Honoring the late great Betty Brink of Fort Worth Weekly

Thank you Fort Worth Weekly for printing my letter to the editor about Betty Brink, a legendary reporter who passed away recently at age 80.

betty brink letter

How to survive 20 years as a Texas newspaperman without voodoo

   Forget the awards and the thousands of columns I wrote and all the people I met and helped — and who helped me. Looking back on 20 years as a columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — a career that ended with a layoff last week — I’m proudest of the little box.

  The box is called “Voodoo Lou’s Office Voodoo Kit.”

   It sounds silly, I know. But I’m proud that I never felt the need to open it.

Voodoo kit voodoo office kit 2   

   Voodoo Lou was my backup. My nuclear option. If things ever got too tough for me in the hard-assed politics of a newspaper newsroom, I could open the box, pull out the doll and start sticking pins in it.

   Life is a test. Do they get to you? Or not? I bought that box in New Orleans. Where else? But as long as that doll stayed in the box, I controlled my destiny.

   To understand why that matters is to know my close relationship with the Star-Telegram. I dreamed of joining a newspaper as a columnist since I was 14. After 22 years of learning how to write and hundreds of rejection letters from across the country, S-T editor Mike Blackman hired me as a columnist in 1993 with instructions to practice what he called “New York style journalism.” The dream had come true. I was a columnist! But I was so naive and new to Texas that I didn’t realize that New York-styled anything doesn’t necessarily play well.

   I came down here from New York where I grew up and Philly where I attended Penn and later worked at the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer during its Pulitzer prize-winning heyday. I wrote a comic story about my Yankee-to-Texan transformation in the Pennsylvania Gazette here.

   As a new Texan, I was oh-so-rough around the edges. The S-T polished me up. Taught me how to behave. Act proper, as Texans say. Learning that the “you” is more important than the “I.” Listening is more important than talking. Getting both sides of every story and being fair to everyone. That’s what matters here.

press hat small version

   As part of that, I was drilled in customer service techniques. I bought into it, so much so that I eventually taught the course in training sessions to the rest of the company. (Me? Ha!) For 100 years since it was founded by the legendary Amon Carter, the Star-Telegram has worked to be nice to people. Positive stories. Millions donated to the community. Embedding its staffers in committees, boards and foundations.

   Being nice? At a newspaper? Really?  

   * * *

   “There’s no bogging Dave down with office politics or other concerns. He knows who he is and what he wants to accomplish. But he doesn’t come across as arrogant or above the work that others at the Star-Telegram do. He shows respect for them and may be the first to tell a colleague they’ve done a good job.”  — From Dave’s annual job review, August 2012.

   * * * 

   It’s 1993. My first column. By way of introduction, I ask readers if chicken-fried steak is chicken or steak. I know. It’s a dumb way to begin. Maybe the dumbest. As I struggle to find my columnist voice, the bosses assist by assigning me extra duties. I am ordered to sell subscriptions door-to-door at night so I can understand the product. I am assigned to sit on a United Way committee creating an emergency hotline number. And there’s the company picnic committee. I get that plum assignment, too.

   Twenty years fly by. Lots of good things happen. I’m The Watchdog columnist. Thousands come to me each year with their pleas for help with unsolvable problems or tips about government or corporate corruption. Newspapers may be dying, but my column brims with life. “So many problems, so little time,” my outgoing voice mail greeting explains. My plate is full.

Watchdog Ad

   Then it all stops.

   I’m the latest casualty in the slow death of one of the most important industries in the history of the world – the 400-year-old newspaper business. Former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus writes on how my departure fits into the bigger picture here.

   I knew the inevitable was coming. So I prepared. Jeff Prince wrote about my layoff and future plans in Fort Worth Weekly here.

   The Star-Telegram gave me many gifts in 20 years. The freedom to write what I wanted. To kick butt like all newspapers should (and hardly do anymore). To root out corruption, chase after bullies, right wrongs, tell great stories, give folks a laugh and help make lives better. Wow.

