Austin readers investigate the Molly Awards for the Texas Observer

We live in a golden age of investigative journalism.

Not just the renaissance of political reporting at the federal level. But in-depth articles and investigative packages cascading from newspapers such as the American-Statesman, as well as other local, regional and national media.

Jack Keyes and Syeda Hasan at the Molly Awards for the Texas Observer. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

THE LATEST: Texas day care operator’s lies exposed in child death trial.

The Molly Awards celebrate the some of the best work in this renewed civic era. At the same time, the semi-dressy affair at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin raises money for the nonprofit Texas Observer. Much of the attention every year goes to late namesake Molly Ivins, who edited the Observer before moving on to wider prominence at the New York TimesDallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, syndicated columns and brainy, brawling books on politics.

The fact that an unabashedly liberal publication gives out these awards obscures the fact that the winning stories show no clear partisan or ideological favoritism. Abuse of power is abuse of power.

The top prize, for instance, went to Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes (ProPublica/NPR/The New Yorker) for reporting on the exploitation and abuse of undocumented workers in the chicken industry.

Honorable mentions were accorded Seth Freed Wessler (The Investigative Fund, The New York Times Magazine) for exposing a “floating Guantánamos” system of extrajudicial detention of fishermen by the U.S. Coast Guard way outside the usual patrol zones; and Nina Martin, Renee Montagne, Adriana Gallardo, Annie Waldman and Katherine Ellison (ProPublica/NPR) for their “Lost Mothers” series on the death rates of pregnant women in the U.S.

Now, once ceremonial beer steins are distributed, it’s time for red meat. This year’s frank, funny and at times outrageous speaker was Joan Walsh, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a political contributor on CNN. She pulled no punches going after President Donald Trump and crew.

A nattily dressed young man in the elevator afterwards: “Oh, that was soooo nonpartisan!”

Me: “Agreed. But the awards really are. Corruption is corruption, no matter who commits it. Right?”

Alternative Austin social options during ACL

The second week of  ACL Music Festival doesn’t stand in the way of these other scintillating Austin social offerings.

Oct. 11: Waller Creek Conservancy Dinner and Concert featuring Oh Wonder with Jaymes Young. Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater.

Oct. 11: 4 x 4 for Nobelity Project. Gibson Guitar Austin Showroom.

Oct. 12: Gateway Awards for American Gateways. AFS Cinema.

Oct. 12: Touch the Stars Gala for Imagine a Way.
Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

Oct. 14: Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Luncheon for Travis Audubon. Austin Country Club.

Oct. 14: 60th Anniversary Celebration of Montopolis Friendship Community Center. 403 Vargas Road.

Oct. 14: The Mask of Limits for ME3LJ Center. Hyatt Regency Austin Hotel.

Oct. 15: Butcher’s Ball for Urban Harvest and Foodways Austin. Rockin’ Star Ranch.

Oct. 15: Fashion and Art Palooza 3.0. Lucas Event Center.


Kathy Blackwell named executive editor at Texas Monthly

Kathy Blackwell, most recently editor-in-chief at Austin Way magazine, has been named executive editor overseeing the features portfolio at the venerable Texas Monthly by the statewide magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Taliaferro.

Kathy Blackwell. Contributed by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon.

“She will bring new ideas, new expertise and a great eye to our storied lifestyle and service journalism,” says Taliaferro, who has signaled a fresh emphasis on lifestyles, events and digital reporting at TM. “Kathy has the experience and judgment to meet Texas Monthly’s high editorial standards, and to help us extend our offerings digitally and in live events.”

“It’s a dream to call Texas Monthly my journalistic home,” Blackwell says. “Few publications offer as clear a window into a place, especially one as grand and complicated as this state. It’s an honor to be able to show how Texans live — and to reveal the possibilities for what it means to be a Texan — in a way that complements the hard-hitting, long-form journalism that makes the magazine so vital.”

A native of South Carolina, Blackwell previously served in various reporting and editorial capacities at the Austin American-Statesman, including as senior editor with special oversight over an award-winning features section, while helping to oversee the newsroom as a whole. (Perhaps unnecessary disclosure: She was my editor for a good while.)

Blackwell led editorial efforts on two of the newspaper’s former magazines, Glossy and Real: Authentic Austin Living.

Blackwell is known not only for inventive story ideas and precise editing, but also for staging social events that connect different communities, such as the highly regarded Austin Way Women of Power Dinner at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.

She lives in South Austin with her husband and son.

“Kathy has has been a superhero of lifestyle journalism for as long as I can remember,” says Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune and former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. “As a reader, I’d follow her anywhere. I’m looking forward to seeing how she does for Texas what she did for Austin.”

