Texas Observer, legendary crusading liberal magazine, is closing and laying off its staff
By Sewell Chan and Brandon Formby, The Texas Tribune
“Texas Observer, legendary crusading liberal magazine, is closing and laying off its staff” 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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The Texas Observer, the storied progressive publication known for its feisty, combative and often humorous investigative journalism, is shutting down and will lay off its 17-person staff, including 13 journalists, several members of its board said Sunday.
The decision marks an end to 68 years of publication, starting with its founding in 1954 by Ronnie Dugger and including a six-year period under the helm of the legendary Molly Ivins from 1970 to 1976. The magazine, in its first few decades, represented the liberal wing of the once-conservative Democratic Party. It was a thorn in the side of Lyndon B. Johnson when he was Senate majority leader (before he became president), Govs. Allen Shivers and John B. Connally, and other conservative Democrats. And it chronicled the era in which Texas was remade into a Republican stronghold that sent a governor, George W. Bush, to the White House.
The closing of the Observer raises questions about whether small progressive publications can survive the digital transformation of journalism and the information ecosystem during a time of rapid social, demographic and technological change.
While nonprofit newsrooms have been proliferating around the country, many are dependent on philanthropic grants and don’t have a clear pathway to economic sustainability. The Observer had been supported for years by a small number of major donors, and wasn’t able to build a broad base of subscribers and members.
The Observer’s budget was $2.1 million last year, and in recent weeks, the board considered moving to online-only publication, which would have taken the budget down to $1.8 million, and doing that plus laying off three staff members, which would have taken the budget to $1.5 million. The Observer has about 4,000 print subscribers (its content is free online) and 64,000 subscribers to its free email newsletter. It doesn’t accept advertising.
The board of the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, which owns the Observer, voted on Wednesday to approve the layoffs, according to the board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its internal deliberations.
Robert R. Frump, who stepped down from the board in June to run the magazine’s business operations as a special adviser, resigned in protest on Thursday after he was informed of the decision. Following a last-ditch effort to slow the process and give employees more severance, the Observer’s board confirmed its decision on Sunday and plans to tell the staff on Monday morning that their last day will be this Friday, March 31, the board members said.
Frump told The Texas Tribune that the board chair, Laura Hernandez Holmes, and other board members instructed him on Thursday morning to cease operations immediately and shut off access to email and social media accounts. “I handed in my resignation after they told me what they were doing,” he said in a phone interview.
Hernandez Holmes, an El Paso native and Austin-based campaign consultant and political fundraiser who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s failed presidential bid in 2019, said in a text message Sunday night: “I feel strongly about talking with the staff before I talk with any reporters outside the organization. I owe them that.”
“The editorial quality of the Texas Observer is excellent, and it deserves to live on in some format,” Frump said. “It has a unique voice that’s progressive but hews to the truth. I‘m hoping some version of it can still survive.”
Frump said the Observer was ultimately unable to adapt to the demands of a 24/7 news cycle and the proliferation of other sources of information about Texas, including Texas Monthly, a features magazine that just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization co-founded in 2009 by Evan Smith, a former editor of the Monthly.
“Our reader base and our donor base is aging out,” Frump said. “There’s a nostalgia for Molly Ivins and Ann Richards and their era, and that’s a lot of what still drives the Observer. We weren’t able to build a bridge to the younger, progressive generation. I think the legacy is worth fighting for, but I do understand why the board feels the way it does.”
Reached Sunday night, Gabriel Arana, who was hired as the magazine’s editor in chief in April 2022 after two consecutive top editors left abruptly, said: “This is the first I’m hearing of it, the board hasn’t communicated with me or the staff about this.”
He added: “I’m really proud of the work the staff is doing. The level of talent and the quality of journalism are really impressive. I feel the board has abdicated its responsibility for fundraising and ensuring the financial health of the publication. I think it’s shameful that they haven’t involved the staff in this decision-making in any way.”
Arana pointed to enterprising work on women’s health issues, political extremism, Texas rivers and on the Biden administration’s border policies.
Decades of investigations
Through the entirety of its operation, the Observer earned a hard-fought reputation for pulling no punches with the state’s political echelon — and telling richly written stories about race, poverty and classism that mainstream news outlets ignored, overlooked or under-reported.
Dugger, who was in his 20s when he became the founding editor, clearly defined that mission in the first issue.
“We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit,” he wrote.
In the decades since, the outlet’s mix of threadbare operations and muckraking ambitions churned a staggering stable of renowned investigative journalists, political reporters and celebrated columnists including Ivins, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Jake Bernstein and James K. Galbraith.
Dugger served as editor until 1961, when he then became publisher. In 2011, he was awarded the George Polk Award for career achievement. His leadership made the publication something beloved by journalists — and loathed by Texas officials. Or, as Dugger put it when writing about the Observer for the Texas State Historical Association, the magazine “has been celebrated outside the state much more than in it.”
Ivins, the late legendary political commentator and humorist, called it a “publication in a class by itself” in the 2004 book “Fifty Years of the Texas Observer.”
“Texas, as has often been noted, is a peculiar place: it both deserves and needs an independent magazine devoted solely to its politics and other oddities,” she wrote. “The extraordinary struggles for economic and political justice chronicled in the Observer’s pages go back to the days when it was the only publication read by white people that addressed the problems and concerns of black and brown Texans.”
Its columns, exposés and investigations captured innumerable historic Texas events with human-focused empathy, acerbic wit and razor-sharp accountability. In 1966, Bill Helmer wrote a first-person account of witnessing the University of Texas tower shooting.
