In March, a friend texted me a link, along with an “omg” and a shedding-a-tear emoji, to a story from the Texas Tribune, a political news site. “Texas Observer, legendary crusading liberal magazine, is closing and laying off its staff,” read the headline. The nonprofit board that oversees the Observer had decided to suspend operations because the magazine had run out of money, which was bewildering news to anyone who’d ever been involved with the Observer: Hadn’t it always been out of money? For much of its nearly seventy-year history, the magazine would reenact the same Perils of Pauline scenario—bankrupt and tied down to the rails, only to be rescued at the last minute by subscribers and donors. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Observer had been sustained in part by a heroically frugal business manager who charged printing costs to his personal credit card and occasionally lived at the office to cut his own expenses.
The staff, who’d been in the dark about the board’s plan until after the vote, mounted an online fundraising campaign. The response was fervent and continued steadily for days, a sudden outpouring from contributors large and small. I was riveted by the GoFundMe page and kept refreshing the screen, looking for names I knew but also just watching the donations roll in. I had worked for the Observer in the late 1990s, when I was just out of college, but I had little sense of who its readers were now; all of a sudden, a community appeared, and even if a third of its members were anonymous, and perhaps not readers of the magazine at all, the group ponied up nearly $350,000. The board reconsidered: the magazine wouldn’t shut down after all. There were backers, a collective of the fleeting, online variety. Would that be enough, over the longer term, for the magazine to survive?
People used to fear that the internet would kill off hard-hitting investigative journalism, the muckraking pieces that took months to research and write. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Wealthy individuals and foundations launched new websites and underwrote public-interest reporting at existing outlets, and if there’s one problem I don’t have these days, it’s any lack of well-executed, consequential journalism to digest—I can’t possibly get to it all. What has dwindled instead is something more elusive: that kind of idiosyncratic persona that adheres to paper publications and is difficult to reproduce online. The magazine that arrives in your mailbox has its own identity, a feel and a tone. It’s a small collective you might want to join, or at least support from afar. (A single website can emanate plenty of personality, but when you have umpteen browser tabs open, the content tends to blur together.) That identity might be regionally specific, it might be funny or literary or morally urgent—or, as has been the case with the Texas Observer, all of the above.
You could say that its original benefactors were pine trees. Much of the money to start the Texas Observer back in 1954—and more to keep it going in subsequent years—came from a Houston woman who’d inherited a lumber fortune. Her wealth had been extracted from the woods of East Texas, a boggy realm of loblolly and longleaf pines, magnolias and oaks, draped with vines and Spanish moss, so wild and tangled that Anglos had nicknamed the region the Big Thicket. Indigenous peoples had mostly chosen to live on the outskirts of the forest, and the Spanish didn’t really want to mess with it. For most of recorded time nobody thought of it as a source of revenue.
For much of its nearly seventy-year history, the Texas Observer would reenact the same Perils of Pauline scenario—bankrupt and tied down to the rails, only to be rescued at the last minute by subscribers and donors.
Until white colonizers came, and did. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, an era when the forests of the eastern United States had already been logged, and Great Plains states with few trees of their own were clamoring for wood, some eighteen million acres of old-growth forest in East Texas were summarily chopped down. The razing of the pines happened so quickly and dramatically that I see it as something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, a horde of beavers eating through a stand of trees and leaving stumps behind. But these woods were denser and darker than a cartoon could render, and the trees were taken down not by beavers but horses and oxen and a big machine called the steam skidder, used to haul fallen trees to the trams that conveyed them to the railroad, the logs knocking down much of the understory as they came crashing through it.
This forest and the plundering of it isn’t what Texas is known for, but even after the original timber was cut down and the old forest replaced by secondary-growth trees, East Texas would remain the shadowy id to the state’s cowboy ego. In its ecology and psychology it was part of the Deep South (the adjective deep is also sometimes applied to “East Texas”), a home to outlaws and bootleggers and poverty and corruption, and the setting for some of the state’s worst episodes of race terror. To the southwest lay Houston, which built itself up as the boosterish swamp capital of the local extractive industries: cotton, then lumber, then oil, along with the facilitating banks and railroads.
So when Frankie Randolph, a liberal Democratic organizer whose father had profited from East Texas lumber mills and later entered Houston society, gathered together some like-minded allies to start a weekly Austin-based political newspaper and then loaned it half its startup money, there was an element of correction: the lumber industry had fattened itself off environmental and labor abuses, and now some of its profits would underwrite a paper dedicated to exposing such things. But I like to imagine that a stranger alchemy took place as well, a mysterious exchange between the East Texas murk and sun-dazed Austin, in which the long-ago wounds inflicted on the state’s forest somehow managed to propel a group of idealists to band together in pursuit of social justice.
