The collapse of the Texas Observer

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Inserted between the pages of the Texas Observer’s Nov./Dec. edition, mailed to readers two months late, was a letter explaining that delivery had been delayed to put together a special, higher-quality double issue. Signed by the interim publisher and interim editor-in-chief, it touted the issue’s thicker, matte paper and perfectly bound spine. 

The letter didn’t mention the original reason for the wait: Internal turmoil at the organization had led a wave of employees to quit.

In September, the Observer’s editorial staff comprised 13 journalists. As of this month, after a rash of resignations — and one firing — only four of them remain. The five-person business team dwindled to zero in February. This mass exodus, former staffers said, can be traced to a series of board decisions — from the handling of a complaint by former Editor-in-Chief Tristan Ahtone, which led to his resignation; to promising Executive Editor Megan Kimble the top job in the interim, only to pass her over for an outside hire; to unilaterally halting publication of the magazine just days before it went to print. 

“To have [the letter] just completely rewrite everything that happened … It just felt extra shitty seeing that letter, and then my name on the cover,” said Amal Ahmed, the Observer’s former environmental reporter whose story “The Export Boom” landed her on the magazine’s front for the first time.

Spurred by that note — which misled ”the people that pay for this magazine and didn’t get one on time, the people that funded the magazine,” Ahmed told The Objective — she wrote publicly about her experience on Twitter

In the thread, she explained how the Observer had transformed from a place where she thrived to one “so toxic because all the good people were driven out.”

“It’s just really ironic to me that we’re journalists, and other workplace stuff like this, that’s what we cover,” Ahmed said. “But in our own industry, it’s whispers and gossip. I’ve never understood that. I think that the folks in charge need to be held accountable, and the only way to do that is to talk about what happened.”

The domino effect that wiped out Observer leadership

The Observer’s already small operation has been bleeding staff for seven months. 

Following the September resignation of Ahtone — the publication’s first Native editor-in-chief, who started just a year and a half prior — Kimble and the three other full-time editors have left the newsroom. Of five total staff writers, all three writers of color, including Ahmed, have also departed.

Publisher Mike Kanin resigned in October, and the CRO-turned-interim publisher, Loren Lynch, followed suit in January.

“The board of directors that I’d never interfaced with, I don’t even know who they are — it seems like they’re the ones that just kind of lit the whole thing on fire,” Ahmed said about the members of the Texas Democracy Foundation.

The first domino fell last May when a business employee directed a comment at Ahtone that he felt was prejudiced. Ahtone said he later asked Kanin, the employee’s manager who had been present during the exchange, to take action.

“The conversation lasted for quite a while,” Ahtone said. “But in essence, it was him asking, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ and me saying, ‘I want you to do what you think is right’ — which apparently was nothing.” 

Law firm Deshazo & Nesbitt handles complaints for the Observer, which doesn’t have an HR department. Employment lawyer Tom Nesbitt told The Objective that the board didn’t conduct an investigation into the incident because whether the employee made the remark wasn’t in dispute.

Nesbitt said the employee, a woman of color on the business team, made the comment to Ahtone during a conversation in which she accused the Observer of discrimination. The board investigated her claim and found no evidence of discrimination, Nesbitt said, but “we believe strongly that employees should not be retaliated against for making allegations against the organization’s executives.”

But, according to Ahtone, outgoing chair Abby Rapoport told him the board had in fact conducted an investigation into the employee’s remark — and that prejudice wasn’t a fireable offense at the Observer.

Rapoport declined to comment, including on her alleged statement to Ahtone.

Frustrated with the board’s failure to take any sort of action, Ahtone submitted his six weeks’ notice in early September. Rapoport, who had been slated to stay on as board chair until the end of the year, cut her tenure short.

Though rattled by Ahtone’s departure, Kimble said, she agreed to take over as interim editor-in-chief. She also pressed the board to promote Sophie Novack, an associate editor who Kimble worried was considering leaving. 

Then, two weeks before she was expected to step into the interim role, Kimble sent the board a letter signed unanimously by editorial staff detailing a series of concerns — including the level of turnover in the editor-in-chief position in recent years, the lack of HR personnel, and the need for an independent review of “business-side roles, fundraising, performance, and strategy.”

“We had this opportunity to try to change some things at the Observer,” Kimble said, “to make it so that we can support someone like Tristan leading our newsroom.”

