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The Texas Observer Shuts Down Publication After 68 Years [Update]

Financial troubles and a shrinking reader base led to the decision
Photo: Texas Observer | Facebook

Since 1954, the Texas Observer has been a source of independent, often times humorous and highly researched progressive investigative journalism for Texan readers. But, according to The Texas Tribune, on Sunday the publication’s parent organization, the Texas Democracy Foundation, voted to close the magazine and lay off its staff of 17 members, including 13 journalists.

Update 03/28/23 - 11:37 a.m.: Following the Texas Tribune report on the publication’s closing, senior staff at the Texas Observer protested the board's decision and launched an emergency fundraising campaign to keep the magazine open. 

With a goal of $200,000, the crowdfunding page raised over $165,000 in less than 24 hours.

According to the Texas Tribune, in a letter to the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, the Observer’s parent organization, editor-in-chief Gabriel Arana, digital editor Kit O’Connell, senior editor Lise Olsen and editor-at-large Gayle Reaves called for all members of the board who voted for the layoffs to resign and to bring staff members to the board instead. “We believe that your decision to proceed with layoffs on Friday can still be avoided and is premature,” the editors wrote in the letter. 

After learning of the impending layoff on Friday, March 31, through news reports, Arana sent an email to the Observer’s supporters directing them to a GoFundMe page. The email said that if the board agreed to review its decision, the funds raised would be donated to the Texas Democracy Foundation to provide staff pay and benefits, but if they refused, then the funds raised would be split among the staff being laid off.

According to the Tribune, in recent weeks the Texas Democracy Foundation’s board was considering different strategies for decreasing the publication’s budget in order to remain afloat. Last year, the magazine’s budget was $2.1 million and the board aimed to bring that number down to $1.5 million by moving to an online-only publication and laying off staff members. 

On Wednesday, March 22, the board voted to approve the layoffs, prompting Robert R. Frump, who ran the publication’s business operations, to resign. “I handed in my resignation after they told me what they were doing,” he said in a phone interview for the Tribune.

Among the reasons for the magazine’s failure, Frump said the Observer was unable to adapt to the 24/7 news cycle and to compete with other sources of local information like the Texas Monthly and The Texas Tribune. Additionally, the Observer’s editorial independence stance and donor policy greatly restricted the publication’s funding. 

“We avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we do not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials, or candidates actively seeking public office—nor from sources who… present a conflict of interest with our work or compromise our independence,” states the publication’s website.

Another reason for the closing according to Frump is the aging of the Observer’s reader base, and its inability to engage the younger generations.

“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.”

But not everyone seems to agree with Frump’s evaluation. On Sunday night, the Tribune contacted editor-in-chief, Gabriel Arana, who said he wasn’t aware of the board’s decision. “I’m really proud of the work the staff is doing. The level of talent and the quality of journalism is really impressive,” said Arana. “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.”

Gus Bova, senior staff writer and assistant editor of the Observer who was about to go on maternity leave, also tweeted that he heard of the news when the Tribune asked for comments. .

In its 68 years of publication, the Texas Observer housed legendary journalists, political reporters and columnists like Molly Ivins, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Jake Bernstein, Larry L. King (the other Larry King) and James K. Galbraith.