Once upon a time, 35 years or so ago, I fancied being a writer for the Texas Observer. For someone exploring the craft of letters in Texas, it was the only game around. Newspapers were all about journalism and not about literary writing, and Mike Levy hadn’t thought up Texas Monthly yet. The self-styled liberal progressive biweekly stood out on the political and cultural landscape for its willingness to cover stories no one else would touch.
I felt like I knew every blow landed during the battle for the soul of the University of Texas waged by regent Frank Erwin and dean John Silber during the late sixties. I became familiar with the voices of Larry L. King, Willie Morris, Molly Ivins, Lawrence Goodwyn, and Kaye Northcott, and with the very local points of view articulated by folks like Buck Ramsey in Amarillo and Elroy Bode in El Paso. I learned about pistol-whipped farm workers in the Valley and the destruction of the Big Thicket. The writing was sophisticated and never objective: its purpose was to reform as well as inform. Passion mattered. At its peak, the magazine had 10,000 subscribers.
Eventually I did write a couple of pieces about music for the Texas Observer after I’d moved to Austin, allowing me the privilege of walking up the rickety steps of a funky old manse on Seventh and Nueces in the sweetest part of old Austin to turn in manuscripts. My words were hardly edited. I was paid a nominal fee. By then mass media was exploding in Texas and everywhere else, spawning all sorts of competition for the attention of its subscribers. In the seventies, the Observer‘s circulation began a slow decline (its circulation today is barely 5,000) that reflected the shifting of the Texas political landscape. A state that had once been dominated by Democrats, when it mattered what kind of Democrat you were, yielded in the nineties to Republicans. The Texas Democratic party effectively imploded. As a species, liberals became as endangered as Texas blind salamanders, and liberalism—old-fashioned lefty-liberalism of the sort the Observer still purveyed—had a tougher time finding a voice, much less an audience. Good stories were occasionally to be found in its pages. I just wasn’t reading them anymore.
But I am now. That’s because it’s no longer my daddy’s Texas Observer. The magazine was taken over late last year by a couple of young editors—Karen Olsson and Nate Blakeslee—who are both too young to be carrying a lot of old liberal baggage and too smart to buy the line that liberalism in Texas is dead. Sitting in their cramped three-room suite on Seventh Street in downtown Austin (a few blocks closer to the city center than the old place), I noted that the environment was still Observer-funky: so perfectly disheveled, cluttered, and utilitarian, you expected to hear the clatter of typewriters and find ink stains smudging the desks. What is coming out of that environment is not. The new co-editors have given the hidebound nonprofit “Journal of Free Voices” a new look, slapping some mighty edgy abstract art on several covers, while setting their editorial sights on a larger view of the body politic that extends beyond the Lege and Governor Perry. The official motto, “The Tyrant’s Foe—The People’s Friend,” is now complemented by a splashy advertising slogan: “Sharp reporting and commentary from the strangest state in the Union.” Even the Web site has been redesigned.
Their writing makes the biggest difference. Blakeslee’s coverage last year of a racially charged drug bust in the Panhandle town of Tulia was nominated for a National Magazine Award for reporting—the highest honor a magazine writer can win. (While Pulitzer prize winner Seymour Hersh from the New Yorker and other nominees representing Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Wired gathered at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for the awards luncheon, Blakeslee was wandering through the Caribbean on his honeymoon.) For all the Observer‘s historic tirades against injustice, and railings about the Texas Legislature’s relationships with monied interests, rarely in recent years has it had a measurable impact. Blakeslee’s stories have actually effected change. A bill specifically aimed at preventing “another Tulia” was passed by this year’s Legislature and made law.
Olsson’s stories on feuding peyote dealers in South Texas and on the comeback of methamphetamine are as brave and unflinching as Blakeslee’s story. In the latter she talks with law enforcement authorities, speed manufacturers, and relatives of the accused. She also takes the reader on an underground tour of the local Wal-Mart in Wichita Falls, where meth users hang out and meth makers buy most of their ingredients. Olsson even breaks down the chemical map of meth to demonstrate its single degree of molecular separation from legal substances like pseudoephedrine.
The co-editors are about the same age Ronnie Dugger was when he became the biweekly’s first editor in 1954 and have the same modest degree of experience. She’s 28, a native of Washington, D.C., who majored in math at Harvard. He is 30, grew up in Arlington, went to Southwestern in Georgetown, and got an M.A. at UT. He had no idea “an alternative progressive” magazine existed in Texas until after college. Neither fits the old Observer liberal-progressive stereotype except for being wet behind the ears and willing to work for next to nothing. Blakeslee had been writing investigative stories since 1997 and had been a staff writer since 1998 for the Observer. Olsson worked for U.S. News and World Report in Washington after a stint as an associate editor at the Observer. ” I missed doing longer, bigger stories,” she says of her job at the newsweekly. Blakeslee became editor in September, after the summer resignations of previous co-editors Lou Dubose and Michael King. He persuaded Olsson to join him as co-editor in December.
According to Blakeslee, the new staff is operating on a simple principle. “We’re doing what journalists are supposed to do—writing stories we care about and that matter,” he says. “There’s a sense of history to this place. We’ve read the bios of people who’ve worked here. Ronnie Dugger was the voice of the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic party. I don’t think we’re that anymore.”
But they both say that, while they want to retain their old reader base, they also want to redraw the boundaries of the magazine. Molly Ivins’ consistently sharp wit, Jim Hightower’s bitchy populist screeds, and the Political Intelligence insider columns aren’t about to go away. They’re part of the franchise. But all bets are off the table when it comes to defining what the Observer is and isn’t. “Beyond the big stereotypes of the left, there’s a wide range of liberal-minded people who care about issues and who aren’t supporters of George W. Bush,” says Olsson, who stresses the importance of solid reporting in addition to political ideology. “We try to say what’s going on here, this is what it is, as we did examining individual death penalty cases. Politics in Texas is also the drug war, nuclear waste, and other issues that have a reach beyond the Capitol.”
In many respects the Observer‘s place today may be just as critical to the larger media landscape as it was when it really mattered what kind of Democrat a politician was. “The reason I love the Observer has more to do with most media being increasingly controlled by large companies, which makes the reader a consumer,” Olsson says. “Nobody can start a magazine without at least $1 million. From the content perspective, because we’re not bottom-line driven, we can forget celebrity stuff and service and select things we’re interested in, just because we’re interested in them. Readers call us all the time with story ideas. We let our writers play with words. We’re very flexible about length.”
Many elements remain evergreen—poetry, currently edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, and liberal essays and editorials are in every issue. The often acerbic Political Intelligence column is as sharp-edged as ever and was the first to broach Tony Sanchez’s mustache problem by drawing one on John Sharp. The magazine is still thin. Rarely does an issue exceed 32 pages.
And victories are still measured on a small scale too, befitting an editorial staff of three, which also includes new managing editor Barbara Belejack, and a three-person business staff. A profile of the publication in the Austin American-Statesman generated 12 new subscribers. An article in the New York Times brought 35 subscriptions. Another piece of good news was the success of Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose’s book Shrub: The Short Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, which was a national best-seller. Its authors, both former editors of the Observer, donated all of the book’s royalties to the magazine. In some ways the place is still determinedly folksy and old-fashioned. Underneath the listing of the Observer‘s phone number on the Web site, an advisory reads “The Texas Observer uses real, live people to answer phones. We do not outsource or computize. You will not have to ‘press 1’ for anything. If we put you on hold, you will hear no bad music. We promise.”