It hardly seems possible that it was 25 years ago when a small group of us, mostly veterans of local journalism in one form or another, got together and created Gambit Weekly. A quarter of a century. A generation, as things are often measured. It's both a long time and the blink of an eye. And from the first day we intended to make a difference in New Orleans, and to be around for the long haul.
When I reminisce about starting Gambit, I often remember the day we named the paper. Bart Loomis and Rosie Wilson had put some resources behind us. Philip Carter, who would be the chief investor, was not yet involved. We had typesetting equipment on the way, and a space to work in provided on spec by Joe Bernstein, upstairs at his old Spaghetti Factory Restaurant. I was living in a loft in the Quarter, and one Saturday we assembled there, knowing it was time to name the baby.
Julia Nead, our first art director, had been playing with logo designs, and since we did not have a name for our newspaper yet, she used different words to illustrate the style she had in mind, which was a convergence of classical and modern typography. One of the words she used to illustrate her idea was "gambit," picked up from the title of a Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout. When I asked her why she chose Gambit, she said "Look at it. A big round letter, the G. A peaked letter, the A. A wide letter, the M. A thin letter, the I. And the T with its hat on. It has everything."
Julia was there, and Newt Renfro. Kathleen Bishop, our first advertising director. Tom Hasselle, our first business manager, who went on to manage weekly papers in New York City. There were probably a few others, but I just can't reconstruct the scene completely. We started out with 50 or so possible names, everything any of us had thought of and taken seriously enough to record. We did round after round of eliminations, and Gambit kept surviving. Was it because Julia had made it real to us with her logo design? Partly, no doubt, but whatever the reason, it had staying power for us.
In the end we decided it was a great choice. The word is most often used for a chess move in which a player gives up a piece, usually a pawn, for favorable position. But it has come to mean a provocative remark intended to start a conversation, and it has the general sense of a stratagem, both of which seemed right to us. More important, it was not an everyday word, so it was an empty vessel that we could fill with meaning. What was a Gambit? Whatever we made it.
We did intend to make something of it. We knew it would be focused partly on entertainment, on what to do tonight or tomorrow night or next weekend. In fact, that calendar of activities was the engine that would drive everything. But because we were in New Orleans, entertainment was not what it is in other places -- it was, and is, the deep culture of the city, its music and its food and its arts and its spirit. We intended to mirror that culture to itself. And finally, we intended to be a positive voice in the public conversation about our city, to help shape the future.
I leave it to others to remember how we tried to do those things, as many talented people (including Clancy and Margo DuBos, David Richmond, Errol Laborde, Ron Ridenhour, Liz Galtney, Dana Standish, and others) joined with us over the years. And I leave it to them to judge when we succeeded, and when we failed, both of which we certainly did.
Instead, I am moved to reflect on New Orleans today, in the chaos and rubble left by Katrina, a city deeply wounded, its culture and very soul at risk, facing impossible obstacles and confronted, as the great cartoonist Walt Kelly had his character Pogo observe, "with insurmountable opportunities." There could not be a time when the mission we imagined 25 years ago could be more relevant, or more urgent.
We liked to tweak at the big daily paper in those days, and we had a slogan, "Gambit, because New Orleans needs a newspaper." The Times-Picayune is a better paper today than it was then, and is doing much that is important in the post-Katrina confusion. But I think it is fair to say that New Orleans needs a Gambit at this moment as well, and is lucky to have one.