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What I Learned from Longtime Dallas Observer Columnist Jim Schutze

It almost feels like former Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is dead, considering all the outpouring of support he’s been receiving since he announced his surprising departure from the alt-weekly on Facebook Monday.

It almost feels like former Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is dead, considering all the outpouring of support he’s been receiving since he announced his surprising departure from the alt-weekly on Facebook Monday. It “comes to end today by mutual cordial agreement that they told me about this morning,” he wrote. 

Schutze wasn’t just a column writer for the Observer. He’s also a former Detroit Free Press reporter, and spent some time at The Dallas Times-Herald and the Houston Chronicle. He’s the author of several books, including Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge, which was made into a movie, and The Dunking Booth, one of my personal favorites. He was nominated for two Edgar awards and admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters in 2011. Last year, the Dallas Press Club recognized him as a media legend

“When you go from being a regular staff reporter to columnist, it means you can write your own opinion, speak in the first person and have your picture over a little tombstone of type in the newspaper,” Schutze wrote in The Dunking Booth. “I understood all of that perfectly. But when they first made me a columnist, the editors of the Dallas Times Herald also wanted to make sure I understood that, as a columnist, I was expected to be a local celebrity. 

“The role of local celebrity, like any job, entailed duties. One was expected to take part in local celebrity events whenever invited. One of the editors briefing me on my new role wanted to be sure I understood that most local celebrity events took place in the evening or even on weekends, outside normal working hours. While he explained this to me once or twice to be sure I was listening, the other editor waited. Then the other editor delivered the punch-line, the crucial information: even though taking part in local celebrity events was considered to be a necessary and important part of my job as a local columnist, I would not be paid extra for it. 

“I was not surprised. In my youthful cynicism, I may have assumed the lack of overtime pay was the real point of the whole stupid conversation. I do remember that I didn’t care at all. I was so thrilled with my new job that I would gladly have agreed to light janitorial duties in order to keep it.”

He aimed to be the next Doc Greene, a city columnist at the Detroit News. He lived that dream in Dallas for more than 30 years.   

When I started writing as an intern for the Observer in 2012, they were still a robust staff located on the 7th floor with in the bank building off Oak Lawn. By the time I left my staff writer position in 2016, the ship was struggling to stay afloat. They were no longer partnered with Backpa… I mean, the Place That Must Not Be Named and still trying to supplement the lost income. In the years since, the staff had been whittled down from a robust team of several editors, including managing and editor-in-chief, writers and an art director to a skeleton crew navigating dangerous waters. Schutze was still there, igniting Dallas on what could be considered a part-time basis. I figured he would go down with the ship, holding tightly to the wheel with longtime Observer editor Patrick Williams.

The situation hasn’t improved in the four years since I’ve been gone. Sadly, Schutze’s departure just reflects what all Dallas media outlets have been experiencing since the early 2000s: a slow death.

COVID-19 is simply quickening the death blow for some of us. Williams told the Dallas Morning News that the decision to part ways with Schutze was prompted by the economic destruction wrought by COVID-19, according to a May 12 report.

Shortly after Schutze’s shared the news on Facebook, tributes began to pour in. Central Track‘s Pete Freedman, a former Observer staffer, wrote an in-depth look at Schutze’s life in Dallas. “During our time working together, Schutze was always an inspiration in terms of both his work ethic and the respect with which he was treated throughout the city,” Freedman wrote in a May 11 report. “He was particularly supportive of my efforts to feature Dallas musicians of color prominently in the paper’s entertainment coverage. The words of encouragement he would additionally offer at my attempts made to buck the system and do the unexpected are a large part of why I set out on the path to one day launch Central Track.”

D Magazine‘s Eric Celeste, a former student of Schutze’s, wrote the “The Six Most Important Things I Learned from Jim Schutze” but then changed it to “The Seven Most Important Things I Learned from Jim Schutze.” Those lessons include “Eff’em good,” “Have a POV” (point of view), and, the most important one, “Writers/journalists will always be poor.”

“I asked a million questions,” Celeste wrote. “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?'”

I don’t have too many crazy tales to share about Schutze. The one I’d like to tell will have to wait until I write his obituary — if I’m still around then. (It involves an AR-15.)   

Like many other Dallas reporters, I’ve always admired Schutze for his willingness to tackle local political discourse with an ink-stained torch held close to politicians’ feet. I particularly enjoyed his take-downs of the Morning News but only because even in editorial circles, someone needs to hold the biggest papers of record accountable. Schutze did so with the precision of the “very fine American warriors” Fox News commentators have been mentioning these past few weeks. 

At the Observer, Schutze and I didn’t hang out as often as I would have liked. I was somewhat intimidated by him. He’s an award-winning columnist, a longtime city hall watchdog and someone I’d hope to emulate one day. I’d always wanted to write columns and even tried my hand at it in college. I stepped away from the dream after I completed my bachelor’s degree. Instead, I focused on sharpening my reporter skills and picked up a couple of master’s degrees.

Before I took the managing editor job at Local Profile, I tried my hand at a few columns for the Wise County Messenger. I’d just started working as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper and learned that each of us was required to write a column every few weeks. When it was my turn, I tried my best to channel Schutze without stealing his voice. I published a couple of columns and sent them to him, hoping that he would approve and maybe offer some sage advice. 

“Christian, I like both of these a lot,” he wrote. “You’ve got the trick, which is expressing a point of view without trying to put yourself over the reader. Since a column is seldom providing new must-read information, then it needs to be a good read for the writing, and how much fun is it to read somebody telling you how smart he is and what a dumb fuck you are? Most of us have at least one neighbor we can get that sh*t from. I have always thought your greatest asset was your breadth of life experience. Some of the kids in the business today are really nice, intelligent enough, well educated but they’re sort of hicks of the upper middle class. One of them came in my office one day and asked me how I just kept working for so many years, year in and year out. I thought, ‘Holy fuck, is there something else you can do and nobody told me?’ 

“The Wise County gig will be fun sometimes, hell others. Don’t be too hard on your editor when he has to keep the powers that be off his back so he can make pay roll. And you always have that trust fund to fall back on–the one where you say, hey, fuck this shit, I know how to drive a truck.” 

My column writing career came to a swift end at the Messenger by “mutual cordial agreement that [the editor] told me about one morning” shortly after Schutze’s email. I’d been tackling a few uncomfortable topics (alt-right trolls spewing conspiracy theories, etc). I knew some of the readers had been complaining. But I figured I was just doing my job. One long-time conservative reader reached out and complained that I’d written “the most liberal B.S.” he’d ever read in the newspaper. I’ve never considered myself a liberal or a conservative, but felt like I’d finally gotten my Schutze wings.

Since announcing his retirement on Facebook, Schutze has gone on to post about his love for the Observer, calling those years some of his best. He encouraged his readers to continue supporting the alt-weekly despite his departure. He told D Magazine’s Eric Celeste: “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.”

He’s right. Local publications need all the support we can get. Here are a few that you can support in honor of Schutze by clicking on a few posts and maybe donating to their cause: