Dying For Dollars

Observer's 4,000 Subscribers Are Not Enough

The Texas Observer publisher Geoff Rips (left) and editor Lou Dubose are struggling to keep the progressive publication afloat
photographs by Alan Pogue

The Texas Observer is in trouble. The venerable journal of progressive politics in Texas has pathetic circulation, seemingly endless financial troubles, and most recently, internal personnel turmoil.

These facts should provoke two reactions. The first is, "Yeah, so what? When is the Observer not in trouble?" The Observer, pursuing the seemingly quixotic notion of pushing liberal causes in this notoriously conservative state, has never provided anyone with great riches; even under the leadership of editors Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and Willie Morris, the magazine has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, only to be saved by donations from supporters.

The other reaction should be, "Why?"

Sure, Texans who regularly send shamelessly corrupt big-business lackeys and Bible-thumping holy rollers to its legislature are not a likely audience for the Observer, but the dismal circulation figures still don't add up. Liberals aren't quite the endangered species that conventional wisdom might have us believe -- Austin still stands out as a progressive stronghold, and its population now numbers half a million. Other major Texas cities usually manage to elect at least a few progressives to office, and U.S. Senate candidate Victor Morales brought 2.4 million left-leaning Texans out of the woodwork to cast their votes against Phil Gramm. Even given the number of those who might simply describe themselves as moderate, it still just doesn't stand to reason that the Observer can't draw better than its current 4,000 or so subscribers.

Observer publisher Geoff Rips and editor Louis Dubose blame the paper's lackluster circulation figures on inadequate marketing efforts. However, former managing publisher Rebecca Melançon, whose job, before she was recently fired, was to market the Observer, says the problem lies with the journal's editorial content. "The Texas Observer is not speaking to its audience," she says. "The Observer has been around for 42 years... Its audience has changed, and its audience has different needs now."

Rips and Dubose are quick to refute Melançon's assertions that the articles themselves are somehow the problem. "It's not a typical publication, nor has it ever been," says Dubose. "There are stories like Dave Denison's story -- during the Central American wars, when he went out and did a genealogy on the extreme right, who was financing the illegal covert wars in Central America. Yet nobody paid attention to it until Eugene Hasenfus' plane was shot down in Nicaragua. Then the phones were ringing, network reporters, national dailies like The Washington Post and The New York Times were chasing that story that had started with a small publication. Part of it was because the story was framed properly and identified all the players. The same was true of the Val Verde story [a recent cover story on the voting scandal that allowed an ex-Klansman to take elected office], which was framed properly and actually let the plaintiffs speak and identified the players."

Another example Dubose gives of stellar reporting was the Observer's story on Jennifer Harbury, the former Austinite whose husband, a rebel leader in Guatemala, was tortured and killed by U.S.-trained military officers. "Jennifer Harbury shopped her story around and nobody believed her," Dubose recalls. "We listened to her, we wrote it, she took it to... Congressman John Bryant's office, she ended up with 25 signatures, based on the fact that one credible publication with which these congressmen were familiar had published her story... Two years later that was the end-of-the-year story for 60 Minutes."

"The publication has provided stories that have been road maps for larger publications for a long time," Dubose continues. "That's not a defense of a small-circulation publication; it is a defense of and advocacy of good reporting skills and a publication that's not afraid to go after stories and invest time in stories that other people consider insignificant."

"You know," adds Rips, "the Val Verde story -- not only did the Times pick it up, but now 60 Minutes is looking at it and none of this Klan business would have been verified; it would have just washed away.... While our subscription base isn't that high, a lot of these stories end up reaching places [where] they wouldn't have existed otherwise."

While all parties agree that circulation figures have to rise, Melançon's opinion that editorial needs to change led to some internal strife. After being brought on board last year to deal with circulation problems, Melançon was unceremoniously canned late last month.

Finding out why is difficult, as the key players at the self-proclaimed "Journal of Free Voices" aren't freeing their voices much to talk about it. Melançon says she was told that "the editorial staff did not get along with me."

Rips is tight-lipped about what went down. "I really don't like to talk about personnel issues," was all he would say. Dubose, however, says that Melançon had "a lack of understanding of the editorial content.... She never suggested to me that [she understood]. Maybe she's apolitical, I don't know."

Melançon responds: "I think that's absolutely correct. I didn't understand -- well, it's not that I didn't understand, but I could never get a clear handle on what they were trying to do. The readers were confused, too. When I talked to the board members and the staff, I got different answers from everybody, sometimes different answers on different days. If Lou Dubose, Geoff Rips, and [associate editor] Michael King had a clear, concise view of what The Texas Observer is, I could never get them to tell me." (Melançon was formerly the publisher of The Austin Business Journal and remains publisher of In Fact, the hard-hitting journal of city politics edited by her husband, Ken Martin).