What their project required was a romantic notion of truth-telling as big and bold as the cowboy myth at which the Observer was forever tilting. “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it,” begins the original mission statement written by Ronnie Dugger, the Observer’s first and most dogged editor. “We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy,” it continues. The Jeffersonian loftiness becomes endearing when I think of the actual “we” that was the newspaper’s staff, which in 1954 consisted of Dugger, aged twenty-four, and one other guy working as business manager. And when I think of them sweating through the long Texas summers: air conditioning wasn’t yet widespread, and to get anything done in the South meant waging a “struggle of will against inertia,” as Thomas Merton once put it.
Dugger was a former editor of the Daily Texan, the UT Austin student paper. He’d been planning to go to Mexico and write a novel when one of Randolph’s colleagues approached him about editing a new weekly paper. At first he wasn’t sure the group would agree to his demand for editorial independence. But they did, and the position fell in line with a vision he’d had one night after running out of gas in the hills west of Austin. While wandering lost through stands of cedar, he would tell an interviewer years later, “I decided what I had to do with my life was sort of like the scout on Western caravans who went ahead and looked for the ambushes and big rivers, and came back and talked to the people who had to turn the wagons.”
This scout would drive around the state and write on the order of twenty thousand words a week for the people in the wagons. He often traveled to East Texas. Back then the state’s major newspapers “were right-wing racist rotgut almost without exception,” as Dugger later wrote, and the most urgent stories could go all but unreported. “A 16-year-old Negro boy has been murdered and two younger Negro girls shot in a rural East Texas area ridden through with race tension,” begins a dispatch from 1955. Shots had been fired from a black Ford into a café where the kids had been drinking soda and dancing, as well as into “a Negro school bus and the bus driver’s car, a Negro’s mailbox, a Negro home, and the Negro school.” White resentment had been simmering over a recent bond issue for that school, but local law enforcement seemed in no hurry to find the two men who’d been driving the Ford, much less to determine their motives. A cryptic account of the murder in the Longview newspaper had not mentioned race. At the end of the article Dugger introduces the dead boy’s grandmother, whom he’d interviewed on her front porch, a woman overwhelmed by grief.
For many years the Observer wrote about race without integrating its own editorial staff, which at first consisted of white men and then, after some years, also white women. Their well-intentioned but problematic worldview is suggested in a sentence from North Toward Home, the 1967 memoir by Willie Morris, who served as editor in the early 1960s before taking a job as editor of Harper’s. “The Observer ran essays on the rural sharecroppers, the whores in Galveston, the Negroes in East Texas, the Mexicanos living in caves and shanties just across the border,” he wrote. The essays were rarely by these forsaken people, but maybe it was just too hard to lure them out of their caves to get them to write for the magazine.
Dugger’s car, in Morris’s words “a woebegone 1948 Chevrolet,” broke down often, and his understanding of Texas expanded by way of interviews with people in the towns where he’d been stranded. The Observer’s articles were powered by various intentions, among them to voice dissent in a state that had barely known any, to expose injustice and corruption, and to narrate the political process from a left-leaning vantage. Its writers were also trying to capture Texas in all its complexity at a time when the state was far more regionally disparate than it is now and practically groaning under the weight of the stories that hadn’t been reported, so much journalistic low-hanging fruit.
The documentary impulse has a way of gravitating toward elegy—you want to catch something before it’s gone. On top of that Morris saw something endangered in Dugger’s very compulsion to wrap his mind around the entire state, writing that his “devotion to Texas as a place, as a state distinctive from other states, was something that was vanishing from America.” As the population migrated in the twentieth century, from rural areas to cities, magazines including the Observer (which transformed from a weekly paper to a biweekly magazine under Morris’s tenure) would help track that shift, but Morris was already seeing a consequence of that mobility, inauspicious for any place-based publication: people’s attachments to locality were fraying.
A Dog Named Shit
The Observer has had something like twenty-one head editors over the years, but one of them, Molly Ivins, became so famous later in life that her brand was stamped on the magazine’s flank, for better and for worse. I met her in 1997 or 1998 at her home in South Austin, which was full of plants and books and the smell of her cigarettes, like a greenhouse that doubled as a literary salon. She would’ve been in her early fifties. She and I were about the same height—almost six feet—but she was the bigger person and a far bigger presence. The encounter felt awkward, an audience without much of a reason behind it. By then she wore her professional-Texan persona like body armor, and who could blame her? She was the daughter of a domineering oil executive, a tall girl with a wide grin raised in white-glove Houston society—a “Clydesdale among thoroughbreds,” she would later say. She’d spent the first half of the 1970s co-editing the Observer, which for her largely meant covering the political scene, which in turn meant continually having her boobs grabbed by the Homo erectus types in and around the Texas Capitol. Eventually she was hired away by the New York Times, a newspaper that couldn’t figure out how to make use of her wit and then fired her after she described a New Mexico chicken-slaughtering event as a “gang pluck”; she landed back in Texas and hit her stride writing a syndicated column that brought her fame and a swarm of hangers-on.
