We Can't Afford to Lose the Texas Observer
Staff at Texas' oldest progressive magazine learned from media reports that they'd be losing their jobs in a matter of days.
UPDATE 3/29: The Texas Observer board has agreed not to shutter the magazine!
Folks who want to support the Texas Observer staff can contribute to a GoFundMe started Monday by the magazine’s former managing director.
Former staffers are encouraged to sign on to a statement of solidarity urging the Texas Democracy Foundation board not to shutter the magazine, and contributors/freelancers, members of the media, and readers are invited to add their names in support of the former staff statement.
I once spent most of a Friday night trying to keep a Texas Observer board member from burning my house down. The occasion was a “Final Friday” party, a monthly gathering for liberal Austinites who didn’t need an excuse to get together to bitch about the Texas Legislature, but who would happily do so under the guise of fundraising for Texas’ only left-leaning statewide-coverage magazine.
It’s possible this particular event was the one where Texas State Rep. Elliott Naishtat showed up with a whole rotisserie chicken. It’s also possible Naishtat always brought whole rotisserie chickens to these things. I can’t remember; this was seven or eight years ago. Anyway. Our house was entirely too small for a gathering of several dozen drunk and disgruntled Boomers, but I loved the Observer, where my husband was on staff and I sometimes freelanced, and I loved entertaining, so: sure, why not. We encouraged most folks to congregate outside, where there was plenty of room to spread out in case someone spontaneously began reciting poetry.
On one of my many trips through the house to shuffle snacks and restock the coolers, I picked up the unmistakable whiff of natural gas. When I tracked down the source, I found an Observer board member holding court in the kitchen, leaning against the knobs on our gas stove. I opened a couple of windows and asked him to be more careful. A little while later, I ran into my husband, who warned me that he’d just finished an awkward conversation with a board member inside who seemed not to realize that he was gassing the crowd. I think each of us repeated this talk with the guy two or three more times — I even tried to convince him to lean against the sink instead, to no avail.
Realizing he could either babysit this grown-ass man the entire night or take radical action, my husband chose radical action: he baby-proofed the stove by removing the knobs. Countless lives were saved, not all heroes wear capes, I married an icon, etc.
Since the Texas Tribune broke the news last night that the Observer’s board had voted to shutter the nearly 70-year-old magazine and lay off its entire staff in a matter of days, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that party. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what it’s like working for non-profits in general, lefty non-profit media especially, and the Observer specifically.
For as long as I’ve been in the magazine’s broader orbit — since 2011 or so — the Texas Observer has been a progressive publication reluctant to look any direction but backward, grasping for the glory days of Ronnie Dugger and Molly Ivins, when Texas was a blue state and Rick Perry was a Democrat. Hell, a newsroom eavesdropper in the 2010’s could be forgiven for thinking Nate Blakeslee’s seminal 2000 Tulia investigation had been published just months before. I was as guilty of this as anyone; when I joined the staff in 2015, I thrilled at the opportunity to follow in Molly’s keystrokes.
What began in 1954 as a scrappy liberal rag had, over the ensuing decades, become a nationally respected destination for hard-hitting investigations, tough (and often darkly hilarious) commentaries, and thoughtful coverage of issues ranging from police brutality to immigration to abortion, thanks to an editorial refusal to deal in the bullshit both-sidesism of the mainstream and legacy press. But the Observer struggled internally to embody its progressive politics off the page. Journalists of color rarely thrived in the newsroom, and women complained of sexist sidelining. Without a dedicated HR department, opportunities for redress at the Observer were practically non-existent, and the line from the Texas Democracy Foundation, the board of which oversees the magazine, was often that there simply wasn’t enough money to do much of anything differently.
This tension between external values and internal operations isn’t unique to the Observer; it’s typical of the non-profit left across industries and geographies. But the Observer was especially hamstrung by a board fixated on a time-travel fantasy, unable or unwilling to pull itself away from the stove, as it were, clinging to rosy reminisces about times gone by even as staff pushed for innovative new coverage and funding models. It really looked like things might be shifting in a new direction when Tristan Ahtone, the Observer’s first Native editor-in-chief, took over in 2020. The magazine got an attractive redesign, recommitted to publishing long-form investigations and features on under-covered Texans and Texas issues, and launched a collaborative community journalism project in lieu of running quick hits and dunks on Texas’ Republican political establishment.
Watching from the outside, it seemed to me that Ahtone was the first editor to try taking the knobs off the gas range. That iteration of the magazine appears to have had its efforts rewarded with micromanagement, bad faith, and roadblocks to this new editorial vision, and by early 2022, the magazine had lost most of its staff to resignations, including all of its journalists of color. The collapse was devastating but perhaps not unpredictable; steeped in the traditions and limitations of white liberal saviorism, the magazine simply wasn’t ready for meaningful change, however urgently it was needed.
Headquartered here, the Observer is an Austin institution as much as a Texas one. Its core backers and board members have tended to hail from the capital city and from a particular, monied cohort of old-school Texas Democrats who live to swap stories about Ann Richards and Bob Bullock. The Venn Diagram of folks who long for Texas’ blue-state heyday and complain that the city is no longer “weird” enough probably isn’t exactly a circle, but I suspect there’s an awful lot of overlap. There’s definitely your regular, run-of-the-mill resistance to change going on, but it’s underpinned by a bewildered resentment — that something that was so clearly for you is now for someone else, that the way things have always been done might not be the best way today, and that there is no turning back the clock. That if something can’t be yours, it can’t be anyone’s.
Why else shutter a 70-year-old institution practically overnight? Why demean and disregard reasonable alternatives? The Observer’s remaining staff have suggested a number of proposals that could keep the publication alive beyond the end of this week, but the board seems unwilling to entertain those offers, even going so far as to assert that the magazine as a business property has “no intrinsic value” and can’t even be sold off.
Even with its messy history and all its faults, I can’t think of anything more valuable in the year 2023 than a muckraking magazine like the Texas Observer. I hope the board sees reason and gives the magazine the opportunity to survive another seventy days, if not another seventy years. There is simply no reason to blow up the house just because you liked standing by the stove.