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."
John Carroll, who remains as publisher under the new owners, continues to sift through the events of the past year, lamenting Washburne's decision to pull out. "It takes anybody three years to make money on a magazine. The fourth year, if you're lucky, you might break even.
"If Ray would have just given it the time it takes, we could have made it."
Given the tough market and the magazine's content, that contention is open to debate. But it is clear that Washburne's quick decision to pull the plug--to do precisely what he promised he would not--kept Texas Business from having a prayer.
Today, Washburne acts surprised that the start-up was costing as much as it did--as though he had no control over the expense, no burden to determine what launching a magazine costs. He acts even more surprised at the bitterness his pullout produced--as though those he persuaded to leave other jobs with a promise to invest $2 million of his own money had no just cause to feel angry that he didn't.
After agreeing to talk about himself and his magazine, Ray Washburne is sitting on a vinyl bench inside his seventh Mi Cocina restaurant, which he and three partners will open in the West End come mid-February. It's a frigid January day, but the blasts of icy wind are no deterrent to the bustling lunchtime crowds outside.
As he talks, Washburne has his eyes set on the sidewalk out front, tracking the sea of people moving past his unfinished restaurant. You get the sense he sees a line of $100 bills parading past his locked business and into competing restaurants.
A missed opportunity.
"I'm an entrepreneur," he shrugs, when asked why, really, Texas Business tanked. "I go into very high-risk ventures. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't," he says. "If there's one thing I've learned by doing business in Dallas, it's when a window shuts on one opportunity, another window opens."
That's true enough for Washburne, the beneficiary of a trust fund, a business-savvy family, and that unquenchable confidence a Park Cities upbringing helps produce. Washburne, in fact, has already moved on. He is free of the financial trap the magazine had become--its failure to turn a quick profit, to become a grown-up version of The Aardvark.
The central irony of the Texas Business story is lost on him: that the very elements which produced the Texas business failures of journalistic legend--arrogance, ego, blind ambition, naivete--drove his own magazine into the ground.
Ultimately, Texas Business became a case study in how not to run a business.
"Ray grew into a very tall and handsome guy, but he was really kind of a geeky kid," says Reid Slaughter, who grew up in the same University Park neighborhood as the Washburnes. "He's always been a kind of wannabe." Slaughter, former publisher of the breezy Park Cities People, served as general manager of Washburne's media holdings, as well as publisher of Jackpot! and a minority investor in The Met.
The Washburnes trace their roots back to a wealthy 19th-century Chicago banking family. Ray's great-great-grandfather was Elihu B. Washburne, a Republican U.S. congressman from Chicago, powerful Civil War-era political operative, and friend of Abraham Lincoln. While serving as president, Lincoln in early 1863 unsuccessfully campaigned for Washburne's selection as speaker of the House.
Much of the family fortune was lost two generations later in the Great Depression but built back up again in the second half of the century, says Mattie Caldwell, a former Dallas debutante steeped in Washburne family history by way of her four-year marriage to Ray. The two were divorced last May. "The fortune seems to cycle by generation," Caldwell says. "I think Ray sees himself as the next Washburne fortune builder, but his older brothers are doing fine for themselves."
Ray is the fifth of six children born to Mary and Elihu (Hugh) Washburne. His oldest brother, Dick, heads Richards Capital Corp., headquartered in a Preston Center office tower in North Dallas. The company buys receivables at a discount from businesses experiencing cash-flow problems--often manufacturing firms, clothing retailers, and small publishing businesses. Richards recovers a company's money for a tidy fee, and is regarded as one of the more successful of Dallas' numerous such firms.
Dick Washburne, widely described as the avuncular, hardworking power of the family, also manages Ray's family trust, according to Ray's 1995 divorce file, and is known to keep a tight rein on the money. He did not return phone calls for this story.
The depth of Ray Washburne's pockets would become an issue as Texas Business needed more and more cash to cover its losses. Did he not have it, or would he not spend it? Ray will not discuss how much money is in his trust fund or how much, if any, he can get his hands on. "That's a private matter," he says sharply.
