What I’ve Learned

My seventeen-year run at TEXAS MONTHLY has come to an end, but its lessons (just say no to astronaut sex!) will stay with me forever.

October 2009By Comments

It oughta be a bumper sticker: I wasn’t born at TEXAS MONTHLY, but I got here as fast as I could. I first happened upon the magazine as a graduate student in the late eighties, and I was knocked out by its execution of journalism in what was, to me, the ideal form: narrative nonfiction, no shorter but no longer than necessary, filled with gripping detail and accompanied by photography and illustration that was every bit as journalistic as the writing. Beyond that there was a sense of fun—ample amounts of wit and nerve and an ability to tweak the self-important and the unself-aware in a way that didn’t seem mean. And a sense of purpose, a responsibility to something larger than the commercial imperative. Knowledge of Texas, and devotion (not blind) to Texas, and kinship with Texans infused every page.

What sealed the deal was the November 1989 issue. I picked it up in the office of a colleague at a magazine in New York. She’d worked for TEXAS MONTHLY back in the day, and she had old copies strewn about, including one that contained a profile of Bill Moyers (“The Mythic Rise of Billy Don Moyers”), written by some woman I’d never heard of named Mimi Swartz. Moyers I had heard of, but even if he had been unknown to me, I would have been sucked in by his portrayal on the cover as a shirtless hero of yore, ripped from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or maybe a romance novel, his sword raised to the heavens. Mimi’s story was perfect: ambitious and confident and tart and honest, neither a puff piece nor a hatchet job—the last word you’d ever have to read on the subject. As soon as I put it down, I wrote a letter to the editor, Greg Curtis, offering to sweep the floor, anything to get me in the door.

All of that seems like only yesterday, but it is, in fact, exactly eighteen years since Greg invited that persistent (but charming?) kid to apply for a slot on the masthead vacated by senior managing editor and new mama Katy Flato. I was an unlikely hire. In my clumsily trimmed Vandyke, tortoiseshell glasses, and three-piece suit, I looked more like a rabbinical student than a star journalist in the making, but somehow I limped across the line. And there I remained, just as implausibly, until August 21, 2009, my last day at TEXAS MONTHLY. (I have since moved on to the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit public media organization, where I’m CEO and editor in chief.) The final tally: thirteen months as a senior editor, seven and a half years as deputy editor, just over eight years as editor, and just under one year as president and editor in chief.

I was 25 when I arrived at TEXAS MONTHLY, so it’s fair to say I grew up here. I met my wife in the hallway outside my office. Both my children were born while I was on staff, and they spent many weekend days toddling around the place, snatching treats from senior editor Anne Dingus’s candy bowl and pestering “Uncle Levy,” as they came to call TEXAS MONTHLY’s founder, Mike Levy. (There was that one time my daughter called him “Uncle Baldy” to his face, but that’s another story.) Early on it became difficult to distinguish work from home, colleagues from family—that was the culture Mike created. Eventually I gave in to the blurring of the line, joining countless others who’d long ago done the same. No doubt that’s why it was so heart-wrenching to leave.

But leave I did, grateful to take with me fond memories of the place, as well as many lessons learned, beginning with one I’ve ignored in the previous four paragraphs.

It’s not about us; it’s about them. People who read this magazine care about Texas. Except in the rarest instances, they don’t care about TEXAS MONTHLY writers. Personal essays have always been part of the magazine’s mix, of course, but we’ve had the greatest success when our writers are the vehicles to tell other people’s stories, not their own. For as long as I can remember, we’ve discouraged writers from “inserting” themselves where they don’t belong. The magazine does right by its readers by remembering that egos should be kept in check.

Failure is an option. Too often the decisions that editors make are driven by fear. The perilous state of things has made it nearly impossible to take chances, to have grand ambitions, because no one in a tenuous situation—that would be every editor working today—can afford to belly flop. I’ve come to believe the opposite should be true: You need to be given permission to fail, because (1) you’re more willing to try new things that could turn out to be the next big things, and (2) in failure you learn. During my first twelve months as editor of TEXAS MONTHLY, I made a point of going in as different a direction as possible in terms of subject matter, length of stories, and art direction. Very few decisions worked out as I’d hoped, but at least I wasn’t scared of my shadow. And I got better at my job as a result. By the time we published our Lance Armstrong cover, in July 2001, something had clicked. Had I been unable to experiment and fail, it would have taken much longer.

