I clearly remember the summer day in 1996 when Evan Smith asked me to come to his office for the first time. He was Texas Monthly’s deputy editor. I was an unpaid intern, sitting in a cubicle within shouting distance of his doorway and searching something called “the Internet.” When I heard my name, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues.
The specifics of our conversation escape me, but with the Capitol and the UT Tower visible outside his office window, Evan quickly and precisely gave me my marching orders. As if he were an auctioneer, he rattled off a string of phone numbers from memory for me to call on his behalf. When he finished, I smiled benignly at him—and realized how smart it would have been if I had written them down. It would have been even smarter if I had brought a pen and notepad with me.
A few months earlier I had served as an intern for Michael R. Levy, the magazine’s founder. I remember Mike from those days as a blur of activity, always in conversation, always off to the next important meeting. Unbeknownst to me, his assistant Shelly Laird had sent my résumé to the editorial department with her recommendation that Evan hire me. I was beginning to think she had made a mistake.
I learned a lot of things from that period of my life, not the least of which was to carry a pen with me at all times. The only career experience I had before walking in the doors of Texas Monthly was teaching special education at Carpenter Middle School in my hometown of Plano, and Mike and Evan—two of the most confident people I have ever met—were like the characters Steven Spielberg would have created if he were making a movie about the magazine industry. I fell in love with the magazine without even realizing it, and the most important lessons from my time as an intern have stayed with me: that Texas Monthly is a magazine built on fairness, integrity, and excellent writing; that there are no sacred cows; and that we are not for Republicans or Democrats. We are for Texas, and as Texans that means taking a critical eye to the state at times. More than anything, we love living here and being part of a thoughtful conversation about this place we call home.
I say all of this because, regardless of my checkered past as an intern, this column marks my first full issue as editor in chief, a sentence that astounds me even as I write it now. I owe a huge debt to so many people for that honor, starting with Mike, who retired in 2008 but remains an important part of our culture. He set the bar for the magazine’s expectations with his publisher’s note in the first issue, in February 1973: “Texas Monthly is a major effort in magazine journalism. We’re not competing with the vapid Sunday supplements with bluebonnets on their covers, with the promotional magazines with their prostitutional story-for-an-ad format, or with the chamber of commerce magazines with their Babbitt perspectives. We are competing with the national magazines for both readers and advertising.” No one can put a fine point on things the way Mike can, but the message was as aspirational as it was inspirational. Everyone on staff has tried to live up to those standards every single day since.
In the time that I have worked here, I have had the privilege to serve under three of the magazine’s four editors. I came along too late for the legendary William Broyles, but Gregory Curtis hired me in 1996 as a copy editor, I worked closely with Evan when he became editor in 2000, and I was proud to serve in a variety of roles under our previous editor, Jake Silverstein. What is particularly daunting is that each new editor inherited a terrific publication, but by putting his own stamp on it, he improved it immeasurably. I hope the same can be said about me.
What hasn’t changed is the magazine’s commitment to the highest-quality journalism. That’s a promise I make to our most important asset: you, the reader. Without an audience, our work is useless. Even when you disagree with us (which happens frequently), we value your input. At a time when our industry is undergoing radical change, I believe it’s important to reassert our approach to journalism, which Mike and Bill first set forth and which has carried through each successive generation to our current leadership, including our president, Elynn J. Russell, who started at the magazine as Mike’s assistant in 1977; our publisher, Amy Banner Updegrove, who joined the staff as an intern in 1988; and our publisher in charge of development, David Barr Dunham, who began his career at Texas Monthly as an account executive in 1979. That legacy lives on in the editorial department as well, through writers and editors such as David Moorman, Patricia Sharpe, Cathy S. Casey, and Paul Burka, all of whom started at the magazine in the mid-seventies. I’m proud to say that two key members of the editorial team, deputy editor Katharyn Rodemann and director of editorial operations Stacy Hollister, started here as interns.
First and foremost, our writers and editors cover the stories we find interesting and we hope will be interesting to you. There is never any outside pressure regarding whether or not to run a story. Most important, the high wall between church and state remains solidly intact. As a reader, you will never have to wonder if we wrote something favorable about a person or institution because we had a financial incentive to do so—and we will never avoid being critical of a person or institution for fear of losing an account. As Greg often said, “A magazine is primarily the reflection of an editor’s taste and judgment.” I will assign stories—and one of the hardest parts of the job is turning down all the great pieces I’d publish if we had the pages and the staff—based on that alone. I want each issue to dazzle you, whether you live in San Antonio or Bells.
