Crazy Hearts


It was October 2008, a few weeks before that epic and tearful night when a non-white man finally got elected president of the United States, when yours truly touched down in Austin, rented a car, cranked the AC, headed to Wal-Mart to buy an air mattress and a cheap clean shirt, and started the next morning as editor of The Texas Observer. This noble experiment in honest liberal journalism was still producing some of the best political and investigative reporting in the state, but the magazine was also showing its age. The print edition looked like a newsletter circa 1975, and our online readers were too few. And who in God’s name was I—a lifelong non-Texan, a carpetbagger from New York by way of North Carolina—to try to improve things?

I was wondering myself, that first morning as I crept groggily into the old newsroom in downtown Austin. What was I thinking? I’d just published my first book, which did fine. I was leaving an enviable job at a national magazine. Why? For one reason only: to follow the whispers of my heart, an organ that had almost always led me disastrously astray.

I told my skeptical East Coast friends how I’d always loved the Observer, how I’d read through every issue of its vintage years, from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, when I was first learning journalism. “This is the Lord’s work,” I said, ignoring their rolling eyes. It was a  precious chance to do great, ambitious things at a publication that had been raising hell with the left and right alike for 54 years—and in Texas, of all unlikely places. It was an opportunity to help usher into the 21st century the magazine that had righteously savaged LBJ, that had helped bring down the Sharpstown Democrats, that had let Molly Ivins say the things she said. It was a chance to show that fearless, take-no-prisoners journalism could still flourish in a world of global corporate media.

It was brave talk. And now, as I’m packing up my beagle and belongings to head back east for another job at another national publication, I couldn’t be happier that I took the chance.

Most folks now read the Observer on the daily website, and find us through Facebook and Twitter and Google. We’ve redesigned the print edition and created a magazine with a modern, glossy look. The writing is just as fearless as ever and, I hope, a little edgier and wittier. The audience is steadily growing. And there remains the one great constant, the Observer’s trademark through more than a half-century of thick and thin times: bodacious, deep-digging investigative reporting, an ever-rarer commodity with each passing day in a Web-dominated, short-attention-span mediasphere.

Does it sound like I’m taking credit for making over this venerable old experiment? I’d love to, honestly, but I can’t. The credit for the lively and ornery magazine you hold in your hands, for the website you’re perusing, for the iPad you’re navigating, goes not to me but to us—to the Observer’s wonderful and amazing and self-sacrificing writers, editors, business staffers and designers. But more than anything, it’s thanks to the weird and wonderful people—you, dear readers—who still want to read an intelligent and contrary take on the strangest state in the Union.

You are not supposed to exist anymore. You’re supposed to want your journalism in tight, tiny, Tweet-sized packets. You’re supposed to want to see nothing but your own prejudices and easy assumptions reflected in the “news”—to watch the orthodox liberal blusterers at MSNBC, to read Democratic flacks masquerading as bloggers, or (Lord help us all) to ingest heaping helpings of The Huffington Post. You’re supposed to be the progressive doppelgängers of Fox Newshounds and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. But somehow, bless your contrary hearts, you are not. You are reading The Texas Observer.

Keep your eyes on the prize, people—on the new Texas that will dawn, over the next couple of decades, as the hoggish Anglo majority that has built the meanest and most unjust state in America finally, justly, becomes inconsequential. Keep your eyes fixed, writers and readers alike, unblinkingly on the truth. Keep laughing through it all. And keep doing what I did three years ago, for whatever unaccountable reason: Follow your heart along the twisty and scary and strangely blessed paths where it will lead you, if only you let it.