What their project required was a romantic notion of truth-telling as big and bold as the cowboy myth at which the Observer was forever tilting.
Even in the late 1990s, some of the male journalists around Austin said cruel things about her and seemed to be obsessed with whether she was a lesbian. Her life would be a lot more interesting if she were one, Ivins would joke. The truth was that she’d lost her first serious boyfriend to a motorcycle accident when she was a student at Smith College, and according to longtime friends, she was never quite the same. Although she had her share of dalliances with men, her longest and most tumultuous affair was with alcohol.
But in her heyday, it all kind of worked. As coeditor of the Observer, Ivins dressed in proletarian denim; she had a car that wouldn’t go in reverse and a dog named Shit. The town was full of smart drunks. Late afternoons, she’d often get a call from Bob Bullock, a manic-depressive power broker who in the 1970s served as Texas secretary of state and then as comptroller of public accounts. (“Like an LBJ on angel dust, Bullock carried guns, slept four hours a night, got into fistfights outside of bars, and dove out motel bathroom windows,” write Ivins’s biographers Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith.) Bullock would invite Ivins to come by—“You goddamned better get your fuckin’ ass over here if you want me to talk to you,” he might say. The two of them would start drinking in his office and then repair to a nearby watering hole.
While theirs was an unusual relationship between two unusual people, in those days Austin journalists and politicians did party together more than they do now. By the mid-1970s the political left in Texas was bigger and more diverse and more activist than it had been in Dugger’s time; the Chicano movement had organized successful voter registration drives and school walkouts, and Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman ever elected to the Texas Senate, had gone on to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Observer cheered these developments, yet Ivins—especially later on, as a columnist recalling her days at the Observer—still had a way of conjuring the state’s liberals as the people she’d gone on rafting trips with, a bunch of embattled but lovable Austin oddballs and hippies and policy wonks hanging out on some river, tossing back cans of Falstaff and belting dirty songs. It was a warm, folksy image that appealed to her devoted readers, but it left a lot of people out.
Fueling this image, and Ivins’s writing generally, was her distinctive way with words: she cultivated a literary voice that represented both a high-water mark and parody of Texas speech. In this she had company. Writers like Billy Lee Brammer and Larry L. King composed in similarly eclectic modes, tossing the highbrow rhetoric they’d picked up from books and the salty talk they’d grown up around into the particle accelerators of their not-necessarily-sober brains, smashing it all together and seeing what popped out. Drawing on her elite education, her extensive reading, her wide acquaintance with people, and her love of the colorful (or off-color) bit, Ivins could turn on a dime from breathy Latinate English to a sharp Anglo-Saxon jab. The Texas vernacular is full of hard edges, jostling consonants. Poet and memoirist Mary Karr, in a 2000 interview with the young Observer reporter I once was, told me that compared to the language of other parts of the South, the talk she’d grown up around in Port Arthur, Texas, was earthier, more muscular, and usually related back to some bodily function, often with a touch of the surreal; Ivins once said a certain Texas attorney general was “so mean he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brains were on fire.”
In person you never knew which register Ivins was going to use, according to Kaye Northcott, who coedited the Observer with her for six years: “She was quite the magpie, she just picked up on things. . . . I could never figure out why she used her accent when—sometimes it seemed contrapuntal.” One could lean on the idea of counterpoint to understand not just Ivins’s versatility but how the magazine as a whole worked. I’m thinking of poet and critic Fred Moten’s essay about the 1993 film Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, in which he suggests that the film is energized by a contrapuntal relationship between fantasy and documentary. Any political magazine, to some extent, is going to do that, pit documentary and fantasy against each other, juxtaposing descriptions of the way things are with invocations of something better. The Observer in particular always had its own Texas-steeped and Austin-sauced way of measuring the tragicomic distance between the two. The aspirations toward a more fair and equal society were always tempered by yesterday’s interview with a lobbyist for beer distributors. Ivins’s genius was to hone a style of verbal performance that could contain the aspirations and the beer lobby.
Fantasy in Flux
When I worked there in the 1990s and early 2000s, on the dusty ground floor of a Masonic lodge building downtown, I was eager for the magazine to move out of the long shadow of its legacy, to escape its older readers’ nostalgia for Molly and Ronnie. Never mind the fact that most of our subscribers seemed to be those very readers. (Many, many letters came in asking us to increase the font size.) Ivins and Dugger were like uncool parents I was keen to disavow. At the same time, my editors were in their forties, and Austin was becoming more expensive; work that had been a labor of love, performed by broke twenty-somethings living in a dirt-cheap town, was now up to middle-aged people with families and mortgages, and the math wasn’t working.
