Steffy: After 9 years, a fond farewell

In the old days of news­papers, when copy was still edited on paper, the symbol -30- was used to mark the end of the story.

This, then, is my -30-, my final column for the Houston Chronicle.

Writing in this space has been the most gratifying job I’ve ever had. I’ve gotten to cover some of the most interesting people and dynamic issues in the most vibrant business environment on Earth. More than nine years ago, when former Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen first discussed a column, he asked me how I would make mine different from the others out there.

I told him I wanted to write a column that gave a voice to the voiceless constituents of the marketplace – investors, employees and consumers. Too often, their concerns are drowned out by the din and machinations of corporatespeak.

We call this the business section, but that, too, is a holdover from a different era of journalism. What we really write about here is money and the people it affects.

Following that flow of money led me to an incredible cast of characters over the years. I interviewed fishermen who live on the southern Louisiana island dubbed “The Bathtub” in the Oscar-nominated film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and I joked about drinking Irish coffee with a Saudi mining executive in Riyadh.

I talked to musician Robert Earl Keen about the pension plan he provides for his band. I interviewed spinach farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, cotton farmers in the Panhandle, and wildcatters from the familiar fields of West Texas to the untapped fields of eastern Turkey.

I also found hubris, most notably in the testimony of fallen Enron executive Jeff Skilling at his 2006 trial, and heartbreak, in the stories of victims and survivors of disasters such as BP’s Texas City refinery explosion and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

I also had fun along the way. I once wrote a column in the style of a Mickey Spillane novel and another in the verse of Dr. Seuss.

I have my share of regrets, too. I ended one early column about efforts to prosecute low-level Enron executives, which I had called “small fry,” by saying there were “bigger fish in need of frying.” In a pre-trial filing for the Enron case, lawyers for Skilling and Ken Lay implied I was suggesting a punishment for their clients. I wasn’t, but I wish I’d chosen my words more carefully.

The memories of what I’ve written in the space also serve as a reminder that much work still needs to be done.

The folly of electric deregulation, and a failure of leadership by utility commissioners in Austin, has left us facing the possibility of rolling blackouts again this summer.

The boom in domestic oil production may be our last chance to craft an effective energy policy that will bridge from hydrocarbons to a more diverse portfolio of future fuels. We must learn from our past mistakes.

Too many public company executives continue to ignore the will of their investors while fattening their own wallets at shareholder expense.

Too many workers still must compromise their safety because of demands for corporate profits.

The purpose of this column hasn’t diminished in these past nine years, but I worried that the job was becoming a little too routine, that I was growing a bit too comfortable.

For a writer, that’s a sign to shake things up.

So it’s time to plunge into new waters, to take up a challenge that will test my writing skills in new ways. After 26 years of covering business in Texas for news organizations, I’m joining a group of former colleagues in a small firm that specializes in strategic communications.

I am, quite frankly, terrified in an exhilarating sort of way. It reminds me of how I felt when I first started this column.

I will miss that familiar tug in the gut when I started to write, and I’ll miss the rush I felt when I stumbled across a topic that I knew immediately would make a great column.

What I will miss most of all, though, is you, my readers. Some of you thanked me, which was always welcomed; some of you criticized me, which comes with the territory. Some of you made suggestions and passed on ideas, which gave the column a vitality I couldn’t have given it on my own.

We didn’t always agree, and I made my share of boneheaded mistakes, but I hope that you had as much fun as I did. It was a good run – the best, in fact, for which I could have hoped.

This column comes to its end, but my gratitude for you, my readers, never will.

Thank you for reading.

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