In these days of hand-wringing over the demise of newspapers, one essential aspect of the equation is often overlooked-readers. Oh sure, pundits and media executives obsess over readership, but in the abstract, as if discussing wooly mammoths or Big Foot. “It’s believed that they travel in packs, but where do they congregate? What do they want? And for goodness sake, why won’t they come to us?”
Huge sums of money have fattened the bank accounts of consultants hired to answer these questions. At press time, the best and brightest were still searching. So what insight can the humble Texas Observer offer? After all, as Molly Ivins once wrote, the magazine “may be the oldest permanently established floating craps game in the state.”
After four years as editor and two as reporter, I am convinced that Observer readers are among the most well-informed, passionate, and loyal consumers of the written word in all of journalism. Cantankerous and wonderfully opinionated, they are lavish in their praise and unsparing in their criticism. More than a few have told me that during the almost 54 years of the Observer, they learned to read and to think thumbing through the magazine. Their letters often reference old Texas pols and newsmen, the actors in long-forgotten controversies with eerie present parallels. Others shout out in upper case to show how they REALLY feel. Their critiques inevitably begin with some variant of “I expected better …” For some readers, isolated in places like Lubbock or Camden, reading the Observer is a soul-sustaining activity-confirmation that it’s their neighbors and not they who are nuts. For those outside of Texas, the magazine is both proof of the dismal state of Lone Star governance and evidence that we are not all the same.
At the Observer, a community of readers is not a marketing strategy; it’s a trust passed along from editor to editor. Paradoxically, we built up this relationship by focusing less on catering to readers than on journalism in the public interest. Founding editor Ronnie Dugger didn’t use focus groups; he just followed his outrage, hacking through a seemingly endless thicket of injustice. The start of this new century has seen no lack of muck to rake in Texas. Whether it was our groundbreaking reporting on the Tom DeLay redistricting scandal or on sex abuse at Texas Youth Commission facilities, we’ve exposed corruption and abuse of power wherever we found it. Along the way, we’ve celebrated a few milestones, both happy, our 50th anniversary, and sad, the passing of our beloved Molly.
In addition to detailing the ideological foolishness, ineptitude, and larcenous intent of those we elect to lead us, we’ve also tried to chronicle the extraordinary demographic shift underway in Texas. We are at the dawn of a new Lone Star State. It will be young and Latino. Unless politicians in Austin come to their senses and invest in education and health care, it will also likely feature widespread poverty. At a time when we need the watchful eye of public interest journalism more than ever, Texas’ mainstream media are wasting away like starving men at a banquet who have forgotten how to eat. The state needs the Observer and its community of readers more than ever.
I will happily count myself among that readership. The serendipitously themed books issue you have in your hands will be my last as editor. I’m taking to the road for New York City and a new journalistic venture based there called ProPublica. Following a nonprofit mission similar to the Observer‘s, ProPublica aspires to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, across the nation. Thank you and goodbye. – JB