A Freelance Writer’s Guide to the Texas Observer

The Texas Observer is an Austin-based nonprofit news organization known for fearless investigative reporting, narrative storytelling and sophisticated cultural criticism about all things Texan. 

Since 1954, the Observer has covered issues that are often ignored or underreported by other media. We strive to expose injustice and to produce the kind of impact journalism that changes people’s lives for the better. Our thoughtful arts and culture coverage recognizes the diversity and talent of Texas’ creative community.

Frequency: Bimonthly (six print issues per year) and daily (online)

Lead time: 2-3 months for print stories; typically much faster for online stories

How and what to pitch

Send your pitch to [email protected], where it’ll be seen by executive editor Abby Johnston, managing editor Rose Cahalan, and senior editor Megan Kimble.

We do our best to respond to pitches in a timely manner and to provide useful feedback, but don’t hesitate to follow up if it’s been more than a week. 

If this will be your first time writing for the Observer, we strongly suggest you start by pitching something shorter than a feature. 

The best pitches are thoroughly researched, timely and tailored to the Observer. Before you hit send, ask:

  • Have I done a news search to see how the Observer and other publications have covered this topic and similar topics in the past?

  • Have I explained why now is the right time to do this story?

  • Have I shown why I’m the right writer for this story?

  • Have I explained who key characters/sources will be and what as-yet-unanswered questions the story will ask?

  • Have I suggested a headline and subhead? Editors love this, as it shows you can quickly distill the essence of the story.

  • Have I proofed my pitch for clarity, spelling and grammar?

What not to pitch

  • Stories that are outside the Observer’s scope of coverage, such as poppy fare or business writing (for example, we don’t do restaurant reviews or tech reporting)

  • Stories that overlap with previous coverage

  • Stories that are too Austin-centric. Though we’re based in Austin, we strive to cover the entire state. Stories and writers from less-covered parts of Texas tend to get a bit of an edge. If you’re in, say, El Paso, Brownsville or Nacogdoches, we want to hear from you!

Types of stories

  • Short news stories: 500 – 1,000 words, these can be a good way to get your foot in the door. See Sasha von Oldershausen on Election Day in Presidio, Patrick Michels on Texas’ textbook wars, Gus Bova on a post-election protest.

  • Political commentary and opinion: 500 – 1,000 words on a timely political topic. See Erin Zwiener on sexual misconduct at the Capitol, Chris Hooks on Trump’s wall.

  • The Book Report: 800 – 1,200-word reviews of new or upcoming books by Texas authors, on Texas subjects, or on Observer subjects (such as politics, social justice, race, class and environment). See Robyn Ross on a Houston writer’s religious memoir, Justin Miller on the 2016 election, Roberto Ontiveros on a Texas vampire book.

  • Features: 1,500 – 4,000 words, on a wide range of subjects, from profiles to criminal justice to education to the environment. See Jake Whitney on moral injury, Eric Benson on Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and Dick Reavis on the elderly in prison.

  • Culture features: 2,000 – 3,500 words on a timely, substantive topic within the realm of Texas arts and culture. See Daniel Tyx on raspas in the Rio Grande Valley and Michael Hoinski on Dallas’ Museum of Street Culture.

  • Essays: 1,000 – 1,500 words, combining a first-person experience with one of our beats, grounded in a specific time and place in Texas. See Domingo Martinez on change in Brownsville, Patsy Sims on the Texas City disaster, Jorge Renaud on riding the prison bus.

  • Postcards: 2,000 – 3,500 words, these are feature-length arts or culture stories in which place plays a prominent role. They need not always be tied to a timely hook, although that’s a bonus. See Roberto Andrade on pachucos in El Paso, Leah Caldwell on mushroom-hunting in East Texas.

  • Poems: We run one poem in each bimonthly print issue, selected by poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye. Submit work of 30 lines or shorter (space is limited). Almost anything goes, though bonus points if the poem touches on one of our beats: Texas, social justice, environment, politics, arts and culture, immigration.

After your pitch is accepted…

  • Check in to let your editor know how it’s going. If the story changes significantly, we need to know. We also just appreciate updates on interviews, events, etc. Err on the side of over-communicating!

  • Suggest photo ideas and subjects

  • Once the story is finalized, email your completed W-9 form and invoice to your editor. Turning in your invoice triggers quick payment. However, you will not get paid without your invoice.

  • Your invoice should include the headline, length and date of the story, as well as all your contact information: name, mailing address, email address and phone number. Please also add the number #7201 somewhere on the invoice (this makes life easier for our bookkeepers).

  • Please save your invoice with a filename that includes the date and month of when your story was published and your last name.

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