Ray keeps his own office in the same suite as his brother. Ray's is sleekly decorated, with Washburne's private collection of paintings from the Dallas Nine, a regional artists' colony which, during the Work Projects Administration era, helped document the Depression. One of Washburne's Dallas Nine paintings, "Magnolia," by Florence E. McClung, is on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art.
Washburne graduated from Highland Park High School in 1979, and went on to Southern Methodist University. He majored in history and graduated in 1984. "I worked my way through college," he says emphatically.
Well, sort of. Washburne did indeed work, though it was hardly necessary to cover the tuition. Washburne's jobs were a series of entrepreneurial endeavors. He sold carpeting and rented small refrigerators to dorm residents, and he rented Coke machines to apartment buildings throughout the Park Cities. "Ray used to have cases and cases of Coke stacked up in the family garage," recalls ex-wife Caldwell. "His mother used to drive him around in her station wagon, and he filled the machines."
Washburne earned his commercial real-estate license by age 19, and soon fashioned himself a master in the art of the deal. While he would later let others cover his obligations, he made clear early on that he would seek, with the tenacity of a Rottweiler, redress for even a relatively modest sum owed to him.
On May 6, 1981, according to court documents, Washburne, then 20, agreed to loan two Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers, David Wayne Schmidt and Bruce Busse Lawson, $10,000 to invest in a Pennsylvania real-estate deal. Schmidt and Lawson signed a promissory note pledging to repay Washburne $12,000 exactly 30 days later. The time passed, but the frat brothers never paid.
Washburne pursued them for nine years, long after he had launched a successful real-estate career involving millions. Finally, in 1989, he sued, asking a state judge for the full principal plus $11,191 in interest. Schmidt and Lawson fought the suit on the grounds that Washburne was charging a usurious interest rate.
In a deposition, Washburne explained that Schmidt and Lawson had first approached him in March of 1981, inviting him to make a short-term investment of $500 in a company called Realty General Associates Ltd; other college students, they said, were making large returns on their investments. Washburne said in his deposition that the two promised him he would get $600 back within 30 days. Washburne invested and he indeed made his investment back, plus a $100 profit.
His fraternity brothers' failure to repay the $10,000 investment--the funds for which he borrowed from a bank at 20 percent interest--forced him to "risk everything I had, including my plans for completing my college education," he said in court documents.
Lawson responded to the suit with a letter to Washburne's lawyer explaining that, after the investment failed, "David [Schmidt] and I did not receive anything in return except this continued harassment by Ray, with whom we entered into this matter in the spirit of fraternal brotherhood. Thus our shock that Ray chooses to go outside that brotherhood to dun us for funds which he well knows we really do not owe him."
The suit was dismissed on August 20, 1990, after the parties reached a confidential settlement. Washburne, by then barely 30, was making decent money, having worked six years for Dallas contracting giant Austin Industries.
Through his contacts there, and with the aid of his solid family reputation, Washburne rubbed shoulders with members of some of Texas' shiniest old-money families, including Lamar and Clark Hunt and Ken Murchison. He shared in the glory of the '80s real-estate boom, rehabbing several Oak Lawn and Highland Park luxury townhouses. There was more new money to tap into as well; Washburne eventually bought small pieces of Phil's Natural Grocery; The Bone and The Terminal, two Deep Ellum clubs; and massive tracts of undeveloped land in Carrollton, Flower Mound, Hurst, and Bedford.
On June 29, 1991, Washburne married Hockaday School graduate and Dallas debutante Mattie Caldwell. They helped raise funds for SMU and trained together for marathons. They appeared intermittently in Alan Peppard's Morning News society column and bought a 6,000-square-foot stucco home on Highland Park's Overhill Road, appraised in 1995 at $859,000. "It was a showcase home, really lavish," says Washburne associate Slaughter. "It was just the two of them, rattling around in this huge house."
Shortly after their marriage, Caldwell decided she wanted to take up motorcycle riding. She bought a 1991 Harley-Davidson Low Rider. "I did it much to Ray's great consternation," Caldwell says. "He thought it was unseemly. He would have preferred I ask his permission."