Best parties as Austin’s social season gains momentum

Nobody said it would be socially quiet this time of year in Austin.

Sept. 21-24: “Belonging: Part 1” from Blue Lapis Light. Seaholm District Plaza.

Sept. 21-28: Tribeza Style Week. Stateside Theater and Fair Market.

Sept. 21: Hunger Heroes for Central Texas Food Bank. 6500 Metropolis Dr.

Sept. 21: Storm Large and Le Bonheur. UT McCullough Theatre.

Sept. 21: Dreams of the Old West for Dream Come True Foundation. 5211 Brodie Lane.

Sept. 21: Janet St. Paul Studio grand opening, “Vibrations Françaises.” 110 San Antonio St.

Sept. 22-23: Rhythm Runway Show and Jewel Ball for Women’s Symphony League. Various locations.

Sept. 22-24: Texas Tribune Festival. University of Texas campus.

Sept. 22: Fête and Fêt-ish for Ballet Austin. JW Marriott.

Sept. 22: Harvey Can’t Mess with Texas: A Beneift Concert for Hurricane Harvey Relief. Erwin Center.

Sept. 22: Imaginarium for the Thinkery. JW Marriott.

Sept. 22: Rescheduled Studio 54klift for Forklife Dancworks. 5540 N. Lamar Blvd.

Sept. 23: Burnet Road Block Party for Texas Folklife. 5434 Burnet Road.

Sept. 23. The Arc’s Art Celebration for Arc of the Capital Area. Hyatt Regency Austin.

Sept. 23: Quartet of Stars for Travis County Democratic Party. Westin Hotel at the Domain.

Sept. 23-24: Pecan Street Festival. East Sixth Street.




Austin father and daughter muster powerful Harvey relief appeal with five former presidents

The father and daughter team of Roy and Courtney Spence — a crew that translates into a lot of energy and creativity — put together a very short but powerful Hurricane Harvey relief appeal featuring five ex-presidents in just six days.

President Jimmy Carter. David Goldman/AP

Presidents Jimmy CarterGeorge H.W. BushBill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all contributed to the crisply warm call for donations to One America Appeal.


Roy is best know as the restlessly inventive co-founder of GSD&M, an Austin-based advertising firm, while Courtney is founder and CEO of CSpence Group and has garnered much attention for her Students of the World project.

Roy and Courtney co-produced public service announcements with Presidents George H.W Bush and Clinton for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and recently so-produced PSA work with Matthew McConaughey for the Baton Rouge floods.

Note how the Molly Prize champions investigative reporting

The highest and best calling of journalism is investigative reporting. It’s absolutely essential to take the time, guts and resources to shine a bright light on great and systematic wrongs.

The American-Statesman does it well. For three of the past four years, it has been judged the best newspaper of it size in Texas, in large part because of our crack investigative team.

Among the other media in our state that does it well is the Texas Observer.

A collection of past issues of the Texas Observer lay on a couch in their offices in downtown Austin in this 2006 photo. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

While the Observer and other independent media set themselves up against traditional media, such as daily newspapers, our missions are actually complementary, as Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie graciously acknowledged as part of a keynote chat during the Molly National Journalism Prize dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Bouie shared the stage with Molly Prize winner Shane Bauer and Observer publisher Michael Kanin. They tried to untangle the role of the independent media in the Trump era. Since the guests at the sold-out event — a benefit for the nonprofit Observer — leaned conspicuously leftward, almost every mention of the president was met with audible gasps or chuckles.

Monica Peraza and Elliott Naishtat at the Molly National Journalism Prize dinner for the Texas Observer.

At the dinner, co-chairs Katie Cukerbaum and Abby Rappaport introduced Robert Frump as winner of the Bernard Rappaport Philanthropy Award, then Observer editor Forrest Wilder gave out the Molly Prizes, named of course for late firecracker Molly Ivins.

  1. Honorable Mention: Sarah Ryley, ProPublica/New York Daily News, for reporting on how the New York Police Department uses a nuisance abatement laws to close homes and businesses without due process. It was answered with significant action by City Council.
  2. Honorable Mention: Patricia Callahan and Michael J. Berens, Chicago Tribune, for a series on abuse and neglect of people with disabilities. (The American-Statesman did a similar bang-up job on the subject in Texas.)
  3. Winner: Shane Bauer, Mother Jones, who went undercover to report, “My Four Months a s a Private Prison Guard.” The magazine spent 18 months and $350,000 getting this story to the page.

Rain, rain go away from these Austin parties and shows

Hope this rain of tropical proportions doesn’t return to spoil these choice Austin plays and parties.


June 7: Book Launch: “The Swimming Holes of Texas.” Barton Springs Bathhouse.

June 6-8: “Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus.” Long Center.

