote a comic strip for The Met that ran for several months, first as a Dallas-only version of "Smart Feller" and later as "Cindy!" For no other reason than we thought that "monkey" was the funniest word in the English language, we created "the monkey issue," in which we made hundreds of gratuitous references to the primates.

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