Texas Observer will continue publishing after staff raises $300K in three days

Texas flag

A crowdfunding effort by staff will allow the Texas Observer to stay open, saving the progressive publication from a planned shutdown.

The Observer, a small Austin-based magazine whose investigation and polemic have been a keystone of the state liberal wing for nearly three generations, is run by the Texas Democracy Foundation, whose board voted unexpectedly to shutter it on Sunday night, as The Texas Tribune reported.

Shocked staff — including one writer about to go on paternity leave — found out that their jobs had disappeared only when the Tribune called them for comment Sunday evening.

But after an emergency staff fundraising drive raised more than $300,000 in three days — three times the amount the group had originally aimed for — the board abruptly reversed course late Wednesday evening, according to the Tribune.

“Today, upon receiving significant financial pledges over the past few days, the Texas Observer board gathered to vote to reconsider previous board actions,” said Laura Hernandez Holmes, the president of the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, in a statement, according to Texas Public Radio.

Hernandez Holmes herself announced she would step down.

The short-lived closure came amid a wave of Republican bills aimed at promoting fossil fuelsbanning drag and gender-affirming care and curtailing the power of cities.

Against that backdrop, the surprise decision to shutter the magazine triggered an outpouring of anger from Texas and across the country — and a flood of donations into the crowdfunding campaign started by James Canup, the magazine’s former fundraising director.

The Observer’s respite doesn’t resolve the structural problems at the magazine, Canup told the Tribune. He listed the perennial tension he says comes with a political nonprofit board overseeing an independent newsroom, the publication’s reliance on a shrinking base of physical subscribers and — a nearly universal problem across the industry — the fact that investigative journalism is, in terms of worker-hours, very expensive.

Current and former board members and staff clashed over the cause for the Observer’s temporary closure following the board’s initial vote on the matter. 

“Our reader base and our donor base is aging out,” Robert Frump, a former board member who resigned in protest over the decision to close, told the Tribune, which broke the story of that vote on Sunday.

Nostalgia for the days when the Texas Democrats controlled the state was “a lot of what still drives the Observer,” Frump added.

“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.”

But that narrative misplaces the blame, former interim editor Megan Kimble wrote on Twitter.

The board itself was the “source of this nostalgia that supposedly hindered efforts to broaden the magazine’s reach,” she wrote.

One symbolic but charged issue was the legacy of Molly Ivins — a legendary Texas journalist whose iconic columns for The Texas Observer and Dallas Observer achieved canonical status for generations of Texas liberals.

“When I joined the Observer in 2019, staff repeatedly insisted that focusing on Molly Ivins’ legacy — the progressivism of the 1990s — was out of sync with the Texas we lived in and reported on,” Kimble wrote.

“The board decimated that effort,” Kimble wrote

The board consistently feuded with Tristan Ahtone, a former editor who helped diversity the Observer’s staff and clashed with the board over what he characterized as its handling of a racist incident by the magazine’s business office.

Following Ahtone’s departure 2020, Kimble — who was promoted to the interim editor — sent a list of staff concerns, signed by the entire masthead, ranging from its lack of a human resources department to concerns about fundraising. 

“We had this opportunity to try to change some things at the Observer, to make it so that we can support someone like Tristan leading our newsroom,” Kimble told The Objective at the time.

In response, the board canceled an in-progress issue of the magazine and rescinded Kimble’s offer of employment — a move that led to an exodus of staff in late 2021.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, board president Laura Hernandez Holmes blamed the editorial staff.

“I did struggle with some serious and false and hurtful attacks on my character by the editor,” Hernandez Holmes said, in reference to Arana.

“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,” she added.

Staff, in turn, told The Daily Beast that they had been blindsided by the decision — announced via a story leaked to the Texas Tribune — which came as a monthly issue was in the works.

All but two members of the Observer’s board voted to shutter the magazine, with one of the dissidents — Eileen Smith — saying 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.”

On Wednesday evening, with $306,000 pledged, the board voted unanimously that their concerns in that regard had been satisfied. 

The board had erred in assuming that the story would stay local, and that the magazine staff couldn’t save it, editor-in-chief Robert Arana wrote on Twitter Tuesday night.

“Heard through rumor mill that board members assured this would ‘at most be a Texas story,’” Arana wrote.

But the interview requests had poured in from national outlets proved that “The people and the public CARE,” he wrote.

“This is a NATIONAL story. We matter to Texas, to the country, and to democracy,” he added.

Updated at 9:20 p.m.


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video