Newsstand sales are supposed to be dying. Yet the selection of magazines and literary journals keeps growing at my local Barnes & Noble.
The other day, I was surprised and delighted to find the Texas Observer among a profusion of city magazines from around the country.
At first, I thought the slick, full-color mag was the Texas Monthly, where the excellent Mimi Swartz works. But a closer examination revealed that the publication was indeed the venerable rabble-rousing Observer, begun by Ronnie Dugger back in 1954 and for a time led by Willie Morris, a transplant to Austin from Mississippi. After making his mark with the Observer, Morris headed to New York and his tumultuous editorship of Harper's.
Dugger, who wrote the first major biography of Lyndon Johnson, established the Observer as an independent beacon uncovering state and local government abuses and corporate malfeasance.
The magazine also celebrated Texas life and culture in its small towns and big cities. While breaking news of political and business corruption, the magazine displayed an amused fondness for even the most outrageous political characters.
The Observer's new, glitzy look surprised me; years ago, it was published on newsprint, in black-and-white. Now funded by the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, the magazine still runs the same substantial investigative pieces, essays, political commentary and book reviews, illustrated with a lot more photos.
Reading the Observer made me wonder what had happened to Texas' once strong progressive politics. The state used to elect governors like Ann Richards, and senators like Lyndon Johnson. It had journalists like Dugger and the late Molly Ivins. For the last 30 years or so, the state has been controlled by reactionary Republicans, who have crippled social services.
The Democratic Party now looks at Texas as one of the states swinging from red to blue. The state's big cities have remained socially and politically liberal over the years. If Texas' long moribund progressives do return to power, the Observer will lead the way.