Mr. Smith arrives

Texas Monthly's new man has plan: long stories, pop culture, and don't suck

Which is why what I've read about Smith--a man who was looking forward to publishing only short, gossipy items about Texas celebs--is so distressing. Which is why what Smith says he is actually going to do is so welcome.

Specifically, to the charge he is going to turn TM into ET Weekly, he says, "Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be boring, if not to say stupid, to turn Texas Monthly into a regional version of People or Entertainment Weekly. That is not my interest. People have taken my interest in high culture, low culture, and everything in between--pop culture and whatever else--as an indication of what's going to happen to Texas Monthly."

He says it is "absolutely true" that he was the person who pushed for the Sandra Bullock "Hooray for Hollywood, Texas" cover, which started much of the grumbling that he was tarting up TM. But Smith says he also pushed for the recent cover story on the Aggie bonfire tragedy, as well as the "biography of George W. Bush" cover. "The fact is," he says, "that my interests are quite a bit broader than have been caricatured in the last couple of days by people who I think are predisposed to dislike Texas Monthly already."

What will we get, then? A redesign, for one thing, set to debut later this year. Also, he plans more political and business coverage. "Are we going to continue to do pop-culture stuff? Absolutely. Because a magazine that is about Texas, all of Texas, everything in Texas, would be deficient if we didn't write about pop culture...I'd be happy to debate anyone on the merits of that, and I feel confident I'd win."

Most encouraging, though, is not the self-confidence Smith has in his debating skills but his self-awareness, the sense that he knows full well the challenges a monthly regional magazine faces. TV newsmagazines and weekly newspapers now cover stories that were once yours alone. "It used to be that we were fly-over country," he says. "Occasionally, Vanity Fair, or Esquire orGQ--when Esquire and GQ were still publishing good journalism--occasionally in those days, when those magazines would deign to do a story about Texas, it was probably a story that was already so thoroughly covered by Texas Monthly that it wasn't really competition. It was mostly picking up our sloppy seconds. Today, we are truly competing with those magazines."

In discussing his reaction to that competition, Smith makes what is, for me, the most shocking of his admissions--well, shocking only because it's something I think makes complete journalistic sense. Also, it would annoy the people whose opinions quite frankly dictate what most publications do: advertising sales people, their clients, and the participants of focus groups. So, realizing that Smith could be just blowing smoke up my skirt because he's savvy enough to know what a writer wants to hear, I nevertheless will say that the following statement made me want to smooch him right on his prep-school mug:

"One of the things I envision very, very soon is a return to the long-form journalism, whether it's narrative or investigative, that got us that national reputation in the first place. I'd like to go back to publishing appropriate stories of seven, eight, nine thousand words. [For reference, an average Observer cover story is about 5,000 to 6,000 words.] What made Texas Monthly different from everybody else was our willingness to publish these great reads. And the fact is that not every story warrants 9,000 words, but many do. And in the new media landscape, we have defaulted on the side of publishing things shorter. I don't know that that makes us distinct."


Smith knows this is not the trend in media because he is a creature of media. He is a playa, someone who wants to use his connection and status to make sure TM becomes/stays/will be a name that suggests national-publication quality. He is a regular on the CNBC political talking-head show Hardball With Chris Matthews and has made similar appearances on MSNBC; he is a regular on Austin radio talk shows; he has written for the online publication Slate; and he is the magazine columnist for Inside.com. "It's about branding," he says. "It's about getting your name out there."

It's a natural inclination for someone raised on the cutthroat competition of East Coast magazines. Smith began his professional life as an editor at the woman's magazine Self, which he says brought him in to add substance. ("I came in with all these high hopes, and then I'm assigning UFO and ESP stories within two minutes.") Most New York magazines, he found, were not about great journalism but "all about selling soap."

The disparity between those magazines and the Texas Monthly he came to in the early '90s was stark, beginning with his breakfast interview with the man he would one day replace. "He seemed like this totally foreign character to me," Smith recalls, "different from anyone I knew. Serious, introspective, not enamored with the glitz and boldface of New York magazine publishing."

He began as a senior editor January 1, 1992, editing feature stories. By February 1993, he was named deputy editor and quickly tagged by Monthly watchers as the heir apparent to Curtis. Minus a half-year fling with The New Republic--"I idolized the magazine growing up...But as soon as I got there, I realized it was the biggest mistake I'd ever made"--he worked on every part of the magazine throughout the decade.

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