How a $5,000 Check Brought a Former Houston Press Writer into the Backpage Legal Fight

She got the check from an old boss just days before Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton issued a warrant for his arrest. But why did he send it?

By Michael MarksOctober 12, 2016 9:02 am| ,

Reporters have been finding unusual things in their mailboxes of late: Donald Trump’s tax returns from the mid-1990s and, in a Texas newsroom, a $5,000 check from a former boss.

The check was from Mike Lacey, the man who used to run the alternative Houston Press. He sent to Houston Chronicle reporter Lisa Gray, who had worked with Lacey as a reporter there, but they hadn’t really kept in touch. And now a check from out of the blue?

Lacey was a character to be sure – he’d owned a dozen alt weeklies over the years and had taken a stake in an online publishing enterprise too. Lisa Grey wondered, Why is my old boss sending me money?

Gray says Lacey was a “swaggering editor…known for brawling, known for drinking but really he’s known also for loving journalism, for breaking stories.”

“Nowadays, an editor’s a calming force usually on reporters,” she says. “In those days, he was more about inciting us, about riling people up.”

Gray says she was “shocked” and the letter from Lacey’s law firm said it was “a gift.” She says she couldn’t find an address for him, so tried to get in touch with him via his attorney and never heard back. A few days later, the CEO of Backpage – the classified ad company that runs on the back pages of many city alt-weeklies – was arrested at the airport. Backpage ads financed many alt-weeklies’ news budgets and Gray says she knew they contributed to her paycheck.

“I knew that paid part of my salary as a journalist,” she says. “As the internet evolved and took ads away from print, New Times managed to capture that piece of the advertising market.”

Gray says Lacey, now 70, jumped into the fight in part as what he calls a defense of the First Amendment. “He’s always loved a fight,” she says. “In a way, this may be one of his last big ones.”

Post by Hannah McBride.