Texas Observer Reverses Plan to Shut Down and Lay Off Its Staff
The board of the nonprofit owner of The Texas Observer voted on Wednesday to rescind plans to lay off the staff of the small magazine, a bastion of liberal opinion and investigative journalism in a red state, the board president said.
The announcement came one day after The Observer reported that the Texas Democracy Foundation, the nonprofit publisher of the magazine and website, had told staff this week that it planned to stop publication on Friday after 68 years.
The planned shutdown prompted former and current staff members to fight the decision and to try to avert layoffs with a last-minute online fund-raising campaign. They have raised more than $290,000 since Monday.
“Today, upon receiving significant financial pledges over the past few days, The Texas Observer Board gathered to vote to reconsider previous board actions,” the board president, Laura Hernandez Holmes, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The vote to rescind layoffs was unanimous, and the board is eager to move the publication to its next phase,” Ms. Hernandez Holmes said. “I want to express my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to those who donated to and expressed support for The Texas Observer, as well as gratitude to The Observer’s staff for stepping up and working hard to keep the publication alive.”
Gabriel Arana, the editor in chief, called the decision to rescind layoffs “wonderful news.”
The staff of 16 had spent the week believing that they would be let go after learning of the board’s vote to enact cuts on Sunday from an article in The Texas Tribune. Mr. Arana said.
“Ecstatic,” he said, describing the reaction among the staff to the board’s reversal. “People are very excited about that and about continuing to move forward.”
Inside the Media Industry
The Texas Observer is perhaps best known as the home of Molly Ivins, the liberal columnist who developed her voice as a staff member there in the 1970s. Ms. Ivins, who died in 2007, at age 62, once wrote that The Observer was a place where “you can tell the truth without the bark on it, laugh at anyone who is ridiculous, and go after the bad guys with all the energy you have, as long as you get the facts right.”
It also has a history of internal strife and, in keeping with that tradition, Mr. Arana, had implored readers in an article on Tuesday to give money under the headline “Save The Texas Observer!”
Earlier this week, Ms. Hernandez Holmes had put off questions about the board’s decision to lay off staff. In her statement on Wednesday, she said that, “My intent in voting for layoffs and hiatus was never about closing down the publication.”
“The actions I took as board president were intended to allow space for The Observer to be reconstituted, and reimagined in a more sustainable form,” she said.
Ms. Hernandez Holmes had told The Tribune earlier this week that attacks on her and 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.”
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a young woman of color talking to men,” she told The Tribune. “I often wonder if my requests and directives would have been better received coming from a man. I was not respected as the board president by senior staff.”
Mr. Arana and a former staff member, James Canup, said that Ms. Hernandez Holmes had announced a complete shutdown with layoffs during a video call with the staff on Monday. Mr. Canup, who was managing director, said he resigned in protest after the call.
The Observer has about 4,000 subscribers to the print magazine, which publishes six times a year, in addition to its online readers, but survives primarily on donations and grants, according to Robert R. Frump, a former board member who had been running business operations as a special adviser. He, too, resigned in protest.
Mr. Frump said The Observer had struggled to attract younger progressive donors and that its core supporters were “aging out and not as active and not as generous as they once were.”
Still, he said that the board’s original decision appeared to be about more than finances.
“I think the board is just tired,” Mr. Frump said. “They’ve run through a number of these controversies a few years ago. They had a blowup where 70 percent of the staff left. They’re just tired of yet another conflict.”
Under the founding editor, Ronnie Dugger, the publication, then a weekly newspaper, proclaimed its independence in its first issue on Dec. 13, 1954. “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,” it said.
Its writers have long prided themselves on covering stories about political corruption, corporate influence and racial and economic injustice.
Ms. Ivins once wrote that the most striking thing about The Texas Observer was its journalistic excellence.
“The second most striking thing about this small magazine is what a frayed shoestring it operates on,” she wrote in “Fifty Years of the Texas Observer,” a collection of its journalism, published in 2004. “The Observer has just never had any money. It’s the journalistic equivalent of the loaves and fishes.”
In 2001, she and Louis Dubose donated proceeds from their book, “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush,” to help pay staff salaries.
The shutdown drama came as other media outlets, including NPR, Vox Media, CNN and The Washington Post, have announced staff cuts in recent months.
Mr. Canup said it was a shame that The Observer did not have more readers. “The words are powerful and ought to be influential.”
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