Class, not mass. The most important thing that an editor of a magazine can do is know his audience. All decisions should be made with the typical reader in mind; all actions should be taken with a goal of amusing, entertaining, and enlightening that person. You might wish to have a different audience, but there’s very little you can do about it—certainly not overnight. I quickly came to understand, for instance, that even though I thought it would be fun to have an audience of postgraduate-school hipsters, TEXAS MONTHLY readers tended to be middle-aged. So those long-threatened plans to put the Butthole Surfers on the cover never came to fruition. Our readers also tended to be well—educated and well-to-do, with tastes that were sophisticated but fell short of obnoxiously rarefied. That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy popular culture (Willie Nelson always sells), but at the end of the day I knew I was serving the elites rather than the masses.

Is it any wonder, then, that when we occasionally gave in to the temptation to pander to the masses, we almost always pulled up short? See Clarkson, Kelly, May 2005, and NASCAR, Popularity of, February 2007. Our profile of the former (“Since She’s Been Gone”) and our piece on the latter (“EEEEEEAAAOOOOWWW!!!”) were terrific journalism, but as cover stories, they were just awful. We couldn’t give copies away. They inflicted the kind of commercial wounds you spend the rest of the fiscal year recovering from.

Irreverence has its limits. I’ve always been a big believer in pushing the envelope, and I always felt that TEXAS MONTHLY should be stopping people in the supermarket checkout line dead in their tracks with the type and images on our covers. But the overwhelmingly negative response to our cover on the deranged astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak (May 2007) proved we can be too irreverent for our own good. It was the single biggest mistake I made, a total misreading of who we are.

The backstory: We had been looking for an excuse to publish a sweeping institutional profile of NASA, occasioned by the shuttle program’s fits and starts and rumored demise, when along came the tale of the diaper-clad astronaut’s love triangle. Maybe, I thought, by hitching ourselves to a tabloid headline, we’d get a cover out of it. One giddy conversation led to another, and it snowballed: Suddenly we were contemplating wildly inappropriate covers. A sign hanging on the door of the hatch that read, “If this shuttle’s rockin’, don’t bother knockin’.” A space shuttle entering a black hole. Clearly we lost perspective, because by the time we published the image we settled on—astronauts smoking a postcoital cigarette—we’d convinced ourselves that it was family-friendly. Even then the real problem was my decision to run “Astronaut Sex!” in type as large as possible. Ugh. I’d still like to have a do-over.

On the other hand: Dick Cheney (January 2007). No limits on that particular irreverence.

Bottom-up, not top-down. One of the undeniable anachronisms about TEXAS MONTHLY is that it has staff writers who enjoy the maximum amount of creative control. They, more than the editor, determine the trajectory of its success. They decide what stories to write, for the simple reason that they’re the ones out in the world, chasing down leads, talking to all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Why wouldn’t they know better than their office-bound bosses? This upside-down hierarchy is, more than anything else, the reason that TEXAS MONTHLY has always been a great magazine.

Quality control is what separates us from the apes. It seems that whenever the economy goes down the toilet, editors are forced to defend the existence of copyeditors and fact-checkers. Right-thinking people know that the back-of-house team is crucial to the functioning of a great magazine. TEXAS MONTHLY’s credibility, with sources and readers, is always in the hands of these folks. It’s not about not getting sued. It’s about not getting sloppy. Being the best requires nothing less.

The days of a civil one-way conversation are over. Technology hasn’t killed print journalism, contrary to what you’ve been hearing. But it has made it much more of a contact sport, at least as far as interactions with the public go. Letters to the editor now require only an e-mail account and a bone to pick; a trip to the mailbox no longer serves as a cooling-off period, so the responses we get these days are more, um, pointed. I have had some of the nastiest, most hateful things said about me in response to blog posts, but hey, that’s democracy. We get our say, they get theirs. Wouldn’t—and can’t—have it any other way.

Texas is the greatest material you could ever ask for. Hey, that oughta be a bumper sticker too!

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