After eleven days of radio silence, newly appointed board chair Laura Hernandez responded on Oct. 5 in an all-staff email: An outside hire would be brought in as interim editor-in-chief, the current issue of the magazine was canceled, and all future issues were temporarily suspended. She also wrote that an organizational consultant would be hired to conduct a “holistic review” of the company in accordance with the newsroom’s request. The board told The Objective in a statement it expects the findings will improve ”communication and working conditions” at the company. 

At the following all-hands meeting with Hernandez and board member Reeve Hamilton, staffers asked repeatedly why a magazine on its way out the door was being blocked.   

“The board felt that hitting a pause button was important at this time,” Hernandez says in a recording of the meeting obtained by The Objective. She refers to a “leadership vacuum” following the “unexpected departure” of Ahtone and Rapoport, as well as Kanin, who resigned as a result of the staff letter and quickly became chief operating officer at Rapoport’s magazine, Stranger’s Guide. He declined to comment.

When staffers point out that the board created the “vacuum” by rescinding its offer to Kimble, Hernandez says the board felt her acceptance had been conditional on Novack’s promotion, which it wasn’t willing to accommodate. Kimble maintains she made a request for more editing support, not an ultimatum.

“It just felt extremely disrespectful, and it felt retaliatory,” said Kimble, who only learned the job was no longer hers from reading the all-staff email. “It was like they were telling me, ‘We don’t need you,’ and yet, actually, no one bothered to call me to say that.”

In the same meeting, Hernandez and Hamilton announced the position had been filled by Gabriel Arana, a contributing editor at the American Prospect and a freelance journalist from New York City. The board referred to Arana as “a highly qualified journalist of color” in its statement. 

“They shared that the interim editor they were bringing in … had no connection to Texas, had never covered Texas, never lived in Texas,” Kimble said. “I thought it was extremely insulting.”

She submitted her resignation that afternoon.

“Abby [Rapoport] and I overlapped at The American Prospect nearly 10 years ago, though we had not been in touch with each other,” Arana said in a statement. “She reached out to me to make an introduction when the board was searching for someone who might be able to help out on short notice with some editing. After an interview with current board members, I was offered the interim editor-in-chief role.”

According to former staffers, Arana approached Novack about a promotion just weeks later.

A return to the Observer’s “imagined heyday”

After Ahtone started at the Observer in April 2020, he pushed for diversity in hiring, higher salaries for staff, and fellowship programs for emerging journalists. Ahtone also slowed the pace of online publishing to devote more of the small staff’s resources to investigations and long-form narratives, and he made all stories free to republish, expanding their reach. 

“He had ambitions for the Observer and a vision for the Observer that I was really fired up about,” Kimble said. That vision was one the newsroom had built collaboratively during a virtual retreat early in Ahtone’s tenure.

But in October, the board — which had historically been hands-off with coverage — cited concerns in the all-staff email that output had decreased, and that critical current events, like Texas’ anti-abortion bill winding through the courts, hadn’t been covered.

Novack, who reported on public health for the Observer, had been occupied with a months-long investigation into Texas jail deaths, along with pandemic coverage and her editing duties. 

Choosing what stories to cover, former staffers said, was a question of how best to allocate limited resources, including reporters in the single digits. It was a calculated decision, they added: Other regional and even national outlets were already reporting on the abortion ban’s every injunction and appeal.

Soon after his arrival, Arana sent a coverage memo to the newsroom calling the print magazine a “marketing tool” and emphasizing the need to “think of ourselves as a web-first publication,” including publishing online more frequently and incorporating more breaking news (“which needs to stop being taboo at the Texas Observer”), analysis, and commentary.  

“Even if we on staff may see the work as redundant,” the interim editor-in-chief wrote about more closely following the news cycle, “our readers who want to get the news from us do not. We can work on covering news in our own way in part, I think, by filtering it through a progressive lens and providing context and analysis.”

Ahmed, the former environmental reporter, said she resisted pressure to imitate East Coast outlets and infuse her work with a liberal voice. Novack also expressed discomfort with the editorial direction, though the Observer bills itself as a progressive outlet.

“I think there’s a difference between being progressive — which I think means … being a place that values employees and takes care of them, being a place that gives a platform and a voice to folks that are often not represented in media — versus … taking certain positions on policies or politicians,” she said. “I’m comfortable with the former, and I’m not comfortable with the latter.”

