I first learned how to be a radical, muckraking truth-teller as an intern at The Nation more years ago than I want to admit. Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and former Executive Editor Richard Kim nurtured my passion to become the journalist I am today, and I’ll always be grateful.
I am now, still, the editor of the Texas Observer—the state’s 69-year-old progressive flagship magazine. For those of you who have not read John Nichols’s piece about our terrifying near-death experience last week, here’s a quick summary: Two Sundays ago, I got a call from the Texas Tribune informing me that the board had voted to lay off the entire staff and shutter the publication. The workers—one with a baby on the way, another who had just quit a teaching job to become an investigative journalist—had two days’ notice that they would be laid off, and there was no severance pay. We’d run out of money, and no one had given the editors and writers advance notice. Surmising that the generation of Molly Ivins fans had failed to connect with the new “woke” generation of social-justice warriors, the board simply gave up.
As I said on Twitter when things looked grim: This is not a Walmart you can just shut down. The board doesn’t own the Observer. None of us do. It’s an idea in the minds of the readers who love and rely on us. Of the people who work here now. Of everyone who has worked here before. Of anyone who loves justice and fears for the future of Texas and the country.
The staff rose to the occasion and sounded the alarm to our readers. In just 48 hours, we raised the $200,000 we needed to keep operating. Another $150,000 rolled in over the next few days. In total, more than 5,000 small donors—young and old alike—pitched in to save us. The board rescinded the layoffs, and those who voted to shut us down made way for a new, reenergized board. We had our regular editorial meeting Monday morning, and the staff got back to journalism.
For those of us at the helm of progressive media, the question now is the same as it has been since Google and Facebook came along and stole all of our advertising money: How do we sustain a fiercely independent press in the age of the Internet? How do we make sure the Observer is here for another 69 years—and The Nation for another 158?
No one has the exact answer about what “business model” can keep journalists employed so they can hold power to account. For independent media outlets like the Observer, The Nation, The American Prospect, or NPR that aren’t beholden to corporate interests—that do not strive to achieve some mythical “objectivity”—the challenge is different than it is for moneyed institutions like The New York Times or huge conglomerates like Condé Nast. We have a powerful mouthpiece that our readers see as far more than a stack of paper at the doorstep.
I don’t have all the answers, but it’s obvious that reader communities that care about social justice like The Nation’s and ours are the key. The thing about all this talk about the vaunted “business” of journalism is that for progressive media, our constituency is in it for the cause. Fascism’s shadow now hangs over our democracy, and readers rely on us to expose injustice and speak truth to power. When it comes down to it, they are willing to open their wallets and give what they can because they know the health of our republic depends on it.
The Nation is (technically) a for-profit institution, and we are a nonprofit, but the financial reality is the same. Neither of us generates a profit (I’m told that in a handful of years over the past century and a half The Nation actually did, but it’s hardly a regular occurrence). The sooner those in charge realize that the profit motive will not sustain journalism—that progressive media institutions are a public trust and a civic necessity rather than a traditional business—they will stop running us into the ground. I’ve watched higher-ups screw up publications like ours for 15 years because they don’t love journalism like the readers, editors, and reporters do.
Which isn’t to say we don’t need money, of course.
The real power of the beautiful grassroots movement that saved our magazine is that it signals to larger donors that we are worth investing in. In the wake of our organizing success, a flood of major donors have knocked on our doors asking how they can help. The professional class of lawyers, nonprofit advocates, and development folks ran to our bedside. We now have a generous volunteer who has promised to raise the cost of our operating for another year and to start an endowment. Our old board, which had not a single journalist on it, has been reinvigorated with reporters, labor organizers, nonprofit fundraisers, and activists who understand what we’re about.
But we need everyone. It may be better to have a million people giving $1 each than an heir giving that entire amount, but, practically speaking, we need both.
The best “model” for those of us in progressive media is, in fact, the labor movement. This is not a business—it’s a cause. And the way to keep it going is to do what The Nation has been doing for all these years: Organize. Focus on the workers. Platform and put forward the poor, people of color, queers. Let our values lead the way.
I’ll always be indebted to The Nation for taking a wide-eyed kid and showing me the ropes. I had just quit a PhD in linguistics to pursue journalism, and an older, wiser generation of rabble-rousers showed me how it’s done. We need to keep training and nurturing the next generation because, individually, we get to hold the reins for only a short time, and the moral arc of the universe is long.