June 7: Free Community Potluck for Texas Biennial 2017. The Contemporary Austin at Jone Center.


June 8: Maudie’s Moonlight Margarita Run and Party for the Trail Foundation. Seaholm Power Plant.


June 8: Molly National Journalism Prize for Texas Observer. Four Seasons Hotel.

Processed with VSCO with c8 preset

June 8: Poolside at the Austin Motel for Forklife Danceworks. Austin Motel.

June 8-24: “Troilus and Cressida” from Something for Nothing Theater. Ramsey Park Pavilion.

Gossips Taos Pueblo 1979.jpg

June 9: “Jim Dougherty: A Retrospective” reception. Link & Pin Gallery.

June 9-10: “Gentrif*cked” from Latino Comedy Project. Spider House Ballroom.

June 10: Man & Woman of the Year for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society South Central Texas Chapter. JW Marriott.


June 10: “Unrealpolitik” reception. CoLab Demo Gallery.

June 10: Latinitas Quinceañera Gala. 5540 N. Lamar Blvd.


June 10: The Blue Bash for Austin Chamber Music Center. Renaissance Austin Hotel.

June 10: “Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound: After the Curtain.” Long Center.


Let the summer Austin shows and parties begin!

We’ll count this as the first week of summer in Austin. Sure feels like it outside. And we’ve got shows and parties to launch you into that first warm week.

‘Something Rotten,’ a celebration of musicals set in Elizabethan England, comes to Bass Concert Hall.

May 30-June 4: “Something Rotten” from Broadway in Austin. Bass Concert Hall.

May 31: Travis Audubon book launch for Victor Emanuel’s “One More Warbler: A Life with Birds.” UT Thompson Center.

‘In the Heights’ comes from the same creative mind as ‘Hamilton’ and plays at Zach Theatre. Contributed

May 31-July 2: “In the Heights.” Zach Theatre.

June 1-24: “Around the World in 80 Days” from Penfold Theatre Company. Round Rock Amphitheater.

June 1: American Gateways casual reception. Chez Zee.

June 2: Best Party Ever for Leadership Austin. Brazos Hall.

June 2-25: “Taming of the Shrew.” The City Theatre.

June 2-17: “Scheherazade.” The Vortex.

June 2-3: Austin Symphony Pops Series: “Fascinating Gershwin.” Palmer Events Center.


June 3: “Bubblepalooza” summer family event. Long Center City Terrace.

June 3: Art Bra Austin for Breast Cancer Resource Center. Austin Convention Center.

June 3-4: “Legends of Broadway” from Capital City Men’s Chorus. Northwest Hills United Methodist Church.

Cruise through 3 parties that perked up Austin’s spring season

Why do I always have 100 to 150 good ideas for newspaper articles in the hopper? Because I go out and meet interesting Austinites and they tell me their stories. Those stories don’t usually appear in the short, timely social posts like this one, but they almost always land eventually.

Alice in the Afternoon for Ballet Austin Guild

Cassandra King Polidori and Taylor Calvin an Afternoon in Wonderland for Ballet Austin Guild. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Cutest party ever: To celebrate the upcoming Ballet Austin show, “Alice in Wonderland,” the Ballet Austin Guild staged a costumed tea party for several hundred guests at the Ella Hotel. For An Afternoon in Wonderland, selected youths dressed up as characters from the beloved story. Most guests simply wore their best spring attire, including an array of elaborate hats.

Every table inside the mid-sized hotel banquet room looked like a shrine to the British institution of high tea. What a stroke of hosting genius to include the kids, too, not so many that it became about them, but just enough to remind us that, in fact, it is about them. Don’t miss “Alice,” which opens at the Long Center on May 12.

Women of Power for Austin Way

Phil Wendler and Liz Brown at Women of Power Dinner for Austin Way magazine. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Nina Seely has brokered some kind of secret deal with the weather gods. Not only was the evening exquisite for the Umlauf Garden Party — which I nevertheless missed this year — but also a few days later for Austin Way magazine’s third Women of Power dinner — which I made. Both were held under dusky skies at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.

Everybody was raving about cover girl Brooklyn Decker, saying how the model, actress and wife of tennis great Andy Roddick, was so real, so down-to-earth. Well, we’ve known that about her for quite a while. We’ve also spent significant time with four of the five Women of Power — Jennifer Ransom Rice, Suzanne Deal Booth, Annie Burridge and Mela Sarajane Dailey — all hail from the arts. The fifth, a literary backer, Maya Payne Smart, is realively new to me. Profile?

Hope Awards for iACT

Nahid and Ali Khataw at Hope Awards for iACT. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Want to feel lucky that you live in Austin? Listen to the stories of refugees. We heard several unforgettable ones at the Hope Awards for iACT, an interfaith group that last year served more than 1,000 of the 1,700 new refugees in our city.