One night, she says, she rode the Harley, with Ray on back, to a party. "People there started teasing him, saying he was 'riding bitch' on his wife's bike. A few days later he went out and bought the most expensive Harley he could find, a Softail, for about $17,000.
"Ray can be impulsive," Caldwell says. "He's really just a kid in an Hermes tie."
With its clean black, white, and gold decor and midpriced menu, Mi Cocina's debut at Preston Forest Shopping Center was an instant hit.
Today, the chain (Washburne disdains the "McRestaurant" connotation of that word, prefering to call it a "collection") includes seven locations and 250 employees. Washburne shares ownership of Mi Cocina Inc. with Michael "Mico" Rodriguez, his brother Dick, and longtime SMU chum Bob McNutt, whose family owns the famous fruitcake-producing Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana. Mi Cocina Inc. is privately held, and neither Washburne nor Rodriguez will discuss its worth.
Expanding the restaurant business, especially choosing smart locations, appears to be Washburne's forte.
The Preston Forest area was virtually a restaurant desert when Mi Cocina opened in June 1991. Rodriguez had abruptly left his mother's popular Oak Lawn Tex-Mex restaurant, Mia's, to join up with Washburne. The ensuing family rift between Mico and parents Butch and Ana Enriquez was fiery and well-publicized. The family, Rodriguez says, began to mend fences only last year.
"I really didn't know Mico's parents; I was backing their son," Washburne says. "There was a lot of anger there, but really, Mia's is very small, and our restaurant was so far away, and we were a different concept altogether. I don't think there was much competition for customers."
Rodriguez, a round man in a black nylon wind suit, bulky white socks and woven leather loafers, is a portrait in contrast to Washburne's lankiness. Washburne, dressed in a rich charcoal-gray suit and pinstriped shirt, his eyes deep hazel pools, still has the boyish good looks of the kid who peddled papers 25 years ago.
Rodriguez and his wife, Caroline, are overseeing the remodeling of the West End Mi Cocina site. "It's a very spiritual thing that happens when you open a restaurant," he says. "Right now I'm bonding with this restaurant."
Washburne, stressing that he only provides financial muscle, says he steers clear of the culinary and design sides of the business.
"Ray," Rodriguez says, "is extremely enthusiastic, an idea person. The ideas are always coming to him. We have a great relationship. I feel like knowing the Washburne brothers has really opened doors for me."
Like many other Mexican places, Mi Cocina features dishes named after favorite friends and relatives of the owners. A plate of cheese enchilada, pork tamale, and beef taco, for example, is the "El Ray." It's a simple and popular selection, Rodriguez says.
"We thought about naming a dish after my brother," Washburne chimes in, chuckling, "but 'The Dick' just didn't sound very good."
By most accounts--especially his own--Washburne never pretended to know a lick about journalism or publishing when he bought three publications last year. "I'm an entrepreneur," he says, again. "I back people. I was new to publishing, so I got the best people I could to manage for me and relied on them to lead me through."
Washburne's lexicon is peppered with such "one-minute manager" buzz phrases. He will tell you, repeatedly, that he looks for "opportunities," "backs people," and is, above all, an "entrepreneur." Texas Business and The Met aren't so much a magazine and a newspaper as they are "products." The name Texas Business, he says, has "great franchise value."
The franchise players Washburne backed at Texas Business last year were John Carroll and Tracy Staton. Washburne hired Carroll, 38, and Staton, 29, as publisher and editor, respectively. Both had held the same positions at the weekly Dallas Business Journal. Carroll had also been part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news in 1981 for the Kansas City Star. Staton, who grew up in South Texas, had a reputation for thorough editing and scrappy business stories in her six years at the paper.
Their exit from the Journal was ugly. Charging Carroll with breach of contract and accusing him of stealing key files and other intellectual property, American City Business Journals Inc., the tabloid's Charlotte, North Carolina, parent company, sued Carroll last year in district court. The suit is still active; Carroll has answered the complaint with a general denial.