Pauly Denetclaw, previously the Observer’s Indigenous affairs reporter, said publicly on Twitter that she was fired in November because she “‘refused to do anything but investigative journalism.’” Arana declined to comment on the reasons for Denetclaw’s termination.

Board member Bryan Pollard, who’d joined during Ahtone’s term, followed Denetclaw out the door.

“Recent events have made it clear to me that the cause that drew me to the board — joining a hub of impactful Indigenous affairs coverage in Texas — has now vanished, as have the voices of those who would have made it possible,” wrote Pollard, formerly an associate director at the Native American Journalists Association, in his resignation letter.

The board insisted in its statement that this shift in coverage, which several staffers said was diametrically opposed to the vision and strategy they had built collectively under Ahtone, wasn’t a shift at all, but a return to the Observer’s roots.

“I think part of what felt so disrespectful recently,” Novack said, “is it was telling a staff that their workplace didn’t really belong to them, that the work we were doing was not really the Observer. And there was this higher value placed on some kind of abstract idea of what the Observer is versus the staff sitting in front of them.” 

That legacy and “imagined heyday,” Ahmed wrote on Twitter, was one “when TXO was all white, mostly men.” Before the mass exodus, 2021 was the first year in the Observer’s history with a significant number of women and people of color on staff, she added.

The future of the Observer

After the newsroom explained that funders had contributed thousands with the understanding that the reporting they supported would appear in print — and that paying readers would be expecting the magazine in their mailboxes — the board reversed course on the canceled issue, allowing it to go out. The accompanying note said the print magazine would return, after a hiatus, in “mid-Spring 2022.”

The board said a consultant has been hired to conduct the independent review requested in the staff letter. 

“We anticipate that the improvements precipitated by this review will enhance communication and working conditions throughout the organization and enable the magazine to continue to serve as a powerful, impactful, and independent voice in Texas,” the statement said. Next, the board will “begin the process of identifying and establishing permanent leadership for the Observer.” 

Current and former staffers said Arana wants the job, which was recently posted on the Observer’s website. The hiring committee has historically included members of the newsroom, but of the staffers who wrote the letter back in September, few remain. 

Ahmed quit in December after Arana called her “childish,” “self-centered,” and unprofessional in an email exchange. He later apologized for his “harsh words and criticism,” saying a miscommunication led to an “overreaction” on his part, but Ahmed submitted her notice a few days later, walking away from a $15,000 grant she’d won to pursue a new investigation that would’ve been the biggest of her career.

Like Ahmed, most staffers who left did so without full-time work lined up, and several are now freelancing.

The latest in the seven-month-long string of resignations is Danielle Lopez, who was promoted from digital editor to managing editor in January. Her last day was March 18, and she’s now headed to Austin’s NPR station.

“I decided months ago that I didn’t want to stick around working with this board. I just couldn’t afford to quit like the others did,” Lopez said. “There is some hope that things are turning a corner right now for the Observer, and the remaining staff are doing their best.”

Ahtone sees the crumbling of the Observer as not only a “big hit to Texas journalism,” but a reflection of the wider industry.

“I get the impression that these folks are more than happy to pass imploding newsrooms off to women or people of color in an attempt to avoid responsibility,” said Ahtone, now editor-at-large at Grist.

“It underscores what I see in journalism over and over again,” he added. “The individuals responsible for destroying a newsroom always get away with it. They never get held to account. They go into better jobs. In the case of the Observer, there are a lot of journalists that spoke up and are now unemployed that shouldn’t be.”

Naomi Andu is a digital producer at POLITICO and a Houston area native. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked at the Pulitzer Center and The Texas Tribune, where she covered the first months of the pandemic along with state policy and politics.

This story was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Curtis Yee.

Update (March 26): This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Tom Nesbitt, the Texas Observer’s lawyer, received after publication: Nesbitt said the employee, a woman of color on the business team, made the comment to Ahtone during a conversation in which she accused the Observer of discrimination. The board investigated her claim and found no evidence of discrimination, Nesbitt said, but “we believe strongly that employees should not be retaliated against for making allegations against the organization’s executives.”

Editor’s note: Objective editor and founder Gabe Schneider works at Grist with Tristan Ahtone, mentioned in this article. Schneider was not involved in any of the editorial discussion for this piece. Naomi Andu wrote this story on a freelance basis and is not an employee of The Objective.

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