   With the publisher’s approval, I co-founded the Summer Santa children’s charity, now in its 17th year. The paper backs it with thousands of dollars worth of publicity and donations.

ss logo

   The S-T allowed me to propose marriage to my future wife, her two children and her doggone little dog in my Sunday column. You can read that national award-winning story here. Or listen to me read it here.


   The paper gave me room not only to write a column but also launch a national consumer rights movement, WatchdogNation.com.


   I had lots of old-fashioned stupid newspaper fun, too. Ran my young son Austin for governor of Texas. (And raised money for Summer Santa in the process). Watch his TV commercial here.


   And against the editors’ best advice, I rode bulls in rodeos, too. Don’t believe me?  Here’s the video.


   Most important, I got to partner with a brilliant editor, Lois Norder, who for all of those 20 years helped me work toward being what Oregon columnist Bob Welch so kindly described me as “America’s quintessential columnist: likeable, passionate, and hard-driving. Nothing could stop him.” Bob wrote an uplifting column about what my layoff means for him here.

   Lois is now investigations editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper where I began as an intern. I wrote a tribute to Lois here. In this pic below, Lois doesn’t know what to make of me showing up for a meeting in a Revolutionary era costume. Why? Watchdog Nation is revolutionary!


   “If I were a government official in Texas and picked up the phone to hear, ‘This is Dave Lieber,’ my heart would skip a beat. And not from joy. Lieber is a classic watchdog journalist, looking out for the little guy — and he gets results. While it is admirable that he is an ombudsman, it’s his flair and skill as a writer that earn him this award.” — Judge in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2012 contest who awarded Dave 2nd place for large U.S. newspapers.

   * * * 

   When they call me in on vacation, I figure the meeting is about my contributing video reports for the paper’s new iPad edition. Before the meeting, I search my library for a history book called The American Newspaper Columnist. My plan is to show the editors the line in the book stating that I “pioneered” the “multi-media Internet column” at the Star-Telegram in the middle 1990s with a regularly produced “video column.” Going back to my roots. Whatever you need, boss. I’ll do anything to help us survive. That’s what I plan to say. But I can’t find the book.

   It’s an omen.

   The purpose of the meeting is to tell me it’s over. I’m not expecting this. Well, I am, eventually, just not at this moment.

   * * * 

   “Say it ain’t so.” — Missy Cook Beevers reacting to layoff news on Dave’s Facebook page.

   “And Lieber did a lot of good for the community, looking out for underdogs, the voiceless, the aged, the conned, and the screwed over.” — Jeff Prince writing in Fort Worth Weekly

   “If wealth is counted in friends, Dave Lieber is the richest man in Texas.” — Paul B. Moore on Facebook

    * * *

   My father died at age 90 in July. He’s the one who sent me, as a teenager, out for the newspaper every night. That’s how I met the great columnists, including my hero Pete Hamill. My eulogy for Dad is here.

   Aside from losing Dad, I’m losing a gazillion readers. We’ve been hanging out together several times a week for 20 years. Will they find me on the Internet? And what about my gutsy sources? Where do they go for help?

   The assistant in the school superintendent’s office who secretly helps me analyze documents I received through an open records request so I can figure out what went wrong.

   The City Hall tipster who makes an anonymous call from a pay phone at night.

   The employee so paranoid about giving me information that she visits me in a disguise.

   And the people, all the people with requests for help. Where will they go?

   The friend of 5th-grade teacher Theresa Neil who tells me that Neil is dying of cancer. Her death wish is to meet Emmitt Smith. “Can you bring Emmitt to her classroom?”



   The 100-year-old Arlington woman who writes a check to her insurance company for $480 instead of $4.80. Ruth Wingfield, shown below, has a hard time getting a refund. “Can you scare ’em?” she asks.


Ruth Wingfield at 100

   The big-time preacher, shown below, secretly running church members for city council so he can take over the local government. Perfect for zoning changes he seeks. “Can you expose that?”


The pastor

   The city council holding public meetings over dinner in restaurants at taxpayers’ expense. “Can you get them to stop?”