The final shoot-out between Melançon and Dubose took place after Melançon attended Observer strategy sessions where she spoke with board members about changing the nature of the non-profit publication itself. With that, Dubose turned in his resignation. Within a week, after he talked to Rips, Dubose got his job back and Melançon was out. Dubose's only explanation is that it was "an intramural affair."

Melançon says she was hired to fix the Observer's circulation problems, and that's what she tried to do. "The Observer's circulation was as high as 12,000 at one point, back in the Seventies. It's just 3,500 now [Rips and Dubose say it fluctuates between 3,000 and 5,000]. It needs to be more. I was hired for my skill and expertise on that."

Since there had been no marketing efforts made at the Observer to speak of, the first thing Melançon tried was a direct mail campaign using 30,000 addresses from a highly specialized list of certain target groups. Second, she focused on the paper's newsstand distribution, contacting distributors and increasing the Observer's distribution points. Third, she contacted 17 political groups whose members might be interested in the Observer and offered them discounts. Also, she says, a readership survey was done from September to November of last year, and, "through those efforts, a picture emerges that we were not succeeding in our market."

Melançon says she determined that, even considering grants that the Observer might receive, 10,000 subscribers would be needed to achieve "sustainability" -- a level where the magazine could look at the long term, rather than hoping for the big check that would carry them through the next year -- and that the Observer was coming nowhere near that. "At the point where the results didn't even meet our baseline goals, we were not succeeding."

It was time, she says, to take a look at making editorial changes. "I made a substantial effort in marketing the Observer as is," she says. "The audience was not buying it -- we had to change. I started a dialog to ask what should change; I wanted to ask these questions of the staff.... We needed to understand what our audience needs and give it to them."

Rips and Dubose criticize Melançon's reasoning and her marketing efforts. They say that it takes more than a few thousand letters to raise circulation. "It's hard to get (The Observer) into people's hands. It requires some capital to do that, which we're trying to raise," Rips says. "I think Rebecca expected to do one direct mail and have it happen overnight."

Rips adds that Melançon overstepped the boundaries of her job. "It wasn't her job to direct the editorial content of the publication," he says. "We listened to her suggestions, but she was not the editor."

The real problems with the Observer have more to do with the siege mentality that the publication has operated under for so long, Dubose says. Right or wrong, staying afloat takes precedence to smart marketing strategies. These problems occur when "you take a publication and don't do any direct mail solicitation for 10 years, which is essentially what happened... or any other kind of marketing at all for 10 years, because the publisher [founder Ronnie Dugger] has moved on, and one person [business manager Cliff Olofson, who died in 1995] has been putting up a heroic struggle to keep the thing afloat and keep the bills paid, and that's a prescription for failure."

Such was the situation that led to the nonprofit foundation, including former editors Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower, that bailed out the Observer in 1994. Observer managers found that going non-profit meant that there were more charitable foundations that could give them grants under that status. And given that the paper had almost literally never made a dime anyway, that was the smartest route.

So what steps is the Observer now taking to get that capital it needs to invest in marketing? In December, according to the April 1997 issue of Texas Monthly, Ivins, responding to Melançon's predictions that the Observer had just three months to live, wrote a check for $20,000 and a fundraising letter that produced $47,800 more. Texas Monthly also reports that another Observer supporter, Waco philanthropist Bernard Rapoport, who gave $100,000 to the Observer in 1994, refuses to save the publication this time around. And even if Rapoport did come to the rescue, it probably wouldn't be enough.

Hightower, who went from the Observer editorship to become Texas Agriculture Secretary and now a national radio show host, says that the progressive mag needs more than just a good product. "They need a business manager," he says. "Like most progressive publications, the editorial content comes first, but there's a dearth of business leadership."

Rips says that the paper is, to some degree, continuing what Melançon started with her mailer -- contacting philanthropic foundations, environmental groups, Latino groups, labor organizations. "Building community," Rips says, but having more patience to wait for results than Melançon had.

Melançon isn't sure they can wait -- when asked if the Observer could continue to survive, she replied, "As is? No."

Let's hope she's wrong. Rips and Dubose are right when they maintain that nobody covers the issues facing the people of Texas as well as The Texas Observer. It's much too important to lose. n

Subscription info and much more can be found on The Texas Observer website (http://www.hyperweb.com/txobserver), or call 477-0746,

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