Journalists at the muckraking liberal magazine Texas Observer have raised more than $270,000 through a GoFundMe campaign in a last-ditch attempt to save the publication from closure.
The storied publication – founded in 1954 by Ronnie Dugger, edited in the 1970s by Molly Ivins, and described this week by John Nichols as “the connecting tissue of Texas liberalism” – had suffered extreme instability in recent years, with a revolving door of editors-in-chief and frequent conflict between its owners, the non-profit Texas Democracy Foundation, and its staff.
But it still came as a shock when the Texas Tribune broke the news Sunday evening that the board had voted to cease publication and lay off the staff on Friday. It was perhaps less surprising that the staff of a crusading publication quickly organized to fight back.
Editors responded to the board Monday in a letter that included a “heartfelt request” for board members who voted for closure to resign, for a staff member to be added to the board, and for a commitment not to lay anyone off for a month if the staff succeeded in raising $200,000.
“The Texas Observer is not like a Walmart that can just be shut down,” editor-in-chief Gabriel Arana wrote on Twitter. “It’s an idea in the minds of our readers, of the people who work here now and have worked here before. Edit leadership offered countless times over the last few months to come together to fundraise [and] were met with radio silence. We’ve asked the board members who voted to quit to resign and allow those of us who want to see the legacy continue do the work.”
James Canup, the magazine’s managing director, responded to the news of the shutdown by resigning (he had already planned to leave in April) and setting up a GoFundMe campaign, which he hoped would raise enough money to give the laid-off staff “a couple thousand dollars” each. Instead, donations quickly soared, raising the hope that there might be a way forward for a leftist publication in a deeply red state after all.
“It’s been astonishing to see the level of support, not just in Texas, and not just from other journalists, but from across the country,” Canup said. He also said he has heard from major donors who are interested in helping out, “if there was a path forward”.
“The do-or-die moment is to invest not in the journalism – because the journalism is excellent and always has been – but in the structures that help build the readership,” Canup said. “There are more Democrats in Texas than there are in any other state besides California.”
The GoFundMe page now includes an update clarifying that the funds will “either cover the payroll and expenses to keep the doors open, or … go directly to staff members” depending on whether the board allows them to remain open. The president of the board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Among the unexpected sources of support for the magazine was the “fediverse” – the collection of decentralized Mastodon servers that soared in popularity following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. Many comments on the GoFundMe page mention that the donors learned about the Observer through Mastodon – where the Texas Observer was one of the first journalistic outlets to set up its own server, Canup said.
For a publication with an aging readership and donor base, that’s another glimmer of hope.
“The generational passing of the baton may actually be happening through Mastodon,” Canup said.
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