Mr. Smith arrives
Talk to Evan Smith for long--and you will talk to him for long, because every answer is a speech, every speech a term paper--and two impressions quickly emerge:
··· One, that Smith is a very sharp guy, a good thing given that he was recently named the third editor in Texas Monthly's history, the first change in the magazine's top-dog spot in 19 years.
··· And two, that lower-level staff (and, who knows, perhaps everyone else in the company, from publisher to janitor) probably has a damn fine time imitating him when he's not around. An imitation that might sound like...
That's an excellent question, Joe Nick, one that should be answered in the most intense, articulate, hyperaware manner possible, in a slightly self-deprecating fashion that is at once highbrow and lowbrow. Let me just say before I answer your question, though, that my response is in no way meant to repudiate the very excellent thoughts of various industry insiders--this includes the opinions, published or overheard, of Tina Brown, Tommy Wolfe, Mike Kinsley, Kurt Andersen, or any other powerful national media figure whose home number I have on speed dial. That said, my three-part answer is as follows: I'm right, you're not, kiss my sweet butt.
Granted, that's a bit of a cheap shot. But only a bit, because Smith does tend to pontificate, he namedrops, and his syntax is flawless. As well, he easily brushes off any shots, deserved or cheap, taken at him or Texas Monthly--of which there have been several in recent years, many of them in this publication. For example, our cover story "Texas Monthly's midlife crisis" (February 4, 1999) suggested that Smith was someone who favored making TM more of a regional version of Entertainment Weekly. And last month, the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky penned an eviscerating critique of the magazine's all-music issue; in it, Wilonsky tapped into a long-grumbling pipeline of complaints voiced by TM's critics. He wrote:
"Once upon a hell of a long time ago, the Monthly felt like Texas music itself--full of surprise, full of soul. The magazine once read like Janis Joplin sang; back when Bill Broyles edited the thing, you could almost dance to it. Now, it has become a moribund parody, a magazine 'about' Texas for and by transplants who act as though they're convinced Walker, Texas Ranger is a documentary."
Smith, talking from his Austin office last week, brings up the article before I have a chance to do so. "I'm aware that 'King Wilonsky' was not enamored of the issue, and he's entitled to his opinion," Smith says, chuckling, a smirk most assuredly in place. "But until he runs his own magazine, he's going to have to throw barbs from the outside. From the inside, I can tell you that I think it's a good and enormously successful effort."
Smith soon warms to the idea that although the Monthly still publishes great stories on occasion--it was nominated for two National Magazine Awards this year and has won eight in its 27 years--there is something...if not amiss, at least missing. Talk to him, and you get the feeling that even though he is genuinely respectful of TM's history of excellence, he is flat-out wetting himself at the prospect of putting his stamp on the mag he takes over officially on July 1.
"I am aware of what we do well and not so well," Smith says, never choosing his words carefully because he's so bloody confident the next word is exactly the one he wants. "I'm aware of the way Texas Monthly is lampooned in the press, and there's always a germ of truth at the center of every criticism...No magazine does well in everything, and I think there are areas in which we can probably stand to improve.
"I'm one of those people who believes that Texas Monthly is still one of the best magazines published. But I think the magazine does have the opportunity to do some things different, some things better. Look, Greg [Greg Curtis, editor for the past 19 years who will now write features] and I did not agree on everything. We had stylistic differences. We had substantive differences. We agreed much more often than we disagreed, but every new editor of a magazine is different than the one who came before. So my Texas Monthly will be a different Texas Monthly than Greg's."
The concern is that it won't be different enough. Talk to current and former staffers, and you hear a common refrain: Masthead to the contrary, Smith has been de facto editor in chief for a few years. To those who say TM has lost its way, the increasing coverage of pop-culture topics is not a good sign. They want fewer Sandra Bullock/Hollywood in Texas covers, more investigative pieces like Skip Hollandsworth's examination of the Houston child protective services system. Me, I'm not begging for a return to glory, because, as Smith rightfully notes, most people remember a magazine's past much too fondly. I'm just looking for anything that doesn't seem overly contrived, fawning, or boring. Example: This month we get a yawn-erific service-piece cover story on weekend getaways. The cover line says "Escape!" but that's exactly the problem; I can't. I rarely lose myself in its pages anymore. Too often--not always, but too often--Texas Monthly offers the trappings of an excellent magazine (great design, well-written stories, clever headlines) without offering true deliverance.
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 or GQ--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.
During his tenure, then, he's had plenty of time to contemplate the magazine's place in the media landscape, to steep himself in its oft-spouted lore. He says, for example, that its mission was once laid out by publisher-legend-blowhard Mike Levy thusly:
When Texas Monthly began, there was this place called Texas and these people called Texans, who self-identified as Texans first, and as Austinites or Dallasites or Houstonians second. There was this "Texan-ness" that was the connective tissue. In those days, the fabled Texas myth was enough to keep them together.
Today, he says--rightly--that the nostalgic ol' dog won't hunt. "The state has changed," he says. "Today, all the cities have Pottery Barns and Starbucks. That 'Texan-ness,' the thing that differentiated us from people elsewhere, has been to some extent removed by the fact that we look more like everyplace else. The trick for us as a magazine founded on the idea that Texas is different, that Texans are different, is to figure out how to make the magazine reflect what is still unique about Texans."
It's a challenge that, despite Smith's palpable confidence, is enormously difficult. If Texas Monthly is to thrive under Smith--not financially, but journalistically; even though advertising pays the bills, great magazines do not make their mark on financial ledgers--he must please his literate, demanding core readers. It is those people who should have admired the magazine's decision to put an excerpt of Stephen Harrigan's important book, The Gates of the Alamo, on the cover of the March issue. It's the sort of cover--literary, mythic, Texas--that should appeal to those who want the magazine to regain greatness. Unfortunately...
"No, it didn't sell well," Smith says. "But would I do it again tomorrow? In a heartbeat. It's not always about how the magazine sells." A quote that is not as entertaining as my imitation of Evan Smith, but a quote that gives a Texas Monthly subscriber hope.
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