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Texas Observer editors protest layoffs, urge crowdfunding to save the 68-year-old magazine

By Sewell Chan, The Texas Tribune

Texas Observer editors protest layoffs, urge crowdfunding to save the 68-year-old magazine” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Journalists at the Texas Observer on Monday urged their nonprofit board to reconsider its decision to close the crusading liberal magazine, proposing an emergency $200,000 fundraising appeal to keep the 68-year-old publication open.

The 17-member staff also expressed shock and anger after learning via a Texas Tribune article on Sunday that most or all of them would be laid off on Friday and that the publication would be put on “hiatus.”

“We believe that your decision to proceed with layoffs on Friday can still be avoided and is premature,” the editors wrote in a letter to the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation. The signers were editor-in-chief Gabriel Arana, digital editor Kit O’Connell, senior editor Lise Olsen and editor-at-large Gayle Reaves.

The editors asked that board members who voted to close the magazine resign, that a staff member be added to the board and that the board bring on “nationally known journalists with experience in assisting other journalism nonprofits in times of crisis.” They said the emergency appeal to raise $200,000 could be led by former board members and supporters.

The Observer’s Twitter account posted a link to a GoFundMe fundraiser Monday morning. As of Monday afternoon, its website made no mention of the board’s decision.

It’s not clear how the board will respond to those demands. All but two members of the board voted on Sunday to proceed with the layoffs, confirming a previous vote taken Wednesday.

The two dissenters were Peter A. Ravella, the board treasurer, and Eileen Smith, a writer and editor. Ravella had already announced that he was stepping down from the board this week, as he is selling his Austin home and moving with his wife to Olympia, Washington. In a statement, Smith said that her only disagreement on the vote to shut down was with “a small portion of the language” and that she agreed that “barring a last-minute infusion of cash, laying off the newsroom staff was the only way forward, which, of course, none of us wanted.”

The Observer, which since its founding in 1954 went from being a thorn in the side of conservative Democrats controlling the state to being a voice of defiance in a state now dominated by Republicans, has been beset by financial and personnel problems in recent years, although its staff has continued to produce important stories about women’s rights, border security, political extremism and other topics.

On Monday, James Canup, a veteran nonprofit fundraiser who joined the Observer in February 2022, said that he had been instructed to cease raising money and that his resignation, originally set for mid-April, would take effect immediately. Last Thursday, Robert R. Frump, a former board member who joined the staff last year to oversee business operations on an interim basis, resigned over the board’s decision to lay off the staff.

“If the board is throwing in the towel, it’s hard to reverse that,” Frump said. “If they want to keep it alive, it has a chance.”

In a phone interview, Laura Hernandez Holmes, the board president and a veteran Democratic political fundraiser, said the decision to lay off the staff came after many months of painful reckoning. She is stepping down as president on Friday but will remain on the board. She held out hope that the publication could be “reimagined” under new leadership.

Relations between the board and the staff’s top leaders — Frump, Canup and especially Arana — deteriorated substantially in recent months.

“I did struggle with some serious and false and hurtful attacks on my character by the editor,” Hernandez Holmes said. “I understand these attacks were circulated to other members of the staff. I do also understand that these false attacks by the editor were later retracted, but I never received an apology. These attacks on me, and the attacks on the board, kind of just sucked all the energy and focus away from maintaining the financial health of the org in the last couple of months.”

Hernandez Holmes said she saw the writing on the wall earlier this month “after multiple attempts to get a budget meeting from senior staff about how dire the financial situation was.”

She said the senior staff had used up $200,000 in funds that were meant to stay in reserves and were not to be spent without the board’s explicit consent.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a young woman of color talking to men,” she said. “I often wonder if my requests and directives would have been better received coming from a man. I was not respected as the board president by senior staff.

“That’s why the hiatus is so important so that we can fulfill current obligations, make the hard decisions about the layoffs and then think about what’s possible. I’m here making sure that we can fund some severance.”

Frump acknowledged allocating the $200,000 but said it was routine practice to use those funds for cash flow, with the expectation that grants would come in to replenish the reserves. He asserted that Hernandez Holmes was told that “we’re on the edge.”

To survive, the Observer was relying on a $1 million pledge from a family foundation run by a wealthy Austin couple, Greg Wooldridge and Lynne Dobson. The foundation had disbursed $400,000 and was in discussions with the staff over the remaining $600,000.

“The play wasn’t to cast blame, but to get the money from Greg and Lynne,” Frump said. Carol Ocker, who manages the foundation’s giving, has not responded to several requests for comment.

In interviews, journalists at the Observer said they were caught off guard and didn’t know the severity of the dysfunction.

Gus Bova, 32, who joined the staff in 2017 following an internship, is now the most senior reporter on staff, covering labor. He is expecting his first child in July and is now looking for work.

“I was only vaguely aware that there were some money issues,” he said. “No one told the staff that things were this grave or that this might be coming. I thought we were in the realm of revisiting the budget to make some trims on freelance expenses. I thought we were in that territory.”

Bova has served under four editors in chief (not counting interims): Forrest Wilder, who left in 2019 for Texas Monthly; Andrea Valdez, who left in 2020 for The 19th News; Tristan Ahtone, who left in 2021 alleging that the board had tolerated racist attacks on him; and Arana, who joined last year and now expects to be laid off Friday.

Bova pointed to notable journalism the Observer has carried out despite its precarious situation, including the work of an investigative reporting fellow, Josephine Lee, and of Olsen, who wrote a well-regarded book on sexual misconduct by federal judges. Bova himself was recently recognized by the Texas Institute of Letters for his reporting on the political activism of parents of children killed in the mass school shooting in Uvalde last May.

He said that the journalists had considered unionizing but that the would-be organizers themselves left for other jobs.

Steven Monacelli, also 32, who has been covering political extremism on a contract with the Observer since July and hoped to join the full-time staff, said he was blindsided by the announcement on Monday, which he likened to a eulogy.

“I’m surprised, to say the least, by how it’s been handled,” he said. “I am inspired by my colleagues and have hope that people will understand the historic importance of the outlet and also the good work that has been going on in recent years and why it’s needed right now.”

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