It must’ve been around 2002 when I first discovered the Texas Observer. I was a student at UT-Austin with a work-study (emphasis on the latter) job in the periodicals department at the Perry-Castañeda Library. This was around the time when the Internet was starting to strangle newspapers and magazines, but I loved (still do) the look and feel of ink on paper. The job introduced me to obscure academic journals, twee literary publications and political standard-bearers such as The Nation, the New Republic and National Review.
But it was the Observer that changed my life.
The Observer back then was a biweekly, mostly black and white and printed on some kind of unglossy stock. The Observer was a revelation: a bullshit-free zone of unadulterated ass-kicking journalism and unapologetic leftwing politics. If the prose was at times a bit shaggy and the tone occasionally strident, no matter. The truth-telling was the thing. This little rag, as it’s often been called, drew the curtain back on the way Texas really worked. It named names. Still does.
Not long after graduating from college, I landed an internship at the Observer—and that led to a part-time reporting gig, which led to a full-time one, which led to a job editing the website. Now, 10 years later, I’m pleased as punch (and a little astonished) to find myself the editor of the Observer.
Readers, my decade at the Observer has taught me a lot of lessons, and chief among them is this: To survive is good, but to thrive is great. For most of our 60 years—even as these pages featured the likes of Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Molly Ivins and Nate Blakeslee—we’ve been a dicey proposition: a left-leaning magazine in the king of red states, a nonprofit (since the ’90s) that relies on the generosity of readers and liberal-minded Texans. As we wrote in the introduction to our 60th-anniversary issue in December, “We are the underdog’s underdog. We’ve often had money enough only for the next few issues—yet they came out on time, and so did the next one and the next. That’s victory.”
Surviving is a victory. But we can also thrive. In the last few years, we’ve overhauled our website three times, transformed the magazine into a full-color, professionally designed, monthly glossy, grown our staff to its largest size ever, made our website a daily must-read, and built a fundraising apparatus that has made us, perhaps for the first time, financially stable. This remarkable transformation is the work of a dedicated and hard-working staff, forward-thinking editors and the sustained support of our board and readers. I pledge to continue this trajectory.
My commitment is to build on the Observer’s strengths—investigative reporting, fearless truth-telling and sophisticated cultural coverage—while investing more in digital journalism.
Fact is, we have more readers than ever because of the growth in our online readership, which is younger and more diverse than our print audience. Since 2011, we have more than tripled the number of unique visitors to our site. In the last year, seven of our 10 most-read stories were published exclusively on the web.
I believe we are positioned to become a national standard for hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners reporting and commentary that bridges traditional magazine journalism and a digital-first approach.
We can be even more dogged at doing what our peers in the media can’t and won’t do: chasing stories that expose the corruption of our institutions, the pervasive racial problems in our communities and the extremism of the GOP, while calling attention to the promise of a new Texas that values social justice and equality. And we can do this with the voice and verve that crusading journalism requires. The media environment is rapidly changing, but I believe it is tilting toward journalism that values subjective and truthful storytelling that seeks to change the world.
I have but one sacred cow. We will stay true to Ronnie Dugger’s original promise when he became the magazine’s first editor:
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. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.
Ronnie set a very high standard. I challenge myself to live up to it each and every day.