   A press pass is a ticket to a front-row seat watching the world, Pete Hamill says. It’s also a way to make things better, day after day, year after year, column after column. What a truly American honor. Every day, I saw being a newspaper columnist that way.

  press pass

   “This past year, Dave’s writing has been more consistently strong. He’s conversational and punchy. He can take complex stories and tell them in simple and engaging ways. He listens attentively to editor feedback — and he has applied lessons he has learned from the coaching seminars he has attended on his own to help him as a public speaker.” — From Dave’s 2012 job review.

   * * * 

   I wrote my final column as a farewell column. I was taught to always write every column like it’s the last. Only this one was the last, but I didn’t know it at the time.  That piece is here, as long as the link is up.

   Then I went to Vegas on vacation for a “Laugh Lab” humor conference led by the National Speakers Association. There I laughed — and learned — for three days from the “faculty,” shown below, along with me and the other students.

Faculty at the Laugh Lab kept me laughing.


   On the last day, my wife Karen, Austin, the almost governor, and I flew in a small plane above the Grand Canyon. I listened to Ave Maria on my headset. I felt something strong up there. God was preparing me for my next step. (See, to my old New Yorker friends, that’s what talking proper like a Texan sounds like.)


   If you’re gonna lose your job, I do recommend laughing your hiney off for three days, then having a quasi-religious experience above the Grand Canyon beforehand. Puts everything in perspective.

   Fortunately, I’ve been building my new life for a decade. I’ve spoken to more than a thousand audiences in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. For me, writing and speaking go together. Now I get to do more of the latter.

   Sure, I’ll miss writing every week in a newspaper, something I’ve done for 38 years. My online sites are WatchdogNation.com, YankeeCowboy.com and  YourStoryBlowsMeAway.com. But I do love the platform and the live audience. The telling of stories and the sharing of ideas designed to make life better is a lot more fun in person than it is writing alone in a dark room. So helping others is the key to life ahead. Like a proper Texan.

    * * *

   Last week my final piece of mail arrived at the newspaper. It was a card. “Thank you so much,” it said. But nobody signed it.

   I’ll say in my proper Texas voice what my final editor at the paper, John Gravois, always says when he’s thanked for something:

   “No, thank you!!”

cowboy hat tip

 – 30-

 Dave Lieber

Watchdog Columnist

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Read a recent magazine profile about Dave by Rhonda Ross that gives more of the story here.

Catch Dave’s latest happenings on Twitter @DaveLieber.

Visit Dave’s Yankee Cowboy Store for books, CDs and other cool stuff.


Training the next generation of storytellers

One of my current projects is to train a new generation of young writers and photographers to be the very best storytellers of the future. I’ve been working as a volunteer for four years with the students at Westlake Academy on their monthly newspaper, The Black Cow.

This story appeared in the September issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, the highly-respected journal and online site that serves as the bible of the newspaper industry.

I’m proud of this next generation of watchdogs and how they are receiving national publicity! Way to go, kids!   — Dave Lieber

Shoptalk: Stoking the Passion

By Sam Chamberlain

Published: September 01, 2009

The easiest way to measure the success of The Black Cow, Westlake Academy’s student newspaper in Texas, is probably by the numbers. The Black Cow launched in August 2005. At the 2006 Texas Interscholastic League Press Conference (ILPC), the paper won five awards. The following year, it won 27; the year after that, 47; and this past April, it took a whopping 55 awards.

The Black Cow meets once a week after school. Photo by Terri Bahun

The Black Cow meets once a week after school. Photo by Terri Bahun

Impressive stuff. But according to the paper’s adviser, longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram metro columnist Dave Lieber, the awards don’t even begin to measure the passion the students have for their work. And now there’s a new book, The Best of the Black Cow, a collection of writing from the paper’s first three years selected by Lieber.

“I feel reborn when I work with these kids,” says Lieber, who also provides an introduction for the book. “I go to my normal job, and all I hear is talk about layoffs and job cuts. I come here, and I feel fantastic about the work they do.”

