You and I are talking in December, shortly before your first day on the job. What’s the plan? Go in there and fire everyone?
There will be no immediate decapitations, for sure. It’s not going to be a blood bath. I may not be much of a mentor, but I know how it feels to be mentored. That’s the hat I’m going to put on.
You quit a cush job at American Airlines to work at an alt weekly? Have you not been following the trends?
It was an interesting experiment at American. They wanted to set up a news-gathering organization inside the company to create a hometown newspaper for 110,000 employees. It taught me a lot about the aviation industry, and it taught me about managing people. But what it really taught me is I don’t belong in the corporate world. This is what I want to do. You can’t put a price on that. I’ll quote Hunter S. Thompson. I’d rather fly with the pigs than wallow with the eagles.
What’s the biggest civic issue facing Dallas right now?
There’s a whole smorgasbord. In Dallas, it’s inequality. I’d like to see action on legalizing drugs. The police force is torn up with internecine fighting. But I have to be honest with you. I’m not a social justice warrior. I think if you concentrate on good, relevant stories, where the narrative isn’t defined by the issue of the day, you’re going to do better. So everyone should be on guard—left, right, and center.
When do you think Jim Schutze will die?
That f—er will never die. He will not. I’m relieved he’s still here and still sharp.
How long before the Observer goes digital only?
Never. Over my dead body. The print version is a big part of what the Observer is. We are literally on the street.
You wrote a book about sunflowers called Sunflowers: The Secret History. How did that happen?
I was looking around for book ideas. I started looking at the Chicago commodities exchange. I thought, There’s got to be something that has an inherent narrative appeal, some sort of hidden world. If they can write a book about cod, then there’s gotta be other stuff. And I learned that we were exporting oil to Saudi Arabia, and it was sunflower oil. That’s what did it. The history of sunflowers has a narrative arc. Native to North America, discovered by Europeans, dragged across to Europe, then to Russia, where Peter the Great gets involved. There’s a lot of great science, a lot of anthropology. There have been a lot of fantastically evil people who used sunflowers to get ahead, including Osama bin Laden.
You moved to New York not too long before 9/11, and you covered it. How did that experience affect how you approach your job and life in general?
I walked into Time magazine and offered my services as a freelancer. I met Howard Chua-Eoan, the news director, because we had a mutual friend. He said, “We don’t know when we’ll use you, but when something comes up, we’ll call.” That was the Thursday before 9/11. I got there right as the second tower fell. There was this moment where I had to decide whether to put the notepad down and volunteer or just lurk on the sidelines and gawk. I had some first aid training, so they put me on a bleed team, which is exactly what it sounds like. And then I got back to the apartment, sat down, and wrote all of it out in time to file the story to Howard. That got me hipped on national defense and security reporting. That’s how I moved to D.C. and worked for National Defense magazine and got involved with Smithsonian Air & Space. It still colors my judgment on things. I tend to describe things in military terms. It was probably the most influential thing that has ever happened to me.