The first Texas Observer was published almost exactly 55 years ago, on Dec. 13, 1954. It was a sad thing to look at. All that broke up the long ragged columns of type on the front page was a grainy shot of Mrs. Bob Hughes, “20-year-old Port Arthur housewife,” striking a winsome pose from the picket line of the long-running Port Arthur strike. There was also a pair of sharply reported stories about the strike, which the state attorney general had called part of “a Communist plot to take over Gulf oil ports.” On the back page—page 8—sat a big ugly ad for Tomorrow’s Victory, a book meant to inspire and organize liberal Democrats after their man, Ralph Yarborough, lost the ’54 governor’s race. Proceeds from the book sales went to the Democratic Deficit Committee.
In between, there were typos galore and left-out lines and production values roughly equivalent to those of a college newspaper of the day. But there was also a compelling back-and-forth about the kind of journalism this new magazine should pursue. The ultimate goal of the band of liberals who founded the Observer—a fairer, more just, more equitable Texas—was clear enough. But how best to use journalism to pursue it?
Paul Holcomb, editor of The State Observer—one of the publications combined to create the new Texas Observer—recommended that this new beast follow his example and “tell the truth about both friend and foe. In dealing with men and measures I try to avoid showing personal enmity, and treat any man or measure as honestly and fairly as my nature will permit,” Holcomb wrote. “But I make no pretense of being an ‘objective writer,’ simply because I do not believe that there is any such animal in existence—at least not among mortal men.”
Another paper that folded into the new Texas Observer was the short-lived East Texas Democrat. Produced by activists in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, this was an unabashedly partisan rag, battling against what its editor called “the Republicans in false face who stole the Democratic Party machinery. The Democrat was [our] means of facing these hypocrites, ball of thumb pressed to nose, with waving fingers spread and radiating to the front.”
The folks who came together to found the Texas Observer clearly had some clashing ideas about advocacy journalism. Should the Observer be a house organ for finger-waving, left-wing Texas Democrats? Or should it take a progressive but non-partisan approach, skewering bad actors on the left and right alike?
Ronnie Dugger, the brash 24-year-old editor hired to run this new hybrid Texas Observer, settled the issue pretty decisively. On the original front page, he called the thing “An Independent Liberal Weekly Newspaper” and stuck a motto on the top right that began: “We will serve no group or party.”
We haven’t published weekly in quite some time, but the other part of Dugger’s original description—”independent liberal”—has stuck like glue. There have been times, especially over the past 15 years, when we have undoubtedly investigated, editorially flogged and parodied more Republicans than Democrats. But then again, Republicans have had almost all the power in Texas during these years. As Democrats regain power statewide, we’ll be flogging more of them, too. We don’t give a damn about their party; we care about whether elected officials are representing the best interests of the people.
We see our approach, more than anything, as modeled after the Observer slogan that came along after that first issue: “Tyrant’s foe; the people’s friend.” It’s one big reason why we remain absolutists about editorial independence. You can’t be the people’s friend when you’re catering to the powerful. Dugger laid it down pretty good in that first issue:
The editor runs the paper. Editorial policy is in his hands. Ultimate control of the paper is in the hands of the trustees, acting through their directors. If the editor ceases to represent the sentiments of the trustees, or if they decide he’s not doing a good job, they fire him; if they instruct him to do something he cannot, he quits.
Fifty-five years later, the editor still keeps one foot near the door, ready to shove off if he’s asked to do “something he cannot.” And once again, we’re reinventing ourselves. As we look forward to another five decades of telling the truth about this strange state, we’re giving The Texas Observer a serious makeover. The next magazine you see will look dramatically different. Our online daily site, texasobserver.org, is being rebuilt from scratch as a reader-centered, interactive portal for progressive Texans.
The new Observer will look splashier. The content will be sprier. But the fundamentals won’t change. Our ideals have been amazingly consistent since Dec. 13, 1954, and they’re every bit as relevant—and rebellious—as they sounded on that day. Back then, Dugger quoted one of the editors whose papers he was combining into the Observer: “You can’t always be right, but you can always be honest.” We’re still down with that, too.