Metro Editor

Paul Burka discusses seeing the Dallas issue as both an editor and reader.

September 2003By Comments

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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.

texasmonthly.com: 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 piece on the pursuit of beauty at the Neiman Marcus cosmetics counter. When she showed up at the cosmetics department, no story existed. She had no characters, no narrative, no idea of where she was headed. And she came back with a gem of a story. Gary Cartwright started out with Bill Parcells and the Cowboys. Skip Hollandsworth started out with Dr. Phil and his agent, Jan Miller, and a long list of self-help books. Prudence Mackintosh started out with thirty years of living in Highland Park. Don’t get me wrong: These are gems too. As a reader, I was more interested in their subjects than I was in Pam’s. But as an editor, I knew how difficult Pam’s story had been to report and write. The tone had to be right—she couldn’t make fun of people—and the setup for the story had to be just right. When she decided to approach the story from the perspective of her own attitude about cosmetics, she solved the puzzle.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this issue?

PB: Words alone are not enough to bring a story—or a city—alive; you have to have the right visual images. Art director Scott Dadich faced the same problem that I did as an editor: How do you make the parts into a whole that says, “This is Dallas?” Take the opening photograph of the Highland Park story: A young girl who can’t be more than six years old is standing by a sidewalk lemonade stand in front of an obviously expensive house, in a totally self-confident pose, talking on her cell phone. It says everything about the life of easy affluence. On the other end of the emotional scale is an oh-so-sad photo of the two men who built the Cowboys’ franchise, Tex Schramm and Tom Landry, taken in 1959, before the team had ever played a game. So much promise lay ahead, and now it’s all in the past. The images of the Neiman Marcus cosmetics department are irresistible, and so is an album from the sixties of the famous and infamous in the city, including presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (campaigning with Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn), LBJ and Lady Bird being accosted by an angry mob of political extremists, the Beatles, Carol Channing, Helen Keller—and Lee Harvey Oswald.

texasmonthly.com: Was there anything in this issue about Dallas that surprised you?

PB: I was most surprised by the subject of my column, Behind the Lines, which was about Dallas mayor Laura Miller. I have known her for a long time, and I thought she was a great reporter when she covered city hall for the Dallas Observer. Then she ran for city council and won. She was definitely an outsider on the council—she wrote an article for us about her education as a politician—but she was able to build a constituency of voters alienated by the decline in basic city services and by tax-break giveaways. I didn’t think she would be a successful mayor, but I was wrong. She is a far better politician as a leader than she was as a council member. She’s smart, articulate, attractive, genuine, caring about her city, attuned to the concerns of ordinary people but not hostile to the big shots, quick to react to problems, and true to her principles. I’d be embarrassed to put that in an article because it’s so gushing. The best politicians in Texas today are women—Laura, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Susan Combs.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think people who don’t live in Dallas will be interested in this issue? Why or why not?

PB: Realistically, I know that an issue about a single city can be a hard sell if you don’t live in that city. You have to overcome natural resistance. People outside of Houston were not very interested in the Houston issue. I think—maybe it will be more accurate to say that I hope—people outside of Dallas will indeed be interested in this issue. The key is big-constituency stories. Dr. Phil has a huge following outside of Dallas. The Dallas Cowboys have a huge following outside of Dallas and so does Gary Cartwright. Women outside of Dallas buy cosmetics and shop at Neiman Marcus. Most of our readers have heard of Highland Park. The Houston issue didn’t have the same potential for big-constituency stories.

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