Texas Observer Founding Editor Ronnie Dugger Reflects on 65 Years of Publication

To celebrate our 65th birthday, we asked our founding editor about where the Observer has been and what he thinks about its future.

“There was really nothing [like that] in Texas.”
“There was really nothing [like that] in Texas.” Texas Observer Archives

To celebrate our 65th birthday, we asked our founding editor about where the Observer has been and what he thinks about its future.

“There was really nothing [like that] in Texas.”
“There was really nothing [like that] in Texas.” Texas Observer Archives

On December, 13, 1954, Ronnie Dugger published the first issue of the Texas Observer. In it, he wrote the newspaper’s founding mission:

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. 

Sixty-five years later, that mission remains on our magazine’s masthead and continues to be the organization’s guiding principle. In celebration of our 65th birthday, we invited Dugger to the office and spoke with him a bit about the Texas Observer’s long history.

On starting the Texas Observer:

[When we went to publish the first issue], I wrote down all the things I wanted to expose, and gave it to Ms. [Frankie] Randolph, the principal funder of the Texas Observer and the first publisher of the Observer. I said would become the editor, provided the editor has exclusive control of all the content. One of the things I told [the initial donors and board members] is, I would not be a party organ. That we would follow our conscience. There was really nothing [like that] in Texas. We would introduce ethical freedom in the press. And that become the basis of the freest newspaper in the United States. I’m quite proud of that.

On the early days of the magazine:

I was working about eighty hours a week, twenty hours a day. I’d get home about midnight, sleep four hours, and then go back.

I would have stacks of the local newspapers, and, because I started this editorially alone, I had to read all those newspapers and then write the Observer all alone. I did that for about a year and a half. One day, Bill Brammer, who was then a reporter at the Austin paper, started coming by. He’d see me reading all these newspapers—most of them trash, but I had to do it—and he joined me in reading the papers. He then quit and became my first associate editor. And then Lyndon [Johnson] hired him away. [Laughs.] I could talk about that all day.

Let me say, about my late wife, whose name was Jean Williams, every time I had a hesitation whether to go too far editorially, she would always say, “Go.” So in a way, we were co-editors. She died about three years ago.

On his relationships with various politicians:

Allan Shivers, the Republican governor, would send presents—turkey, ham—to the Capitol press. I sent mine back with a note that said, “Thank you, Governor, for this wonderful gift. Please send it to your favorite charity.” And that was our relationship. He would never give me an interview, even though I went to all of his press conferences. About probably 20 years later, I wanted to talk to him, ask him some question, and I called him and said, “Can I have an interview?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, why not?” And he said, “You know why.” [Laughs.]

Lyndon Johnson is the one who hated me the most.

On what he’s doing these days:

I write pieces when I don’t have too much else to do for the Reader Supported News. I’m writing a book about nuclear war right now.

On how he feels about the future of the Texas Observer:

I’m very thrilled by the team’s determination to rebuild the Observer. The thing I’m proudest of is that y’all are still here.

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