Staton would not be quoted for this story, citing "non-compete" and "protection of intellectual property" clauses in a contract she has with Washburne. Such contracts are common in the broadcasting industry, but virtually unheard of in print journalism. Washburne confirms the existence of the contract, but refuses to comment on it.
It is unclear exactly how much money Washburne had to start up the magazine. Reid Slaughter, who sat in on several early planning meetings, says Washburne repeatedly vowed to put in $2 million of his own money; others on the magazine's editorial side say he made that same commitment to them and also pledged to back the project for two years.
Today, Washburne says, "I thought we could do it for about a million." He quickly adds that he didn't know that at the time. "Last year a lot of figures were thrown around, but I never put anything in writing as far as a commitment."
Shortly after he announced his plan to revive Texas Business, Washburne barnstormed the state, pitching a limited partnership to business contacts. "Ray flew around the state saying, 'I don't need your money, I just need your reputation,'" says a source familiar with the start-up period, "but he got what he wanted. Ray was able to get 25 people to buy in."
The partners included Houston's Paul Hobby, of the political and publishing family; Greg Marchbanks, president of Prime Management, an Austin cable company; Randall Goss, CEO of U.S. Risk Inc., a Dallas insurance firm; Stan Keith, former CEO of CompUSA; and longtime Park Cities friends Milledge Hart and Craig Kennington.
For the next four months, it seemed as if Washburne's wallet was bottomless. Carroll hired 11 more editorial employees and seven advertising staffers. Washburne leased 30 Macintosh computers and office space in the West End's White Swan building. The staff sped toward a June magazine debut.
"We probably should have started at a walk, but we took off in a dead sprint," says Washburne. He blames his lack of prudence on his excitement about the staff. "Everybody just lived the magazine," Washburne says.
On the eve of the first issue, Washburne strutted his plans past The Dallas Morning News. "I'm spending a tremendous amount of money on technology so we can be cutting-edge," he said. His next statement would prove ironic: "I'm looking at this as a long run, not a sprint where we'll print five or six issues."
In truth, Washburne was financing major purchases like a small-timer. Staff members stood in wonder when he tried to charge a $12,000 computer system on his VISA card and the bank denied authorization because the purchase would have put him over his $10,000 limit.
"The reason he wanted to charge it was for the [American Airlines] AAdvantage miles," says Philip Chalk, former art director at Texas Business. "He was trying to finance the magazine on a credit card, and it was over the limit. We couldn't believe it."
Washburne doesn't deny he wanted the air-travel perks, or that he charged the computer. "There's nothing sinister about it. When I found out I was over my limit, I called the bank and got my limit raised. It wasn't a problem."
Spending never seemed a problem because Washburne and Carroll, working in tandem as owner and publisher, set wildly errant projections for advertising sales, Slaughter says. A March 12 budget sheet projected $232,000 in ad sales for June 1995, the first month of publication. Actual ad revenues were $120,000. In October, projections were set at $243,000; actual revenues came in at $87,000. Each month, Carroll set sales projections well over $200,000; real sales never even reached half that.
Carroll blames the unrealistic projections on Washburne--who, in turn, blames them on Carroll.
According to Slaughter, who says Washburne disregarded his advice about Texas Business: "Ray just had no idea what it took to sell ads. He would sit in these meetings and talk like the budget was endless, and of course the only way they could spend money was to make it. But they weren't making it."
Washburne never commissioned any market surveys to test the climate for readers and advertisers, and a business plan--the backbone of any new business--was practically an afterthought at Texas Business. "That was my mistake," Washburne admits, ruefully. "John and Tracy were so anxious to leave the Business Journal and get started. We had a plan, but I should have had a more complete business plan."
Everything plunged forward as scheduled. In the magazine's first issue, the editorial staff appeared in a sepia-toned photo, posed in front of an old linotype press and beaming like kids with a new bucket of Legos. In her editor's note, Staton boasted of the magazine's whirlwind start-up and frenetic news-gathering pace: "We'll cover all of Texas industry--infant industries and established ones, old companies and new, from huge corporations to small companies."
