Texas Monthly's Midlife Crisis

Passengers sit placidly at the gate, waiting to board a plane at Houston's Hobby Airport. Most of them are reading silently when a sudden gust sweeps through: Loud bluster from a boastful man. Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy is on their flight.

They lift their eyes above book and magazine covers to behold a large, middle-aged man making a spectacle of himself. In his best high-volume, look-at-me voice, Levy is talking shop with a slighty built, frantic young man who appears to be his boy Friday. He's Texas Monthly deputy editor Evan Smith.

Anyone at the gate who cares to eavesdrop -- and it's almost impossible not to -- can figure out that the boisterous man is a big shot at Texas Monthly and wants everyone to know it. But the noise that pours from Levy like a heavy sweat fades into a hush when Smith, usually confident but a nervous wreck beside Levy, suggests that the magazine maybe, just maybe, is suffering from a creative rut.

Smith rolls out the sort of bottom-line numbers that a publisher understands. Newsstand sales for the September 1998 issue, which featured basketball star Dennis Rodman on the cover, were abysmal by Texas Monthly standards, and sales for the October issue, featuring singer Lyle Lovett, were falling far short of gold.

Perhaps, Smith suggests softly to Levy, it's time to realize that the magazine's quality has waned since two of its star writers quit. Their exits came within weeks of each other in 1997, leaving voids that the magazine has yet to fill.

Smith's head vibrates as he talks while Levy's head shakes in disagreement. The veteran publisher turns to the ambitious 32-year-old editor and delivers a sermon in company loyalty that sidesteps Smith's point. While Levy acknowledges the two writers were important to the magazine, his lecture obsesses on how each must deeply regret having left the nest. To Levy, Texas Monthly is like a family where writers are nurtured, coddled and appreciated. While the two writers -- Mimi Swartz and Robert Draper -- are making more money now in their new gigs with New York-based marquee magazines, surely they must be frustrated that their current employers do not parade their stories on the cover like Texas Monthly did.

Smith isn't going to give up that easily. His entire body twitching now, he reels off other problems. For example, Texas Monthly professes to be statewide in scope, but only one person on the 28-member salaried editorial staff lives farther than a short drive from the magazine's home base of Austin. Levy concedes that point to Smith but, he adds instinctively, that doesn't mean they aren't putting out a great magazine.

Levy is reminded of that greatness every time he steps out of the Texas Monthly suites that occupy the entire top level of a downtown office tower. A sign over the bank of elevators that brings him back down to earth serves as his daily affirmation. It reads: "Texas Monthly -- A Great Magazine."

Judging what makes a magazine great, however, is subjective. Tastes are different. And Texans are different -- from one another and from who they were in February 1973 when Texas Monthly published its first issue. Producing a magazine that aims to appeal to the general interests of Texans -- as if Texans' interests can be generalized -- is difficult. Yet Texas Monthly has put out a great magazine for much of its 26-year life. It has been recognized nationally with prestigious industry awards for overall excellence, writing and photography, and has been an exemplary journal and time capsule of the state. Loyal readers have strong feelings about Texas Monthly. That's why present and past admirers, including some employees, find it distressing to sit idly by and witness the slow erosion of a Texas treasure.

In its early days, Texas Monthly moseyed up to mailboxes and newsstands with a swagger. The magazine rewarded readers with intelligent and interesting parables about the personalities and peculiarities of Texas. Each month, the magazine would tell Texans something about their state they didn't know before. Typical Texas Monthly stories elicited laughter, sadness and outrage, sometimes all at once. The magazine was daring and hard-hitting. It was antiestablishment.

Today, Texas Monthly is part of the establishment, a byproduct of its own success. Its founders have aged with the magazine, and their tastes, too, have changed. As a result, Texas Monthly is suffering its own midlife crisis. Its sassy attitude all but gone, there are few wonderful surprises within the magazine's pages these days.

"The publication is an institution now," says Joe Nick Patoski, a veteran writer for the magazine who risked his job a few months ago by waging a public war with Levy. "It's much easier to chuck rocks when you're young and feisty and on the outside than when you are the establishment."

Texas Monthly's devolution is, in some ways, beyond its control. Texas journalism and the magazine industry have changed dramatically in 26 years. Competition for stories and readers is much greater.

Texas has changed dramatically as well. The state no longer possesses the strong self-identity that once set it apart. As strip malls and planned communities saturate Texas, the state no longer can realistically call itself "Planet Texas," as Texas Monthly dubbed it in promotions tied to the magazine's 20th anniversary in 1993. Yet Monthly's franchise stories continue to be those that celebrate Texas's uniqueness -- a quality increasingly difficult to identify.

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