The work is even more impressive considering that the Black Cow is entirely self-sufficient, surviving primarily on advertising ($7,500 buys a full-page advertisement in all eight of its yearly issues) and subscriptions. Furthermore, because of the paper’s status as a K-12 free public charter school (40% of the students are Westlake residents, the rest are selected by lottery), some of the senior editors have been working on the paper since its founding four years ago.

Executive Editor Nick Ford working on layout. Photo by Jaymi Ford

Executive Editor Nick Ford working on layout. Photo by Jaymi Ford

One of those students is Nick Ford, an 11th grader at Westlake who started at the paper as a 7th-grade photographer, and has worked his way up to executive editor. He’s primarily in charge of laying out the 40-page edition. “I was a photographer my first year, and the person in charge of layout was going to a different school so he showed me how to put the paper together,” says Ford. “It usually takes a whole week, working two to three hours a day to put it together.”

“He has tremendous instincts,” Lieber says of Ford. “I like to watch him work with the layout, and graphics and figuring out what goes where.”

Sarah Titus is Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Nick Ford

Sarah Titus is Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Nick Ford

Sarah Titus is another long-timer, who started at the Black Cow as a book reviewer in the 6th grade. “I was always a big reader, and when I saw the school had come out with a newspaper, I thought, ‘This is cool,’ so I went to Mr. Lieber and suggested a book review.” Titus graduated from that review to a monthly opinion column, “Sarah Says.” After becoming managing editor for news and photo last year, Titus was named editor-in-chief for the coming school year.

Among her plans as the Black Cow’s top editor are a mentoring program for younger students (some kids as young as the third grade are involved in the paper) and a series of team-building exercises to strengthen enthusiasm. “We’re pretty motivated already,” she says, “but I think these programs will help us get even better.”

Titus’ writing is among those featured in The Best of the Black Cow. (For info on ordering, e-mail westlakepaper@ hotmail.com). One of her featured pieces is a tribute to classmate Taylor Moon, who died suddenly in February 2008 of a rare strain of flu.

“Taylor had already mastered all the skills needed in the game of life,” Titus wrote at the time. “But God allowed him to stay longer, teaching others his traits and characteristics, giving him time for his qualities to rub off on us.” The piece won a first-place award for personal column at that year’s ILPC.

“I was amazed,” says Lieber about putting the book together. “I read work that made my eyes well up and I read stuff that would make me laugh hysterically. I mean, these kids aren’t even old enough to drive legally, and they’re producing this great writing that touches all these emotions and comes from the heart. Just about the only thing they can’t do is make a deadline.”

The book, which runs 223 pages, bears the unmistakable red cover and design familiar to readers of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. According to Lieber, the resemblance is not coincidental. “These kids are the Holden Caulfields of the 21st century,” he says. “They’re rebellious, sharp, keen, witty, haven’t quite figured it out, but they’re successful. I thought it would strike a chord.” The book even opens with a quote from Holden. It also includes the original flyer announcing the newspaper and calling for staffers, and the name-the-paper contest form.

The kids' book is the winner of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Education/Academics

The kids' book is the winner of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Education/Academics

It closes with a song lyric by ’80s popsters Timbuk 3: “I’m doing all right/Getting good grades/The future’s so bright/I gotta wear shades.”

“I looked at the editors when I first started and they seemed to have so much on their plate,” says Titus. “But then I realized that if it’s something you really enjoy doing, you’ll find the time to do it. And with the writers we have, who are so inspired by what they do, I think the Black Cow can go far.”

Samuel Chamberlain has been an E&P intern the past two summers.

America loses Watchdog columnist

One of my comrades on the journalism battlefield has fallen, and anyone who cares about fighting the bad guys should take note.

George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com

George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com

George Gombossy, the hard-charging Watchdog columnist for the Hartford Courant, was fired last week because, he says, of a dispute with his editors about covering negative stories about top advertisers. His career at the paper had lasted 40 years.

“We’re on the precipice of real danger in society here,” Gombossy told me Sunday night. “This is not about me. I’m fine. I’m going to be 62 in less than a month. I can retire. That’s why I’m in a position to raise this issue.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation where most media companies including the Hartford Courant are run by marketing people now instead of journalists, and they do not understand why we have the ethics that we do.”

Gombossy’s former paper is owned by the Tribune Co., led by Sam Zell. The company is now in bankruptcy reorganization.

Gombossy and I do – or, in his case, did – the same job, although at different newspapers. There’s less than a half dozen real consumer investigative columnists left in America. Yet these kinds of columns are widely popular with readers, especially these days.

The column that got him fired was about Sleepy’s, the largest mattress chain in the United States. Gombossy caught the company selling used beds as new. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told him he was investigating.

But The Courant killed the column. You can still read it here on Gombossy’s new Web site.

After he was fired last week, Gombossy wasted no time. By midnight of his last day at work, Aug. 14, Gombossy had quickly launched an online version of his life’s work at ctwatchdog.com – now only a few days old. He says he will soldier on for the cause.

Gombossy informed readers of his departure in his final column that appeared on Sunday, Aug. 16. The real reason is not mentioned. Some may learn of it by reading this post.

There are two versions of that final column: Read the one the paper ran that didn’t mention his firing here. Read the unedited version on his Web site here.

Gombossy says he has hired one of his state’s top employment lawyers and “we’re committed to going all the way.”

Executives who made the decision to end his career at the paper are not bad people, he says. “They are very creative and trying to save newspapers from extinction, but they don’t understand the basic foundation of journalism which means that you don’t protect anybody.”

At his paper, he says, any stories about any of the top 100 advertisers have to be approved by top editors before publication. This extends to the public’s blog postings, too.

But Gombossy discards the argument that advertisers will cancel if they get angry and that could cost the paper money – and jobs. In his four decades at the paper, he says, advertisers may go away for a little bit in anger but they come back. “They advertise at the paper because they need to,” he says.

Gombossy’s Watchdog column was one of the paper’s most popular features. He estimates the newspaper and its sister TV station spent close to half a million dollars in the past two years promoting his place in the paper and his Friday TV piece on Fox61‘s Friday morning news. Gombossy lost his TV gig, too.

“My picture was on every bus in Hartford over the last two years,” he says. “TV ads of me and a dog that looked like me with my glasses were running until last week.”

Yet he says he doesn’t even feel like he was fired personally.

“It wasn’t the George Gombossy column. It was led by readers. It was readers that pointed out every single major column I ever wrote.

“It was the people’s Watchdog column. It wasn’t George Gombossy that got fired. It was the readers that got fired.”

Gombossy was told the paper will replace his feature with a milder, less investigative, help-you kind of column.

Now Connecticut consumers will have to develop a new news habit – Gombossy’s ctwatchdog.com.

Our ranks are growing thinner. I tip my soldier’s cap to you, George. Guys like us don’t give up the fight so easily.

Final note: Sunday night, as I prepared to post Gombossy’s side, I called the newspaper, but couldn’t get through its crummy voice mail system. If an editor or spokesman reads this and wishes to tell the other side, please contact me here.

Dave Lieber is The Watchdog investigative columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a century-old newspaper which still believes strongly in watchdog journalism.

UPDATE: Thanks to journalist Gary Weiss for alerting me that The Courant has released a statement. Gary first posted it on his gary-weiss.com site here.

MORE: Here is the statement in full from Courant spokeswoman Andrea Savastra:

“The overriding consideration on stories reported by the Hartford Courant is making sure the facts are thoroughly checked out and correct. Our advertisers have no influence on what we report, including stories that may include them. This is a long time Courant policy.

“Our readers and advertisers do and should expect us to report stories we know are accurate and fully reported.  George Gombossys story needs and is receiving additional checking and verification. This is a common practice required by our editors with all Courant news stories, including columns by Mr. Gombossy, and while employed with the Courant, he was well aware of this and accepted and followed this policy over the years.

“While Mr. Gombossy’s position was eliminated, he was made aware of the newly-defined consumer reporter position that will be combined with our newspaper, television station and Web site.  He did not express interest.”