The musty, boozy ideal of Austin progressives—and for that matter the image of Austin as a whole—needs rehabbing.
And then the old benefactors passed. One was Bernard Rapoport, son of a Russian immigrant who’d peddled blankets on the streets of San Antonio and joined the Socialist Party. Bernard himself peddled insurance from out of a corporate office in Waco, having cofounded a successful company there. The editors used to drive a hundred miles north to dine with him at the Outback Steakhouse, returning to Austin with a check.
Another donor was Ivins herself. She used to give money away even when she didn’t have it, and she gave away much more once she became a best-selling author and popular speaker. Ivins died in 2007, after three bouts with cancer, and left money to the Observer, which expanded its staff and looked beyond the Outback Steakhouse in Waco for funding. The magazine became more professional, and more people of color joined the masthead, and it published excellent work. Contemporary Observer writers have dug deeply into subjects like criminal justice, the Mexico-Texas border, incarceration, homelessness, and police misconduct, and the magazine continues to make space for the endangered species that is thoughtful cultural criticism. In 2020 it experimented with a promising community journalism initiative, cut short by internal disputes that led to resignations. Even so, in this era of philanthropy-funded public-interest reporting, the Observer has forged ahead and won a pile of awards for its work.
It seems tricky, though, for a magazine to live and die by prestige journalism. My impression is that these days many novice writers want to leap to doing what is known in the business as “longform,” a relatively new term for serious reported pieces, one that carries a whiff of journalists writing to impress other journalists. (And anyway, she said crankily, length is not a form.) Entertaining the reader has become déclassé—or maybe just passé in a culture flooded with entertainments—and, for some, so has the idea of wasting too many words on our transphobic and Trump-philic state officials. A former staffer writing on Substack praised the fact that the community journalism initiative had been launched “in lieu of running quick hits and dunks on Texas’s Republican political establishment.” To which my feckless, middle-aged-moderate’s response is: Why not both? Shouldn’t we just keep going after these clowns until they’re no longer in so-called public service?
Meanwhile there’s the quandary that Morris anticipated all those years ago, the fact that our identification with the places where we live is subtler, weaker. Much as we compare notes with our neighbors about local traffic, weather, schools, and restaurants, our geographical allegiances are more provisional. There’s a corresponding anxiety detectable in the state’s journalism now, an uncertainty about what it means for any Texas publication to be a Texas publication. These days Austin’s most remarked-upon citizen is a dark baron of the void, his businesses seemingly informed by a dream of escaping wherever you happen to be—into your Tesla, or a rocket that blasts you into space, or a giant tunnel the purpose of which will be revealed, I suppose, in the fullness of time. Does the man really even live here? Nobody seems too sure.
If the last century was marked by a transition, in Texas and elsewhere, from a rural identity toward an urban and suburban one, now we seem to be living through an equally dramatic displacement toward the virtual. So where does that leave a magazine like the Texas Observer, or for that matter, locally and regionally based political groups? I’ll take the latter question first: I don’t know. As for the magazine, the reporting is great, and any given article can find its own readers online; in other words, the documentary muscles are stronger than ever. The fantasy, meanwhile, is in flux. The musty, boozy ideal of Austin progressives—and, for that matter, the image of Austin as a whole—needs rehabbing.
It’s a work—an argument—in progress. While it never became totally clear what happened in March, flareups at the Observer between the board and the staff have often reflected underlying tensions between old and new, the board attached to institutional memory and the staff trying to push forward. From what I can tell, communication between the two sides about basic finances had collapsed, and each was blindsided: the board by the empty coffers, the staff by the board’s abrupt decision. Maybe there truly wasn’t a penny left, but, as an old colleague said in an email, “I’d like to think I’d have tried to find a middle ground between ‘we can’t keep all of the puppies the dog had’ and ‘we’d better just put them all in a bag and head down to the lake.’”
I will say that the leading representatives of the old ideal—Dugger, who at ninety-three still lives in Austin, and Ivins, whom Austin still misses—strike me differently now than they did when I was younger. Each of them, I think, navigated an extreme kind of loneliness. Ivins was surrounded by friends and admirers, she was known for her enormous smile and loud laugh, yet there was an impenetrability to her, something of the bone-deep alienation that seems to haunt all brilliant comedians. Granted, I barely knew her, and people who were close to her might take issue with this, but I couldn’t not see her as a tragic character. And then I picture Dugger, broke down in some mean little cotton town with his notepad on his knee, a quixotic young literary man yearning for a populist uprising that was not likely to ever materialize in Corsicana or Abilene. Each labored heroically to try to write a community into being. Their success was partial, maybe not what they’d hoped for, but genuine. Their spirit is worth preserving.