Jim Schutze is out at the Dallas Observer. Pete Freedman has a good wrap-up of Schutze’s Observer career if you need one. If you’re reading this, I assume you don’t. Thus, that’s all the background you’re getting from me, unless you want to re-read this thing I typed 13 years ago.
Also, the man ain’t dead. If someone can scrape a few nickels together [looks accusingly at the person editing this post], I’ll bet you’ll be reading more Schutze soon enough.
Instead, I will take a moment to celebrate the man and what he means to me. There’s a reason my computer password for years was JimSchutze101. Here are the seven most important things I learned from Jim Schutze:
Eff ’em good. I first knew him as Professor Jim Schutze. In 1989, he was the Dallas Times Herald’s city columnist. He was also an adjunct professor of journalism at SMU. I was the news editor of the school paper and read him every week. I was excited to take his course.
I may have been the only one. SMU has changed a lot, but then it was not the place where a liberal Detroit refugee like Schutze could find a welcome audience. My classmates wondered aloud why we had to listen to this crazy old man teach by anecdote. I, an equally unwelcome liberal hick from Oklahoma, loved every minute of it.
I asked a million questions. Each one sparking some newspaper war story from Detroit or Dallas. Once I asked something like “If you’re covering a beat, how can you write bad things about your sources and still get information from them when you need it?” Professor Schutze told the story of a colleague who covered a beat — might have been cops, might have been City Hall, I don’t recall. He said that person would inevitably write things about the people he saw every day that infuriated them. So this colleague, as soon as he got to his desk in the morning, would call the person whom he knew he’d pissed off, and when he or she answered the phone, the colleague would open the conversation with, “So, did I fuck ya good?”
Professor Jim said this was a good way to deal with people. Eff them if you need to. And you’ll need to, so eff ’em good. Then be straight with them. You’ve had your say. Let them yell at you. Then everyone can move on. This was the single best piece of advice he ever gave me. (For the record, I was the only student who laughed.)
Don’t sweat the small stuff. As news editor of the school paper, I wrote a profile of Professor Schutze because his first book was set to be published. (OK, second if you count The Accommodation, which right now is available for $316.) In this short piece, I spelled his last name three different ways. I was sick to my stomach. I brought him copies of the paper, and, after reading it, he just said thank you, great job. When I pointed out how I’d butchered his name, he shrugged and said, “That’s the stuff you’ll figure out. The hard part is having something to say.”
Have a POV. To his point, the hard part for a columnist is having something to say — and to say it with conviction. You’d think it’s the easy part. But the more you get to know your sources, the more you know about a subject, the fuzzier your point of view often gets. You lose the capacity to be newly aghast. That’s especially true of progressive columnists whose desire to explore all sides of an argument often dims that writer’s light. It’s also true of longtime columnists who become so world-weary in tone and attitude that they’re like a walking eyeroll gif. To the end of his Observer career, Schutze never lost his sense of outrage, and his admonitions were underlined with the idea that it’s OK to dream of — hell, demand — a better city. Not in the abstract but with concrete ideas, clearly stated, and officials who stood in the way were duly noted.
Give credit. He would credit other writers and publications with getting to a story first or having a great take on an issue. He understood this gives you more value with readers, not less. This is more common these days, but it wasn’t a decade or two ago.
The story is behind you. This is not about being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. Sometimes you have to follow the horde as you’re reporting a story. But take the time to break away for a moment and look at the story from another perspective. It’s often what gives a columnist new insight. You saw this in his early take against the Trinity Toll Road, which proved to be correct. He didn’t just listen to the city experts, as most everyone else did. He listened to marginalized voices who cared deeply about the sort of city we were building. This point of view became mainstream, but it took years. It’s also what led him to get behind the Mike Miles-led DISD school reform efforts, which again found him on the right side of history — despite so many liberal/progressive voices still decrying Schutze’s (spot-on) education writing.
Writers/journalists will always be poor. When I worked with him at the Observer, Jim once started a story with “At the time when I was a well-known columnist and also paying my mortgage every month with my credit card …” I always appreciated he never let me or anyone else forget that we are dispensable. He has always been consistent on this. Here’s what he texted me yesterday evening.
I am worried about people getting pissed off at the Observer. I don’t know how common it is, but it ain’t right. The Observer is fighting the good fight under disastrous circumstances. They are going to add a reporter, so they’re not giving up. I have a loyal following but shit, news (Stephen Young) has been getting big traffic with COVID, and food and culture are strong. So they looked at their cards and decided to bet without the ace (me). How do we know it’s a bad bet? I sure as hell don’t want to see the Observer go away. Patrick is a very shrewd editor and if anybody can pilot the ship through this sea of shit he can. I’m old, man. And I’m OK. I’m talking to some people tomorrow about working as an underwear model. We shall see.
You don’t have to be an asshole. Jim had this columnar persona of a gruff, irascible crank. It serves him well. But he’s maybe the kindest big-deal writer I’ve ever known. Most people, me included, are the opposite. We try to come off like great people in our writing and are privately self-centered jackasses.
For example. I didn’t ask Schutze if I could use his text message. Hey, Jim: did I fuck ya good?