RIP, Texas Observer (maybe?)

A real shame, and a real loss.

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 and demographic transformation of journalism and the information ecosystem during a time of rapid social 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.

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 shut down operations immediately and shut off access to email. “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 [former Democratic Gov.] 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.”

The story goes into the Observer’s celebrated history as well as its recent problems with funding and editorial leadership. The top story on the website right now is a deep dive into the effect of Texas’ abortion ban on doctors. The Observer Twitter feed is full of reactions to this news, including from current writers who were just learning about the news via the Trib story. I’m very sad to see this happen, but I can’t say I’m surprised. You don’t need me to tell you how tough the landscape is for publishing these days, and niche publications have it even harder. It’s a testament to the Observer that they made it this far, but that doesn’t make its end any less lamentable. I wish the entire staff all the best and hope they are able to land on their feet elsewhere.

UPDATE: Maybe it’s not quite the end of the story:

I wish them all the luck with this. Hit that GoFundMe link in the replies if you want to help out.

UPDATE: From Monday afternoon:

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.”

Like I said, I hope there’s a way forward. We’ll see.

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  1. Pingback: The Texas Observer lives again – Off the Kuff

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