When you step off the elevator into the outer lobby of our Austin office, the first thing you see is the sign: “Texas Monthly—A Great Magazine.” It has been hanging there for more than a decade, and in that time, it’s been lampooned as an emblem of our arrogance. Great every month? Even after all these years? Saying it doesn’t make it so, but all of us who work here—from the writers and editors to the folks in accounting, ad sales, and so on—take pride in what we do, and we absolutely stand behind the words on the wall. They’re a statement of not just who we are but what we’ve been, a reminder of our institutional history and the connection we’ve had with our readers since our very first issue, in February 1973. Not for nothing does Mike Levy, our founder and publisher, tell new employees, “Welcome to Texas Monthly. Don’t screw up.”
Mike’s admonition has been echoing in my head a lot lately. On July 1, I took over as the editor of Texas Monthly—only the third person to have the job. Among my other responsibilities, I’m the Sign Compliance Officer: Month in and month out, I’m the one who has to make sure we’re as great as ever, which is no easy feat, considering what, and who, came before me. In this space in the last issue, Gregory Curtis bade you all farewell. He was too modest to tell you what he’d accomplished as editor, so I will. In Greg’s nineteen years at the helm, Texas Monthly solidified its international reputation as a home for the best writers and the best writing. No one could match Greg’s eagle eye for a good idea. No one better understood how to take a workmanlike story and make it exceptional. No one was more gifted, in a gentlemanly sort of way, at putting himself in the position of the average reader and then deciding what would and wouldn’t fly. (Outrageousness and controversy were fine as long as they were fair; foul language rarely was; bad taste never was.) Before Greg, William Broyles spent eight years building Texas Monthly from scratch with a mixture of grace and toughness and a literary sensibility unmatched at most magazines then or now. Although Bill long ago gave up the toil of journalism for the finer pleasures of screenwriting, he is, like Greg, a celebrated figure in Texas and an icon in our industry.
Filling big shoes isn’t the only challenge that I and others here face. The world of magazines and media has changed dramatically in the past 28 years, particularly in the past 10. When Mike and Bill started Texas Monthly, the daily newspapers in the big Texas cities were average to good, but even on their best days they didn’t publish long, writerly pieces or personal essays. There were no alternative weeklies to speak of and no Web sites, and local TV news was the province of “bozos,” as one of our cover stories would subsequently observe. All that’s changed today. The dailies and the weeklies, along with national publications like the New York Times and Vanity Fair, cover the state much more aggressively. The Web makes it harder for a daily, let alone a monthly, to tell you anything you don’t know. The network newsmagazines send camera crews and reporters to cover major stories in Texas all the time, and local news—in some cases, at least—has shed its red nose and floppy shoes. It’s no longer enough to be merely great; the competition is so intense that you have to be greater than everyone else.
The biggest change, of course, is in Texas itself. In the early days of Texas Monthly, the pitch to prospective readers went something like this: “We love Texas, and so do you, which is why you identify yourselves as residents of the state first and of your local communities second. Unlike, say, California, where people in different cities have practically nothing in common, Texas has a distinct identity that functions as a sort of connective tissue. Whether you’re from Harlingen or Hillsboro, Lubbock or Lufkin, you care about the state as a whole—so you’ll want to read our various takes on all things Texan.” For such people, the “Texas myth” was a terrific draw, and it sold a lot of magazines (ads too). That was then. Today, many of our readers are Texas natives for whom the myth has meaning, but just as many are relatively recent arrivals lured here by jobs or that ephemeral concept known as quality of life. (Me, for instance; I moved to Austin in late 1991 for both reasons.) The newbies don’t know Sam Houston from Sam Rayburn (well, I do) and aren’t automatically interested in something simply because it’s Texan. For them, the Texas economy means high tech, not oil. For them, the Texas Rangers mean baseball, not law enforcement. For them, Texas is a state, not a state of mind, let alone a whole other country. And yet we have to appeal to them as well as to the longtimers.
