Grand Designs

Texas is different from what it was five or ten years ago, so shouldn't Texas Monthly be different too? Beginning this month, it is.

April 2001By Comments

Last August in this space, before Paul Burka ever dreamed of locking horns with fans of A-Rod and clean air, I previewed a few changes to the most recent incarnation of Texas Monthly. In essence, I said, they’d come in two phases: things we’d do right away and things that would take more time. Eight months later, phase one is complete. As promised, we’re publishing long-form journalism again, at least once or twice a month, from Skip Hollandsworth’s chronicling of the Sarofim family divorces to Katy Vine’s tale of the unmaking of a cybercommunity. We’re back to punching sacred cows when circumstances warrant, as the many people who objected to our selection of George W. Bush as Bum Steer of the Year can tell you. (If only they had his sense of humor about it.) We’ve gotten more aggressive about covering the whole state—big cities, small towns, and everything in between. And both our stories and our contributors are more ethnically diverse, part of our ongoing effort to make the magazine read more like the Texas of today.Now comes phase two, in which we rethink what we’re about on a grander scale. Whenever the longtime editor of a magazine steps aside, the new one tinkers with the existing format even if it’s working, as ours basically was. A magazine is a reflection of one person’s taste, interests, and judgment, and that person is the editor, which is to say, in our case, me. But the imperative for change is less about what I want than what we need. An institution like this one, living and breathing as it has for more than 28 years, is referred to as “mature,” which is a polite way of saying that a lot of people have been used to things being done a certain way for a long time, and they don’t cotton to things being done differently. It’s a classic old-dog-new-tricks problem. But times change and places change—certainly Texas is vastly different than it was five or ten years ago—and so all of us must change too, no matter which old dog happens to be in charge of the pack.

That’s why you’re holding in your hands an issue of Texas Monthly that bears little resemblance (on the inside, at least) to the one you got last month. It has been, in the parlance of our industry, redesigned, a response to changes in our readership, changes in our market, and changes in our competitive environment. The layout of the pages, the typography, the use of color here rather than there—all of it reflects our sense that the visual presentation needed to evolve. Conceived by our associate art director, Scott Dadich, tweaked by former art director D. J. Stout and former associate art director Nancy McMillen (both of whom are now with the international design firm Pentagram), and implemented with the help of our senior associate art director, Kathy Marcus, the new design is simpler, more modern, and more elegant. Font fetishists will note that we’ve stuck with the Bodoni typeface, though we’ve switched to a reengineered version—the characters are a bit larger and there’s more space between the lines, which should please readers who found the old Bodoni hard to read. Another gripe has been that with all the ads in the magazine, it’s hard to find the stories. Leaving aside the obvious retort—that the ads pay the bills, so you can never have too many—I’m sympathetic to this point, and so is Scott. His solution is a design element that recurs throughout the front and the back of the magazine: a black bar, often married to a bright color, that clearly distinguishes many of the editorial pages from advertising. Then there’s the issue of trim size, a jargony way of acknowledging that the dimensions of the magazine have changed as well. From February 1973 to June 1996, Texas Monthly measured 8.187 inches by 10.875 inches. When I took over as editor, we were at 8 inches by 10.813 inches. Now we’re at 8.125 inches by 10.5 inches. Why? For the same reason that other publications have changed their size lately: to save money on paper, printing, and postage, which allows us to spend more on quality content.

And there is quality content—more than ever, since the architecture of Texas Monthly has evolved alongside the art. To keep longtime readers excited and to attract new ones, we've taken a few steps that will be evident when you thumb through the pages. For instance, we've reversed the order of the first two sections of the magazine, so that Around the State precedes Texas Monthly Reporter. The rationale for this decision was clear: We are, at the end of the day, a user's guide to Texas. We tell you where to go, what to do, and what to see; we tell you how and where to spend your leisure time to get the most out of the experience of living in or visiting the state. Why not lead with our strength—and why not make it stronger? Well, we did: The opening page of Around the State is now a calendar of recommended events from the Panhandle to the Gulf, and it leads into the pages of detailed listings. It's the most user-friendly design of this kind of section that I've seen, and it looks great.

Reporter, meanwhile, returns to a previous configuration: multiple stories written by one person (though not the same person every month, as in years past). The emphasis here will be on a sense of place; it's an opportunity to publish dispatches from all corners of the state, intelligence picked up by writers on assignment as they stop along the way from point A to point B. (A terrific example is Joe Nick Patoski's story this month on the new $5 million bus terminal in McAllen, which is the centerpiece of that city's revitalized downtown and, thanks to NAFTA, more of a transportation hub than its international airport.) Also in the Reporter section each month, to add a personal flavor to the mix, we'll be running a short first-person piece from a staffer or a freelancer. And a new feature, 24 Hours, will give a photographer a chance to capture a day in the life of an interesting person or place.

Notice that I haven't mentioned the Face page or Don Graham's Texas Classics or the Ex Files. You may be sorry to hear that these and a few of the magazine's other staples—the Inside Story, State Secrets, Texas Monthly Biz, State Fare, and Texas Primer—have gone missing. All had, to a greater or lesser degree, outlived their usefulness. Anyway, we had no choice but to sacrifice them to the greater good. Every redesign exacts its price, and this one did so in the form of pages that had to be redistributed to accommodate the new things we'll be doing.

Another big change is the elimination of our department-length pieces, which in any given month were written by any given writer on any given subject. What we published in this section over the past several years was good if not very good, but the inherent randomness gave readers no real incentive to come back issue after issue. By contrast, columnists create just such an incentive, and I'm happy to report that we're reintroducing them. Longtime readers of Texas Monthly will recall that in bygone days, you could count on reading the likes of William Martin on religion, Michael Ennis on art, and W. L. Taitte on classical music. (Who among you remembers that James Wolcott, now Vanity Fair's resident cultural cynic, once wrote a film column for us?) Effective immediately, a new but familiar set of writers, all with engaging personalities, expertise in their field, and strong points of view, will try to replicate the success of those who came before them. Each month, in the slot just before the feature stories, we'll serve up anywhere from four to six columns from the following group: Patricia Kilday Hart on politics, S. C. Gwynne on business, John Spong on law, Brian D. Sweany on sports, Jim Atkinson on health, Joe Nick Patoski on media, and Anne Dingus on Texana. In the slot just after the features, you'll be getting three columns from the following group: Patricia Sharpe on food, Suzy Banks on travel, Don Graham and Mike Shea taking turns on books, John Morthland and Jeff McCord taking turns on music, and Michael Ennis—again!—on art.

That's seven to nine columns a month, which gives you an enormous amount to read before you even crack the first of our long stories by the usual gang: Skip Hollandsworth, Michael Hall, Gary Cartwright, and Pamela Colloff, among others. If that's not enough, let me remind you that you've also got "the Great Burka," as a slightly peeved George W. once tagged him, writing our Behind the Lines column with unrivaled energy and intelligence. And then there's our new back-page columnist. I've known Kinky Friedman for years, mostly in the context of his career as a mystery novelist. Before he put pen to paper, he was, of course, a cult country singer with a nasty habit of offending an array of demographic groups. (To hear him sing "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" or "Homo Erectus" is a rare pleasure indeed.) In five pieces for us to date, he's shown himself to be witty, literate, and more professional than most so-called writers. I've asked him to help us leaven what is often a hyperserious magazine by tackling topics of his choice in short-essay form. Trust me: He may tick you off now and again, but you won't be able to stop reading—or laughing.

The Kinkster a columnist for Texas Monthly? You must be thinking, "This is going to be a different magazine." You're right. And we hope you like it.

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