Not Much Left

What does the Texas Observer have in common with the Barton Springs salamander? It’s an Austin cause célèbre—and it could soon be extinct.

Calling all rich liberals: the Texas Observer needs you. The 43-year-old biweekly—the last bastion of Lone Star left-wingery—is on the brink of collapse. Okay, okay, you’ve been hearing that for 43 years. But this time it’s true, and it could happen as soon as June.

The culprit isn’t political infighting, though editor Louis Dubose did recently quit and unquit and managing publisher Rebecca Melançon was fired. It’s flagging finances: The Observer’s coffers are dwindling, largely because its circulation is at an all-time low, though how low is in dispute. When Melançon joined the staff in January 1996 after four years as the publisher of the Austin Business Journal , she was told the paper had 7,000 subscribers—roughly what it had when Willie Morris was editor in the early sixties. Yet after very little time on the job, she discovered that the circulation was really much lower; Melançon and others say it was close to 3,500, but publisher Geoff Rips says she later told him it was 5,000. More bad news emerged from a reader survey: Thirty percent of the survey’s respondents identified themselves as older than sixty. But the big blow came from an Observer direct-mail campaign, in which a free issue and a subscription solicitation were sent to a total of 30,000 people, including readers of liberal magazines like Mother Jones and The Nation and members of the Sierra Club . Industry-wide, such mailings seek a positive response of 2 percent; Melançon says she would have settled for 1 percent. Instead, it was only one third of 1 percent. “It was pitiful,” she says. “They were the worst results I’ve seen in fifteen years of publishing.”

In December Melançon told a meeting of the Observer board and staff that the paper had only enough money in the bank to last until March. Subsequently, board member Molly Ivins wrote a check for $20,000, and a fundraising plea to like-minded loyalists raised $47,800. But that only extended the deadline a wee bit: Unless someone steps forward in the next three months, the Observer will go belly-up. “It’s difficult to tell what’s going to happen,” says Rips. “In the past, we’ve always managed to pull through. We rely on the goodwill of the community as a last resort.”

This time, however, there’s one community member on whom they can’t rely: Bernard Rapoport , the Waco insurance tycoon who has been the Observer’s largest benefactor. Since 1962 Rapoport has given $250,000, including $100,000 in late 1994—but such generosity is a thing of the past. “I’ve given them my last major contribution,” he says. “I’ve carried the load long enough.” Rapoport’s problem, an Observer source explains, is that he thinks the paper “isn’t tough enough.” Rapoport himself refuses to comment on the quality of the Observer these days; all he’ll say is that it “no longer serves the purpose for which I intend it.”

Yet even if Rapoport changes his mind, he alone can’t save the Observer. Melançon and Rips agree the paper needs 10,000 paid subscribers and annual revenues of $300,000 just to do what it’s doing and be self-sufficient. Possible? Sure. Likely? Not. Says Rips glumly: “We certainly haven’t come up with a formula for reaching that goal.”

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