How to do it? How to make sure that Texas Monthly continues to be great in a time of change? On a micro level, you don’t totally reinvent yourself to the point that you’re unrecognizable. When a magazine is working, and this one is, you don’t blow it up just because you can. You want an evolution, not a revolution. Over time, Texas Monthly will evolve. How remains to be seen, though we have some pretty specific ideas. On a macro level, to borrow a phrase from Darrell Royal, you dance with the one who brung ya. What made Texas Monthly great once can make it even greater today. In our case, going back to the future means committing ourselves to three ideas.
We are about journalism. Sounds simple, right? It isn’t. With the notable exceptions of The New Yorker and Harper’s, most magazines have retreated from publishing long-form narrative and investigative stories in favor of shorter, jazzier profiles and trend pieces that often read like tricked-up press releases for this new movie or that new product. The result is that every issue of every magazine looks and feels like every issue of every other magazine. No one knows the sin like the sinner: We’ve been running shorter and shorter stories ourselves, to the dismay of not only our writers, who always want more space, but also our readers, who say they miss the days when we would routinely run seven thousand or eight thousand words on a given subject. In a month or two, we’ll start doing that again. We’ll be sure not to confuse length with depth—that is, no story will run any longer than it should—but one of the ways we can continue to be distinct and, I would argue, great is to have the courage to publish the kind of meticulously reported, elegantly written stories that got us our reputation to begin with.
Leading that reenergized journalistic charge will be Paul Burka, our longtime executive editor, and Sam Gwynne, who joined the staff in June, also as an executive editor. Paul many of you know: He’s been the state’s best (and best-known) political writer for a quarter century, and writers here and elsewhere regard him as the best story editor in the business. He is also our intellectual and moral compass, and so it makes sense that he have a high-profile platform in our pages. He will. Starting next month, Paul will write this column. I can think of no one better suited for the job. Sam is probably known to many of you as well, but by a different name: S.C. Gwynne is his byline, as it was for twelve years at Time, the last six of which were spent in Austin as the magazine’s Texas bureau chief. During that period, he covered every major Texas story—the dragging murder in Jasper, the Hopwood case, George W. Bush’s presidential bid—along with national ones like the Columbine High School shootings. He, too, is a supremely talented writer and editor, and he’s already begun to help our other writers to do their best work.
Our content is not for sale. One of the downsides of the Internet is that you can’t always tell whether what you’re reading is editorial (copy of a journalistic nature) or advertising (copy intended to get you to buy what the sponsor is selling). If a Web site says a certain hotel is good, can you trust the recommendation, or are you being suckered by a hotelier who knows HTML? The problem exists to a lesser but still significant extent in the print world, where, for instance, a fashion magazine’s puff piece on Ralph Lauren is almost always preceded by a multipage Ralph Lauren insert.
At Texas Monthly, we take seriously the idea that our story selection and direction should be independent from any business considerations. Most of the time our sales staff doesn’t even know what’s in a given issue of the magazine. We refer to this principle as the separation of church and state, and it’s as sacrosanct as the one articulated in the Bill of Rights. (Mike Levy, by the way, deserves credit for being the strongest champion of the church-state split.)
You are our constituency. In New York, where I worked at various magazines before arriving here, editors often edit for the amusement of other editors, or for gossip columnists writing inches of boldface, or for celebrity publicists in a back-scratching mood. Subscribers and newsstand buyers seemingly don’t enter into the equation. That has never been the case at Texas Monthly. We know that some of the two million or so of you who read the magazine each month won’t like this story or that headline, and we can live with not pleasing you all of the time. But we’re always aware that we’re here for you and because of you, and that knowledge will inform every decision we make.
So will any feedback we get. When you don’t like something we’ve published—a cover story on Dennis Rodman, for instance—tell us. (Boy, did we hear about Rodman.) And when you like something, tell us. You can send us a comment using the link at the bottom of every page.
By keeping in touch, you’ll help us put out a better Texas Monthly. Which is to say, A Great Magazine.