By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Texas Monthly is facing a big challenge because Texas is not Texas anymore," says Jan Jarboe Russell, a former full-time writer for the magazine who recently completed a biography of Lady Bird Johnson. "Finding stories that explain why we are a nation unto ourselves is harder to do when there is a Banana Republic on every suburban street corner and you can send and receive Federal Express packages in Karnack."
In the Texas that isn't Texas anymore, Texas Monthly is owned by a non-Texan. Levy sold the magazine's parent company, Mediatex Communications, for $37 million one year ago to an Indianapolis communications company that made its fortune by owning radio stations. Levy, who owned about 70 percent of Mediatex stock, pocketed $22 million from the deal and secured a contract that allows him to continue running the place for at least another year.
Texas is changing in other ways too. It's less white, which has been Texas Monthly's franchise audience. According to an independent readership study, 72 percent of its readers are white, compared to less than 60 percent of Texans. Almost 90 percent of the magazine's readers are from Texas. The study also shows the median income of Texas Monthly readers in the state is $61,008, higher than the $43,860 median for employed adults. About 308,000 readers -- the great majority subscribers -- purchase Texas Monthly each month, a healthy number that has remained stable over the past few years.
"We have to reinvent ourselves," Patoski says of the magazine. "As a statewide magazine, we cast a wide net. We're the only ones who can unite a farmer in Fabens and a rap music promoter in Houston, or a Honduran immigrant being held in Bayview and a cotton farmer in Lubbock. It's increasingly hard to identify what unites us all and what makes us special as Texans. I think we have to pay attention that the Texas landscape is changing rapidly."
But change comes slowly at Texas Monthly. And rather than paying attention, Levy is in denial -- a bad place to be when readers are counting on him to restore luster to a fading gem.
Texas Monthly entered the world as a braggart. Before the first issue had gone to the printer, promotional ads soliciting subscribers posed the question to Texans: "Sick of bluebonnets and bum steers? ... Send us ten dollars and we'll send you a damned good magazine about Texas. Monthly."
The magazine caught hell for it, too, both for the ad's use of an expletive and for its assumption that Texans were tired of the beloved state flower. Levy wrote in the maiden issue that Texas Monthly was not going to compete "with the vapid Sunday supplements with bluebonnets on their covers." The next month, he reiterated in his column that stories about bluebonnets represented the "nice, bland pap and puff" kind of journalism that Texas Monthly was going to avoid. "There are more important, meaningful and relevant stories out there to be written," he wrote.
So it's hard to ignore that 23 years and one month later, the April 1996 issue of Texas Monthly featured a cover photo of a field of bluebonnets to plug stories inside about the Hill Country. Eleven months after that, the March 1997 issue proudly blared the headline "Wildflowers!" over a photo of Lady Bird Johnson standing in a field of bluebonnets. Among the issue's nice, bland pap and puff stories about wildflowers was a feature on a Dallas artist famous for his paintings of bluebonnets.
But don't even suggest to Levy that Texas Monthly has become, to borrow his word, vapid.
"We put out a really great magazine," he responds. "We put out one of the best four or five editorial products in the country. We can pick and quibble about one issue to the next. We can say, 'Well, it could be doing this; it could be that.' But the fact of the matter is, it's a great magazine. I'm real proud of it. I got as much of a kick reading this last issue that just went to the printer as I did in February '73," the publisher says, not too modestly.
Levy could afford to be immodest back in the early days, an era that longtime readers call the golden age. Just as Levy vowed there would be no insipid stories about bluebonnets, he told readers of the first issue that Texas Monthly would be "a first class magazine that will appeal directly to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan folks that Texans have become." It was specifically geared toward "the increasingly large numbers of urban-urbane Texans," he wrote. That was heady stuff for a state with a reputation of empty-headedness when it came to culture and class.
The magazine's first editor, Bill Broyles, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996 with co-writer and former Texas Monthly scribe Al Reinert for their Apollo 13 screenplay, told readers in his inaugural column: "Our only banner is one of integrity, fairness and quality writing. We serve no vested interests, protect no sacred cow and measure each subject by the same high standards."
Levy and Broyles, who left the magazine in 1981 to become editor in chief of Newsweek, delivered on those promises with a steady diet of absorbing stories. Although the magazine didn't have the glitzy look it does today, it boasted excellent writing. Many Texas Monthly writers, including some who still write for the magazine today, are considered among the state's literary elite.