Karen Olsson never got to enjoy her 1996 internship at The Texas Observer. It was cut short by an excited phone call to then-editor Lou Dubose from fellow editor Michael King, who had just read her first brief writing assignment. “Lou, Lou: The intern is a writer!” Mike said. If you’ve been reading T.O. for the last five years, you might be thinking that’s an understatement, and you’d be right. Karen has been the Observer’s most prolific reporter during that time, but she has also been much more. She poured herself into the paper, not like an I.V. drip, more like a transfusion—a flood of ideas and creativity that never seemed to go dry. She covered the Tiguas in El Paso, Morry Taylor’s adventures in Brownsville, meatpackers in Iowa, sadistic principals in East Texas. No interview was ever a throwaway for Karen; she brought the same thoughtfulness to her coverage of that short-lived interest group, House-keepers for Bush, as she did to her interviews of crystal meth junkies in rural North Texas.
She did it out of love, not only for the paper and the people who worked there but also for the people she wrote about, and for the idea of Texas, which never seemed to lose its appeal to her. And she believed in me, too. Years ago, when I was doing data entry for T.O. to pay my bills and taking whatever assignments I could get, she split her salary with me so that the Observer could have two extremely underpaid reporters, instead of just one. Later, after a stint making real money at a newsmagazine in D.C., she came back to Texas at the drop of a hat to co-edit the paper with me, because I asked her to. And because she had big dreams for the paper. In the last fifteen months, she made those dreams happen. She worked with Julia Austin to redesign the paper, she brought in young, smart writers with her enthusiasm and verve. And people noticed. We started getting kind notes from old subscribers (“You have brought laughter back to the magazine,” one said), which she taped to her wall, along with clips of profiles of T.O.‘s new editors. She enjoyed every minute of it and she deserved it.
Karen once excitedly read to me Saul Bellow’s mysterious description of businessmen bustling about downtown, full of fire for their self-serving endeavors. The question, he wrote, was just what was being burned to keep their fires so hot? If you’ve ever worked with Karen before, you know that whatever it is that’s burning inside of my former co-editor, it’s something good. Now she’s stepping down to pursue her other love, creative writing. But to our great relief she has committed to keeping some small part of her energy focused on T.O., and we’re grateful for it. She’s already been out of the office for a month, and she can still generate ten good story ideas in the time it will take me to think of a title for this editorial. I think I’ll call her now and see if she has any suggestions. -N.B.
With this issue we welcome our new associate editor, Jake Bernstein. Jake comes to T.O. after four years of award-winning reporting with the Miami New Times, where he covered politics, immigration, and the environment. A native New Yorker, Jake spent several years reporting from Guatemala for major dailies in the U.S. His first stint as a Texas reporter was no bargain: He spent a year at the Pasadena Citizen, where he covered politics, the petrochemical industry, and some of the roughest culture to be found in this rough and tumble state. We welcome him to a kinder, gentler city and to the masthead of The Texas Observer.