Austin, Tx.—Willie Nelson, a very lively 89-year-old, has recorded a playful little tune refuting speculation by some that he had become the late Willie Nelson. Not so fast, protested the people’s troubadour, singing:
I woke up still not dead again today
The Internet said I had passed away
But if I died I wasn’t dead to stay
I woke up still not dead again today.
The same protest could now be warbled by the venerable Texas Observer, the feisty, maverick voice of progressive politics and dig-it-out anti-establishment journalism in the Lone Star State.
Last Monday, this “journal of free voices” (which maintains independence by accepting no corporate advertising, even though that means it constantly has to scramble to stay afloat), was abruptly pronounced dead. An article by a competing publication, the multimillion-dollar corporate funded Texas Tribune, practically gloats: “Texas Observer Closing… an end to 68 years of publication.”
Rumors of its death, however, are just that. Yes, the Observer’s finances are severely strained, and the board of directors should’ve been alert to the fact that the magazine was spending at an unsustainable and irresponsible level. But the Tribune’s claim that the board abruptly voted for “closing” down is false, wrong, untrue! To the contrary, the board only voted for a temporary hiatus. At the same time, it committed to raising large sums of money, while reorganizing for a healthy financial future. Far from rushing to the cemetery, board members, staffers, previous donors, and former editors (a majority group the Tribune did not interview before issuing its obituary) has stepped forward to help with this rejuvenation.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a loyal Observerite since my college days; I was a longtime friend and neighbor of legendary Observer editor (and longtime Nation contributor) Molly Ivins, and I followed her as the publication’s populist-spirited editor for two years. So I’m fully in the revivalist camp.
However, that doesn’t make me naive. There is no question that financial clots and a series of internal editors-versus-board conflicts have weakened the publication in the past couple of years—but you don’t then just snuff out its fiery spark of progressive activism, which is needed now more than ever!
Of course, the Observer must adapt and streamline. National writers such as Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Ijeoma Oluo, Heather Cox Richardson, Judd Legum, and myself are moving from print to e-mail delivery on innovative platforms like Substack to connect with today’s diverse progressive community. Since the time of the revolutionary pamphleteers, leftist communicators/agitators have had to make such structural media adjustments, and we must do so now… unless we just quit and rely on corporations to finance the acceptable political views.
Indeed, the Observer exists because it must—for the same reason it was founded in 1954. In that time, the state’s media barons deliberately avoided offending their readers with unpleasantness about racism, labor exploitation, legislative corruption, etc. For example, even if 3,000 people rallied in Dallas to oppose the poll tax—not a peep about it the next day in the Dallas Morning News. The city’s impish liberals even coined a banner quote for that paper: “If It Happens In Dallas, It’s News To Us.”
So scrappy groups of progressives from across the state pooled grassroots donations to create their own source of news, information, and ideas: the Texas Observer. It still provides journalism that matters, challenging the Powers That Be, and rallying the Powers That Ought to Be.
And, sure enough, today’s progressives in Texas and beyond are again pooling funds for their publication. Almost spontaneously, some $300,000 poured in to provide an immediate lifeline to keep publishing for the short term. Most significantly, though, people are committing to the greater goal of long-term investment to reorganize and put the Observer on a sustainable path to keep raising hell and raising progressive hope for years to come.
Despite one alarmist, misleading article, the Observer, is not dead. And, in the spirit of Willie’s song, even if it had “died” last week, it wouldn’t be “dead to stay,” because it’s not just a publication—it’s both an idea and a political necessity.