At the Bullock Texas State History Museum, we were impressed with fifth-grader Ali Saleh, whose family is from Somalia, but who fled to Saudi Arabia, then Syria, then Turkey, then the United States. He introduced running guru and humanitarian Gilbert Tuhabonye who shared his own harrowing refugee memories from Burundi.

Receiving Hope Awards were the Austin school district, its refugee coordinator and three schools: Doss Elementary, Murchison Middle and International High. Also, the Bullock for its annual World Refugee Day, the Glimmer of Hope Foundation AustinSt. John’s United Methodist Church and student volunteer Mehraz Rahman.

In a few simple words, Issa Noheli, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, thanked Austin — and the American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program — for his new leg and the power of locomotion.

Can’t get more gripping than that.

Salute the stunning new Dell Seton Medical Center

The Austin parties are picking up again. We attended three fine ones recently.

Dell Seton Medical Center Big Reveal

Have I mistakenly entered a luxury hotel? That’s the first impression one receives in the ground-level guest areas of the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.

Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

For the Big Reveal at the $300 million teaching, charity and research hospital, which goes fully operational in May, numerous top citizens sipped bubbly, nibbled on delectables, then set those aside to tour the seven-floor state-of-the-science facility that will take the place of University Medical Center Brackenridge.

Pete and Tomi Winstead at the opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Fortuitously, among our first contacts in the comfy cafe was Pete Winstead, the Austin power broker who led the charge to raise $50 million for the hospital, along with his charming wife Tomi Winstead. By the way, as State Sen. Kirk Watsonauthor of the 10-point regional health plan that includes this new medical center, pointed out: No taxpayer money was spent on facility. Jesus Garza, retiring CEO of Seton Healthcare Family, and Christann Vasquez, president and CEO of the medical center, were also on hand to salute the sleek new building, filled with natural light and brightened with fine art.

Cafe at this charity hotel feels like Four Seasons Hotel. Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

This whole series of medical structures along Waller Creek are so much more pleasing than the old Brack complex and the blocky government buildings that bank up against them. But it’s how the hospital works that keeps one transfixed with such wonders as a hybrid cath lab and OR and a design that will facilitate care of the worst-off patients that impresses the most.

Hybrid cath lab and OR. Opening of Dell Seton Medical Center University of Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Too much spent on the hotel look? Vasquez explains that they chose less expensive materials for the backside and inside of the place, but they wanted people to feel relaxed and at home during traumatic times. And after all, Dallas spent $1 billion on its charity hospital redo and San Antonio $500 million. So Austin’s $300 million looks like a bargain.

Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive

As promised, the Tailwaggers “non-gala” or “neo-gala” for Austin Pets Alive at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum was gloriously liberating. A perfect April evening. Unhurried strolls through the lovely gardens to find stations with drinks, animal welfare info or pledge options.

Mike and Catherine Kaviani at Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Almost every top social in town — thanks to chair Mary Herr Tally and her team — was present, along with young couples who we’d never met before. Plus some pets.

David Kurio’s floral genius at work during Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The program was short. The Big Band music was romantic. An errant buffet line put the only crimp in the evening, although once self-served, the fresh, healthy food was excellent. I’m not even going to try to list the social movers and shakers who attended, because the list would go on into next week.

We’ve got another signature Austin event on our hands.

Ribbon Cutting for Briscoe Center

“We are not a museum,” said longtime director Don Carleton about his research archives, the Briscoe Center for American History. Well, just a little bit. Along with a first-rate reading room and new gathering spaces, the renovated ground floor of the center — located across the plaza from the LBJ Presidential Library — is quite a bit of exhibition space. As Carleton says: “Now we can share some of our treasures.”

Patia Sandifer and Stephen Bedsole at the grand reopening of the Briscoe Center. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

And we are grateful for it. We’ve been digging around the Briscoe since it was named the Barker Texas History Center in the 1980s. It’s a superb collection overseen by top-notch professionals. And it always bugged me that its historical shows were staged in the hallway to the restroom. (I have the same problem with the admittedly lovelier hallway at the Austin History Center.)

At the recent ribbon cutting for the refabricated center, Carleton welcomed UT bigwigs such as President Gregory Fenves and Provost Maurie McInnis, who said that archival material: “Makes the past real in a way that just reading about history does not.” He also thanked major donors, such as the family of late Gov. Dolph Briscoe and expert on early UT history, Clyde Rabb Littlefield. Also present were Dan and Jean RatherKathy CronkiteBen Sargent and former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

We’ll deliver at fuller report on what’s inside the new Briscoe very soon.