Had staff members checked Washburne's divorce file, they might have asked more questions about their own Texas company. Records of the May 25 divorce reveal the complexity of his finances. They offer no indication of his net worth, but do show his liabilities at the time: $15.4 million, including $622,000 on his Highland Park home mortgage, $1.5 million to Hunt Financial for a Las Colinas property deal, and more than $10 million in Bank One loans for various real-estate projects; his MasterCard--it presumably had a higher limit than the VISA--was at $22,000. The court also ordered Washburne to pay Caldwell $505,000 for unappreciated equity in community property awarded to Washburne.
They kept their own Harleys.
Texas Business, still in its infancy, began to struggle in September, after three straight months of expenses quadrupling revenues.
Circulation was limping along as well. Between June and August, the magazine printed 100,000 copies a month. In September, Carroll cut back to 75,000.
But in October, according to a memorandum the managers created for potential investors, the magazine had just 9,000 paid subscriptions. At their peak, newsstand sales reached 20,000 a month. The remaining 45,000 issues were complimentary--distributed free to business executives and potential advertisers.
It was finally dawning on Washburne that everyone who had any experience with a monthly magazine was right. Shortly after he bought the magazine, many predicted a venture like his would take $3 million to $4 million. He never expected anything close to that. "The start-up costs were just one hell of a lot more than I expected," Washburne says today. "If I knew then it was going to take $4 million, I wouldn't have done it."
Washburne says he and his fellow investors poured about $1.5 million into the magazine.
He declined to say how much of that came from his own pocket, but Texas Business insiders put that figure at less than $1 million.
By late September, staff members say, Washburne was giving the magazine three weeks to survive. Life in the White Swan office was in shambles. Free-lancers weren't getting paid. Staff paychecks, including Dave Scott's, bounced. "I thought it was a joke, but it became very real," Scott says. "People weren't getting paid."
Staffers developed a system for cashing their checks--they called them "Raychecks"--at Washburne's Bank One branch in Preston Center. If they went to the drive-through window instead of the lobby, the checks usually cleared, though no one knows exactly why, Scott says. "We were just glad to get our money."
By October, it must have grown painfully clear to Washburne that publishing Texas Business was hardly like putting out a neighborhood newspaper. He began a fevered quest to unload the magazine.
While he mined his own financial sources, he also authorized Carroll and Staton to search out investors on their own. They quickly assembled a prospectus--pockmarked with spelling errors and typos--"and we went on a whirlwind tour to get investors," says former art director Chalk.
In their pitch, the seven top managers offered to forgo more than $150,000 in annual salaries in exchange for stock in a new company. The investors never came.
Hope arrived in early November in the form of Dallas insurance executive Randall Goss, who reportedly provided $180,000 to cover payroll, printing, and other costs. Two weeks later, Washburne assembled the staff for a 7:30 a.m. meeting. Goss was prepared to buy the magazine, he said, and wanted to meet and mix with the staff.
Neither Washburne nor Goss was prepared for what came next.
Washburne introduced Goss by explaining that despite his best efforts to front the magazine, he could do no more. As the group stood, hushed, Staton suddenly challenged Washburne: "That's not true, Ray."
Seconds later, Goss stepped forward to speak. "I asked if anyone in the room might have any trouble continuing to work with Ray," Goss says, recalling the day. "Tracy raised her hand." Chalk followed.
One former staff member recalls that Washburne slipped around the corner to avoid a clash with Staton: "Ray was never good at handling confrontation."
It was a watershed moment for Goss. "Before that meeting, I thought it was one big happy family," he says. "Ray had left me with the impression that everyone had their sleeves rolled up, working shoulder to shoulder to make this thing work. It was suddenly obvious that the whole scenario at Texas Business--the financial situation, staff morale, projections for ad sales--was completely different than what I thought it would be."
That day burns in Washburne's memory. Recalling the insurrection, he smirks: "Tracy may have thought she was doing something noble, but she shot the savior."