That doesn’t mean that you’ll always agree with our decisions, but it’s important for you to know that we work hard to ensure that our stories are accurate and fair. Our writers are top-notch reporters in addition to being wonderful wordsmiths—we have a lot of English majors on staff, myself included—and we take our commitment to producing error-free stories seriously. We have four full-time fact checkers on staff who work on every piece, whether it’s 100 words long or 10,000. They verify documents, review transcripts, reinterview sources, and turn to independent experts for guidance and context. In short, if you tell us your mother loves you, our fact checkers will find a second source.
Does that mean we put out a perfect issue every month? Of course not—as readers are sometimes delighted to point out. But when we do make mistakes, we move quickly to correct them and explain the nature of the error. Admitting our shortcomings, I have found over the years, leads to greater trust from you.
Obviously, the magazine is now much more than a magazine, and our journalistic standards carry over to everything we do. When I was an intern, we already had a dedicated staff for a website called the Triple W Ranch (“www”—get it?). That was quite an endeavor, given that in the editorial department, the only computer that was actually connected to the Internet was in the intern cubicle. We fully realize that digital journalism represents the way forward in our efforts to gain readers, expand our brand, and remain vital to your life. As with other veterans of our organization who hold key leadership positions at Texas Monthly, our web editor, Andrea Valdez, started at the magazine right out of graduate school, and over the past few years she has dedicated herself to developing our presence online. Today, thanks to a mix of exclusive daily content, smart extensions of our print stories, and a sharp-witted social media presence, our traffic has never been higher.
But it’s not high enough. Over time you will continue to see us take advantage of available technologies and expand our editorial coverage to reach you in the digital realm (and reaching you where you most want to experience Texas Monthly is key to our strategy—currently more than half of our digital audience reads our stories on their mobile devices).
Another key aspect to our editorial strategy going forward is our live events program. This month marks the fifth annual TMBBQ Fest, which will be held on September 14 in Austin. The response for that event has been overwhelming—this year our VIP tickets sold out in two minutes. (I hope you join us and say hello between bites.) Though barbecue is our signature event, we are making plans to expand aggressively in this area with events that focus not only on food but also on politics, public policy, music, sports, and Texas culture. In June, for example, I moderated a panel discussion at the Baker Institute at Rice University on the use of marijuana as a treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which was based on a story I had edited by William Martin in the June 2014 issue. We are currently scheduling a range of events in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and other cities.
Despite the well-publicized pressure on our industry, these three areas—the print magazine, digital journalism, and live events—represent the best path for us to grow in the future, and I intend to use them to entertain, inform, and, at times, challenge you to think about the state in new ways. That is an exciting proposition. In the early days of the magazine, a writer didn’t really have a chance to engage with readers after a story went to press. Certainly we would receive letters, but there was little opportunity for dialogue. Today the opposite is true: after months of reporting and writing and rewriting, a writer’s engagement takes off the moment their story is published, thanks to social media, the interaction with readers on the website, and the opportunity to extend the life of stories through our live events.
You also have this promise from me: despite my confidence in our staff’s success, I’ll never be too proud to make corrections when the need arises. Part of my job will be learning from my mistakes and making adjustments. That is how it has always been. In the magazine’s second issue, back in March 1973, Mike wrote about the responses readers had to his commentary on bluebonnets and a concurrent promotional campaign that declared “Sick of Bluebonnets and Bum Steers? . . . Send us ten dollars and we’ll send you a damned good magazine about Texas. Monthly.” One reader responded, “We are not sick of bluebonnets, a roadside or field of which is just about the most beautiful sight in the world. Why would you think we are sick of them?” That was one of the more polite responses, so Mike promptly called a staff meeting, in which, by an 8–2 vote (with one abstention), the magazine adopted an official policy statement: “We, too, love our bluebonnets, a roadside or field of which is just about the most beautiful sight in the world.” Well, I love bluebonnets too, along with everything else that makes this the greatest state in the country, and if you send us twelve dollars, we’ll still send you a damned good magazine about Texas.