texasmonthly.com: How do you find the Bum Steers?
Paul Burka: A large cardboard box in the editorial offices is the repository for Bum Steers. Everybody contributes. Staff members scour the newspapers for possible items. Readers send in their nominations. Clippings and printouts from the Internet go into the box.
texasmonthly.com: Compiling the Bum Steer Awards is a collaborative process. How exactly does it work?
PB: Sometime in the fall—September or October—I go through the box and divide the clippings into stacks of Yes, Maybe, and No. At this point we have around two hundred possible items. In November, I check the clippings that have been deposited after the first cut. Then we send all the Yes and Maybe items to Rich Malley, a freelance writer who is quite adept at writing up the items and coming up with headlines. While the magazine staff is occupied with putting out the December issue, Rich does a first draft and I edit it. By the time we are ready to start on the January issue, every item has a headline.
texasmonthly.com: There must be even more absurd Texas news each year, in addition to the events Texas Monthly prints. How do you decide which ones make the final cut?
PB: Just because something absurd has happened doesn’t automatically mean that an item is ideal for Bum Steers. For example, if an incident results in death or serious injury, it is not a Bum Steer. If an incident is complicated and hard to explain, it is not a Bum Steer. If a person is deliberately trying to be dumb or stupid or call attention to himself, it is not a Bum Steer. You can’t seek out being a Bum Steer.
texasmonthly.com: Headlines are half the fun of the Bum Steers. Do you write all of them?
PB: As I sort the items into Yesses, Maybes, and Nos, I write a headline on the clipping if one comes to me right away. This doesn’t happen often, because you really have to immerse yourself in Bum Steers to write good headlines. The item has to be written in such a way that the headline plays off the last part of the write-up. Rich writes most of the headlines. For the items that don’t have headlines, or for which I want to propose an alternative, I’ll do the heads. Our editor, Evan Smith, also chips in at this stage. If I haven’t made this clear already, I want to acknowledge the enormous contribution that Rich Malley makes.
texasmonthly.com: For how many years have you been writing the Bum Steer Awards? How do this year’s compare with the past?
PB: In the early years of Texas Monthly, Richard West was in charge of Bum Steers. He could be wonderfully raunchy and irreverent. The staff was much smaller in those days, and around five or six of us would get the compilation of the write-ups and we would bat various headline ideas around. I loved those meetings, but we couldn’t do things that way today. Editors are busy working on stories, and we have to limit the involvement to a few people. Richard left around 1980, and I inherited the project. Anne Dingus and I shared the work until she left the staff a couple of years ago. Now Rich has stepped in.
texasmonthly.com: Which is your favorite Bum Steer this year? Your all-time favorite?
PB: My favorite Bum Steers are those that are interesting write-ups and have great heads. My favorite item this year involved the proposed name of Houston’s soccer team, the Houston 1836 (honoring the year when Houston was founded). The name was changed when local Hispanics protested that 1836 was the year when Mexico was defeated by Texas. This kind of political correctness is ripe for lampooning Bum Steers. My headline was, “Can we keep the name of the Sam Houston tollway?” One of my all-time favorites involved a citation against Texas A&M University for dumping effluent into—believe it or not—Shinola Creek. The headline was “We always knew the Aggies couldn’t tell it from Shinola.” But I think we have overdone Aggie Bum Steers over the years.
texasmonthly.com: How much input do readers give? How often do reader suggestions make the list?
PB: I’d say we get twenty or so recommendations from readers every year. But we have one reader in Fort Worth who sends us a packet every year. He has a great eye for knowing what makes a Bum Steer.