Senior executive editor Paul Burka talks about this month's special issue on Houston.
texasmonthly.com: Why a special issue on Houston? Who came up with the idea and how did it evolve?
Paul Burka: We have done a special issue every September for many years. First it was the richest people in Texas. We stopped doing it for two reasons: It was always the same people—especially at the top—and a lot of them didn’t want to be interviewed or photographed. Of course, as soon as we stopped doing it, the high-tech boom came along and the list would have been completely different. But we moved on to “The Texas Twenty,” the twenty Texans who had most influenced their fields of work in the previous year. The good news was that it gave us a chance to write about people who otherwise wouldn’t have been in the magazine, like Dennis Rodman, and the bad news was that it gave us a chance to write about people who otherwise wouldn’t have been in the magazine, like Dennis Rodman. The idea of the Texas Twenty seemed to have run its course by this year, so we began batting ideas around. Around that time Gourmet did a special issue on San Francisco. So the idea of doing a special issue on a Texas city got on the table. It was only one of a number of ideas, but it had a lot of things going for it—it could last for several years, for example. I can’t say that there was a eureka moment, but by the time we had to decide, it was at the top of everybody’s list.
texasmonthly.com: Why Houston over Dallas or San Antonio?
PB: I think that was obvious to everybody here. The fall of Enron was such a major event that, if we were going to focus on one city, it had to be Houston.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about deciding what kinds of stories you wanted in the issue?
PB: It was a two-step process. The first was the normal way of generating stories for the magazine. Every editorial staffer has to turn in five ideas a month. Once the matter of a special issue on Houston was settled, people began putting Houston stories on their idea lists. Also as a normal part of putting out a magazine, we asked our writers what they were interested in. Skip Hollandsworth wanted to write about Becca Cason Thrash, the society hostess. That story was a natural for this issue. Cecilia Ballí wanted to write about why Houston was a better city for Latinos than San Antonio. That sounded intriguing. The second step was deciding upon the theme of the issue: Would it be “Enron” or “Enron, schmenron”? We decided on the latter, to look forward instead of backward, and to try to capture what was essential about Houston—before, after, and regardless of Enron.
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite story in the issue? Why?
PB: How about editor Evan Smith’s story on the new editor of the Houston Chronicle, because I got to edit his writing for a change? Seriously, folks . . . let me answer this in three ways. First, what I really like about this issue is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The stories are good, but the combination is better. If you read every story, not just the features but also the columns and Reporter and Behind the Lines and Kinky, you really will get an idea of what Houston is like. You’ll find stories about politics, media, medicine, environment, high society, culture, lifestyle, demographic change and its effects, things to see and do and eat, and a couple of the most interesting characters in town. And you’ll find some good Houston history too. Second, I like stories that surprise me. Two stories in this issue achieved the threshold. One is Katy Vine’s article about teenagers hanging out at a mall. She elected to let the teens tell their own story, so the piece contains a lot of dialogue among the teens themselves. It’s a window into a world that we all know exists but are seldom allowed to see into. The other is Cecilia Ballí’s story about why Houston is a great city for Latinos. It was originally assigned at around 900 words as a first-person piece in Reporter. She turned in 2,300 words, and we had to make room for them. It is so upbeat. You share her sense of discovery as she describes the shape of the new Houston and how the two cultures, Latino and Houston, are merging into one. Third, as an editor, my favorite story was Jim Atkinson’s report on M. D. Anderson. He had the hardest assignment for this issue: Write a “Letter from M. D. Anderson” for the Reporter section and explain what makes Anderson great (a U.S. News and World Report survey had recently named it the best cancer hospital in the nation for the second time in three years). It is very easy for a story like this to be boring, but Atkinson not only explained the business and science of cancer treatment as practiced at Anderson in a highly readable way, but he also captured the hospital’s mystique and even talked to Anderson’s president, John Mendelsohn, about his involvement in the current ImClone scandal. It’s exactly what an editor wants to see: A hard story for a writer becomes an easy story for a reader.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging thing about editing this issue? Why?
PB: For me, the biggest challenge wasn’t editing. It was writing Behind the Lines. Originally, the feature lineup was supposed to include an essay on Houston by Mimi Swartz that pulled everything together. But Mimi is on leave writing a book about Enron, and so that task fell to me in Behind the Lines. It seemed to me that many of the stories involved people and institutions that had reinvented themselves, which is an old Houston theme, and so I wrote about that.
texasmonthly.com: Was it difficult to come up with enough material for this issue? Why or why not?
PB: We had more than enough ideas. The winnowing-down process involved finding stories that define Houston today but also link to its past. Katy Vine’s mall story finds echoes in the Galleria. Pam Colloff’s story on Rusty Hardin, who defended Arthur Andersen, finds echoes in a long tradition of great criminal defense lawyers in Houston. Skip Hollandsworth’s story of society queen Becca Cason Thrash has echoes of Lynn Wyatt and other society queens. Yet the mall is a different kind of mall, Rusty is a different kind of lawyer, and Becca is a different kind of society queen. Jeff Cohen is a new kind of Chronicle editor. So you get a sense of evolution from these stories.
texasmonthly.com: Is there any single piece that you think readers will gravitate toward? Why or why not?
PB: I think they’ll gravitate toward two stories with arresting photography. One is Suzy Banks’s recommendation of 25 things to do in Houston. She has done a great job of combining familiar places like the Rothko Chapel with new discoveries like the ceiling of the Live Oak Friends Meeting House. The other is an album of photographs about residents of various neighborhoods in the city. Study those photos. They’re great.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think readers from other parts of the state will want to read about Houston?
PB: Because they are Texas Monthly readers. If our readers only cared about their city or their region of the state, we wouldn’t have any readers, because the magazine wouldn’t exist. Texas Monthly has been successful not because of us but because of readers who think of themselves as Texans first. That’s the main reason. The second reason is that we are publishing stories in this issue that you would otherwise find in a regular issue of Texas Monthly. The subjects have broad constituencies—courtroom drama, society extravaganzas, the mystery of teenagers, Latino immigration and its effects, M. D. Anderson.
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, what is the magazine saying about Houston in this issue?
PB: Enron, schmenron. Houston will reinvent itself again. That’s what it does best.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PB: The cover. It’s unusual. It’s eccentric. It has probably the longest word that has ever appeared on a magazine cover: “reacquainted.”
What would you put on a cover about Houston? Is there a single image that says, “Houston”? How about the Houston skyline with a red X through the Enron building? Yuck. We had about umpteen meetings on this subject, looked at about half a zillion mock-ups, and returned to what we started with. We like it. We hope it works.