There was no love lost on Staton's part, either. Less than a week later, after Goss had backed out of the deal, Carroll laid off 15 of the 22 staff members as a last-ditch cost-cutting effort. Washburne continued to scout for a major investor or buyer. Staton--whose contract supposedly barred her from discussing magazine business--told the Morning News, "The key thing in all of this is that the problem we had was not with the magazine or with what we were doing here. The chief problem is our ownership and our ownership's inability to meet the commitment he initially made when he hired me."
Finally, in early December, Daniel Collins, the 33-year-old president and publisher of Fort Worth-based Harvest Media, stepped forward to buy the magazine. Harvest was clearly a dark horse among potential buyers; the small, privately held firm made its reputation by publishing quick-hit pictorials of Mickey Mantle and murdered Tejano singer Selena.
Collins became president of Texas Business and Goss became a major investor. Washburne, says Harvest spokesman John Hawkins, was to "retain some equity in the magazine with no day-to-day responsibilities." Collins has vowed to make good on all outstanding invoices.
The January-February 1996 issue of Texas Business was printed January 26, after missing its first distribution date of January 12. It did not arrive on newsstands until early February. Rick Scott, the CEO of Texas-based Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. and a frequent business-magazine subject, is on the cover, beneath the headline "High Stakes Health Care."
Tracy Staton and Philip Chalk now share donated office space on the 26th floor of downtown's Renaissance Tower. They have established the Texas Writers' Bureau, a loosely knit clearinghouse, to match free-lance writers with editorial projects. Their office has a commanding view of the West End.
Former writer Dave Scott is considering joining the bureau, as is former managing editor Kathy Thacker.
Texas Business' former copy editor, Bill Robinson, is suing Washburne in small-claims court for $1,500 he says he never received. Washburne has filed a denial of the claim. New owner Harvest Media has not made good on the invoice, Robinson says.
Bitter staff members place the blame for the death of their dream magazine squarely on Washburne's shoulders, but their own naivete is also puzzling. Seasoned journalists all, they say they took Washburne at his word, believed his bravado, and got swept away. They admit now they could have done more checking on Washburne's finances, or pondered his dearth of publishing experience a little harder. But they had this dream.
"We believed in the magazine. We pulled all-nighters all the time," says Chalk, sounding like a wide-eyed college student.
"Editorially, we were well on our way to success," Chalk adds.
That is an insider's wistful account. The content of Texas Business during its resurrection under Washburne was predictable and often timid. Its graphic design was tidy, but uninspired. Personality profiles on subjects such as Jerry Jones doing it his way, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock finessing the partisan State Senate, and "power couples" who make their marriages work broke no ground. There were a few bright spots--Scott's in-depth look at the greed-driven players who have hobbled horse-racing in Texas and "The Outsider," a monthly column with musings on Texas by national personalities, including Oliver North and Camille Paglia--but Texas Business, at best, was clearly a work in progress.
Some, of course, are less generous. "This was a magazine that deserved to die," says Texas Monthly publisher Levy. "There was never any reason to bring it back. What every magazine does is compete for people's time, something people don't have a lot of. You gotta be real goddamn good. From what I saw, Texas Business just wasn't offering anything a dozen other sources didn't have already. They were wasting people's time."
Ray Washburne, in characteristic free-market fashion, has moved on. "Was it only last fall I was going through all this?" he asks during a recent interview. "God, it seems like a year ago." Not one to tarry, Washburne has formed a new publishing venture, a limited partnership called Meridian Press, to build home-page sites on the World Wide Web.
It's a highly competitive market already riddled with failures. "Sure, it's high risk, but high reward," Washburne says. "That's what I do."
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One week after sitting down for a two-hour interview, Washburne calls from his car phone. "I guess you talked to everyone," he says. "I know how they feel about me. Frankly, I'm a little perplexed at all this animosity toward me. Companies open and close every day. Everybody involved knew the risk.
"Just what are people saying about me?" he asks. "None of them really know me, you know."
During the 20-minute conversation that ensues, four other calls click onto the line. "Can you hold a minute?" he asks with each interruption. "I have to take this."
Sure, no problem. After all, a guy never knows when another window of opportunity might open.