Metro Editor

Paul Burka discusses seeing the Dallas issue as both an editor and reader. How did you select the stories in the Dallas issue? Was the issue based on a particular theme pertaining to Dallas?

Paul Burka: Unlike the Houston issue last September, we didn’t build the Dallas issue around a single theme. The Houston issue came on the heels of the Enron collapse, and we decided to do a “Houston after Enron” issue. We felt that the best way to approach the Dallas issue was to focus on stories that readers would immediately identify with, whether they live in Dallas or not. Our four big features were fresh looks at popular topics: the Cowboys, Neiman Marcus and the cult of beauty, Highland Park, and self-help gurus like Dr. Phil McGraw. We also have a business column about the former president of American Airlines that looks at the company’s recent problems and its future. All of these stories have big constituencies, both inside and outside of Dallas. We have three writers based in Dallas. What role did they play in shaping the issue?

PB: We started by asking them to propose stories we should do. Our Dallas-based contingent of Skip Hollandsworth, Jim Atkinson, and Michael Ennis proposed dozens of ideas. A lot of them found their way into the magazine. Skip has wanted to write about Jan Miller (the superagent for self-help books) for years. Jim persuaded us that “Dallas” is not just the area inside the city limits but now includes the suburbs marching toward the Red River; he wrote about how North Dallas has been transplanted to places like Frisco. Michael wrote about the Nasher sculpture garden, but as always, he provided the cultural context, which in this case was Dallas’ inferiority complex about its arts scene. To these three I should add the name of our longtime contributor Prudence Mackintosh, whose story about life in Highland Park is a classic. Was the enthusiasm for the Dallas issue as great as the enthusiasm for the Houston issue?

PB: Initially, no. In the end, yes—and I think the enthusiasm was actually greater. Houston in many ways is a more interesting city than Dallas. It’s more unpredictable. It’s more diverse, racially and intellectually. It keeps having huge problems and keeps overcoming them. But Houston changes so fast that it’s hard to find stories that capture the essence of the city yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Houston doesn’t really have icons—no famous store, no mythic neighborhood (River Oaks isn’t as emblematic of Houston as Highland Park is of Dallas), no beloved sports franchise. The stories in the Houston issue were really good, and they were right on the cutting edge of politics, demographics, high society, teen culture, and medicine, but they didn’t give you a sense of comprehensiveness, so that you could read this issue and say, “Hey, this is Houston.” As we got toward the end of this issue and I read over the final versions of the stories, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is Dallas.” The Dallas issue feels more comprehensive to me than the Houston issue did. When I sat down to write Behind the Lines and reflected on the issue, I felt that the stories portrayed the eternal Dallas. There is no eternal Houston. Was it more difficult for you to edit the Houston issue or the Dallas issue? Why?

PB: I know that the Houston issue was more difficult. Now let me try to figure out why. I think it’s because the parts were greater than the whole. The stories were terrific, but what did they add up to? As the issue editor, I wanted the reader to know exactly why we chose each story as essential to understanding Houston. I knew the answer, but I’m not sure that the reader did. You would never find a society hostess like Becca Cason Thrash in Dallas—she went from a public relations guru to the top of the social pyramid. That’s Houston. But if you go overboard trying to convince readers how emblematic of Houston every story is, they resent having it hammered into them. The Dallas issue didn’t have this problem. One reason is that we had four writers who have lived for many years in the city they were writing about, plus Gary Cartwright on the Cowboys, whom he once covered for the Dallas Morning News. These folks really know their subjects. The first drafts of these stories required very little editing by me; the only exception was Cartwright’s piece, which originally focused on first-year coach Bill Parcells. He revised it following the death of Tex Schramm, the man who made the Cowboys into America’s Team, to incorporate his relationship with Schramm and some early Cowboys lore. As a result, the Dallas issue reads more like it was written by insiders than the Houston issue did. In her piece about her 25 favorite things to do in Dallas, writer-at-large Suzy Banks alludes to the fact that Dallas always seems to get a bad rap. Do you hold the same opinion? If so, why? If not, why not?

PB: Actually, I think Houston gets more of a bad rap than Dallas. The climate is worse, the pollution is worse, the traffic is worse, the logic of the physical layout—Houston is unzoned—is worse, at least to people who like their cities to look planned. Dallas gets a bad rap in some quarters because of politics (the Kennedy assassination, the lingering residential segregation, the racial polarization). That’s not what Suzy meant, though. She’s writing about travel, not politics, and Dallas is not a place where there are a lot of obvious things to see and do. Houston has much better cultural attractions, from museums to architecture, and a lot of quirkiness—and the beach and historic Galveston (my hometown) are just an hour away. What is your favorite story in the issue? Why?

PB: I’m not dumb enough to reveal which story I liked best as a reader—writers’ feelings bruise easily—but I will say which story I liked best as an editor: Pam Colloff’s

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