“How strange it felt to stand there in such comfortably familiar surroundings, hugging a marble pillar I walked past every day, listening to the constant banging of rifles and the sound of real bullets whacking and whining off stone,” he wrote.
In 1981, former Texas lawmaker A.R. “Babe” Schwartz peeled back the curtain on life in the Legislature — and after it.
“Some go to hell in a basket, damned by new habits of excess in all things—the classic blondes, bourbon, and beefsteak syndrome,” he wrote. “Some go to the Congress. Worse excesses. Some just go a hundred yards from the House to the Senate. It is often said that that raises the average IQ of both bodies. Some of us lucky ones, for our eternal reward, even die and become lobbyists.”
A 2000 investigation from Nate Blakeslee cast a light on the weak criminal cases against dozens of people — most of them Black — arrested on drug charges in a mass, high-profile sting operation in the small Panhandle town of Tulia.
“The reason I love the Observer has more to do with most media being increasingly controlled by large companies, which makes the reader a consumer,” then-coeditor Karen Olsson told Texas Monthly in 2001. “Nobody can start a magazine without at least $1 million. From the content perspective, because we’re not bottom-line driven, we can forget celebrity stuff and service and select things we’re interested in, just because we’re interested in them. Readers call us all the time with story ideas. We let our writers play with words. We’re very flexible about length.”
High turnover in final years
The Observer had had some near-death experiences in recent years, including a seemingly unending turnover of editors and managers. The instability began after Forrest Wilder, who had begun his career at the magazine and was named editor in chief in 2015, left in 2019 to be a senior editor at the Monthly.
The next editor, Andrea Valdez, who rejoined the magazine in 2020, lasted only a couple of months before she was hired away by The 19th News, a nonprofit formed that year by Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, the former editor in chief and audience director, respectively, of the Tribune. Another editor, Abby Johnston, joined Valdez in moving to The 19th News.
Next came Tristan Ahtone, who in April 2020 became the first Native American editor of the magazine, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down the economy. After clashing with several staff members, whom he accused of racial discrimination, he stepped down in October 2021.
Several staffers left after Ahtone, including Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who covered indigenous affairs for the Observer.
Ahtone said on Sunday night: “We could have seen this coming. Current leadership probably could have made a few calls to alleviate some of the financial pressures and staff problems that came after I left.” He said the reason he left was “because the board of directors wouldn’t deal with racism in the organization.”
Ahtone’s resignation was soon followed by those of Mike Kanin, who had been the Observer’s publisher since 2017, and board chair Abby Rapoport, a journalist (and former Tribune reporter) whose grandfather Bernard and father, Ron, have supported the Observer for decades. (Ron Rapoport remains a board member.) Both of them had clashed with Ahtone.
Also in 2021, the Emerson Collective, the social investment and philanthropic entity set up by Laurene Powell Jobs, ended several years of support.
From that point, the Observer became harder and harder to sustain, even though things seemed temporarily to brighten, according to the former board members. James Canup, a seasoned nonprofit fundraiser, joined as managing director in February 2022, and Arana, an editor who had worked at HuffPost and The American Prospect, was hired in April 2022. (He was chosen over the interim editor in chief, Megan Kimble, who then left.) Frump stepped down from the board to oversee day-to-day business operations in July 2022.
October 2022 was a momentous, possibly decisive, month for the Observer. That month, for the first time since 2019, the Observer held its annual fundraising dinner to give out the MOLLY National Journalism Prizes, named for Ivins, the crusading journalist who died in 2007. But it brought in only about half of the roughly $200,000 it used to, Frump said.
Also that month, the Observer received what seemed like a lifeline: a $1 million pledge by the Tejemos Foundation, set up by Greg Wooldridge, a retired investor, and Lynne Dobson, a philanthropist and photojournalist whose family started Whataburger. The couple disbursed $400,000 of the gift soon after, and later asked the magazine for documentation of matching funds and other efforts in order to receive the remaining $600,000, some of which would have gone to cover public relations, marketing and other vital business operations that had been long neglected.
Carol Ocker, who manages the couple’s philanthropic giving, did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
However, the good news was fleeting. Arana, the new editor, began to clash with Hernandez Holmes, the board chair, and Canup, the new fundraising director, according to board members. Relations among those top leaders — crucial in any nonprofit organization, and especially a small one — quickly deteriorated, the board members said.
Earlier this month, the writing on the wall became clear. Canup gave notice. Hernandez Holmes announced she was stepping down as board chair; board members persuaded her to stay on until the end of March. As of last week, the magazine had only $170,000 in reserves, about enough for two months of payroll. Typical philanthropic guidelines suggest that nonprofits have at least three months of monthly expenses in reserve, and ideally six or more months.
Peter A. Ravella, the board’s treasurer, and Eileen Smith, a writer and editor who is on the board, voted no on shutting down Sunday morning. Ravella said he had accepted the board’s decision but thought the process for unwinding the organization was too hasty, and made without adequate consultation with donors and staff members. Ravella is leaving the board this week, as he and his wife are selling their home and moving to Olympia, Washington.
The Observer had recently announced that it would host an event at the Paramount Theatre in Austin on May 17. The featured speaker was to be Annette Gordon-Reed, a renowned Harvard historian, scholar of Thomas Jefferson, and author of “On Juneteenth,” about the legacy of racism in Texas.
It wasn’t clear Sunday night whether that event will proceed.
Disclosure: The Emerson Collective, The Paramount Theatre, the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/26/texas-observer-shutting-down/.
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