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.
"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.
It's been more than 25 years since the story appeared in the magazine, but some longtime readers no doubt will recall Gary Cartwright's September 1973 eulogy of Texas cowboy Carl (Bigun) Bradley, who appeared in ads as the "Marlboro Man" and drowned on a bucking bronco at age 36. There are women in Texas who can recite verbatim lines from the various essays about motherhood and womanhood by Prudence Mackintosh that regularly appeared in the 1970s and early 1980s. Other stories often mentioned as nuggets of the golden age are Broyles's feature on the King Ranch (October 1980), Cartwright's sympathetic portrait of Jack Ruby (November 1975), Griffin Smith Jr.'s unmasking of Houston's three gigantic law firms (November 1973) and Reinert's piece exposing Texas as the center of the hit-man profession (December 1973).
The magazine stood out in part because there was a dearth of quality journalism in the state back then. Daily newspapers in Texas were a joke, and Texas Monthly boldly said so with a June 1974 cover story that rated them. The cover of the issue, featuring a photo of a goat eating a newspaper, trumpeted: "Texas Newspapers: BA-A-A-AD."
Texas Monthly exuded youthful confidence, which wasn't surprising since the majority of those putting out the magazine were men in their twenties or early thirties. Also not surprising, the magazine had an obsession with sex and the female form.
Texas Monthly today could not get away with what it put on many of its covers during the 1970s. Several issues featured gratuitous cover illustrations of attractive women in various forms of dress and undress. The unrefined tendencies of the early Monthly are what Levy likes to emphasize when critics draw a contrast between the magazine's golden age and today. It's his best defense.
"First of all, people who remember the good old days have bad memories, okay?" he says. "I mean, the magazine was celebrated. Oh wow, people loved us. But go back to the magazine's first ten years. Read it.
"In going back not only through the first couple years of the magazine but the first ten years, I say to myself, 'How did we ever survive? Why did they ever buy us?' We were edgy in the context that what we did was brand-new. We were so leading-edge because the traditional journalism in Texas was very conservative, awful and had a whole bunch of sacred cows."
The magazine would still be considered edgy today if it did more of what it did in, say, its February 1976 issue, which was devoted to the magazine's annual satirical "Bum Steer Awards." The cover photo featured then-governor Dolph Briscoe looking downright dopey as he waves and smiles in front of a herd of cattle. The headline says: "Find the Bum Steer in This Picture." A story inside asks, "Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want to Be Governor? (And When Is He Going to Start?)" Briscoe was starting his fourth year as governor at the time.
In contrast, the January 1999 "Bum Steer Awards" cover featured a photo illustration of Barney, the purple dinosaur, smoking a cigar while reading the Starr Report to a group of children. It was a mystifying choice in that it attempted to poke fun at a national embarrassment, even though Texas has plenty of its own. And it was quite a stretch to peg the passe kiddies' pal as a Texan.
Today's Texas Monthly relies heavily on movies and music as well as household-name celebrities, some with tenuous Texas ties such as Barney, Rodman and actress Sandra Bullock, all of whom have graced the cover in the last 12 months. Interestingly, the biggest-selling issue by far in 1998 bucked that trend. Its cover story revisited a mythic Texas institution, King Ranch, and exemplified the kind of journalism that gave Texas Monthly its good name. Dallas-based writer Skip Hollandsworth spun a tale about the last descendent of the founding family being pushed out by the corporate board that runs King Ranch. It was the perfect illustration of old Texas struggling to survive in modern Texas. It was the perfect Texas Monthly story.
The latest issue of the magazine returns to the movies, featuring a cover story that revisits the principals involved in the 1971 cinematic classic about a dying Texas town, The Last Picture Show. Levy has just finished reading it cover to cover and offers a loud opinion.
"We're putting out a phenomenal magazine," he says. "It's incredible! It's so good! It's so compelling! It's mesmerizing!"
Levy, in denial about the shortcomings of his own enterprise, nevertheless is a gleeful critic when he thinks others are falling down on the job -- specifically, those who run the city of Austin. He seems to pay more attention to the minutiae of local politics than to the machinations at his own magazine. Since he doesn't think Texas Monthly needs fixing, and he's convinced he's right, he frequently sics his dogged personality on other targets.
Texas Monthly may suffer as a result, but observers of Austin city politics are inevitably entertained.
In November, days before Austin voters were to decide on a $75.9 million bond issue for parklands, he sent voters a two-page campaign letter blasting the measure. Levy pops off about city services and policies all the time, but he wasn't prepared for the response this particular venting would get.
About a week after Levy sent out his campaign letter, a letter to the editor appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the city's daily newspaper, informing readers that Levy's opinion "in no way reflected the opinions of the staff or management of Texas Monthly." The author of the letter was Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski.
"In fact," Patoski's letter continued, "some of us wish he'd quit and invest some of that $22 million he made from the sale of the magazine on land that he could donate to the city as a park, thereby memorializing him after he passes as something more than a mean-spirited rich boy who spends tens of thousands of dollars on letters opposing issues he doesn't agree with."
In May, Levy had sent voters a similar letter on Texas Monthly letterhead that opposed a different environment-related bond issue. Patoski and other staffers complained, and Levy's new bosses in Indianapolis suggested Levy not do that again. So in November, Levy refrained from using company letterhead. That did not pacify Patoski, who understood that the names Mike Levy and Texas Monthly are inextricably linked in Austin.
Eight days after Patoski's letter was published, the soap opera took a strange twist when a second letter from him appeared in the Statesman. In it, Patoski apologized for his first letter while transforming Levy from scoundrel to saint. "Austin readers should know Mike Levy is not 'a mean-spirited rich boy,' as I wrote," the second letter said. "... Levy is a tireless civic activist whose concerns for Austin's future and community involvement have made a tremendous difference in the city."
Well, Austinites got a good laugh from that one. John Kelso, the Statesman's humor columnist, wrote: "Apparently, Patoski has seen the light. My guess is that it's the bare bulb the Texas Monthly brass was shining in Patoski's eyes in the back room."
Patoski contends the second letter came about after he realized how severely his first letter had hurt Levy's feelings. He went to Levy and asked him how he could make amends. Levy recommended the follow-up letter to the newspaper and also a third letter directed specifically to Texas Monthly staffers.
Patoski, a self-described aging hipster whose politics lean left, says he regrets he resorted to name-calling in his first letter. But he does not regret challenging Levy. "Mike and I do not agree on environmental issues in Austin," he says. "I don't think we ever will. And if he raises the environment as a whipping boy again, I'll come back in and voice my opinion again."
"I'll say this," Patoski says with a grin. "I showed Mike the letter before I delivered it to the Statesman, and he made some suggestions and pointed some things out, which I responded to. Frankly, at that point, I just wanted it over with."
Levy saw no humor in any of it and was livid over the public humiliation he endured from the first letter. It became hot gossip at the following week's Texas Book Festival, a highbrow annual gathering of writers, booksellers and publishers in Austin that the magazine co-sponsored. The second letter was published during the festival.
Patoski takes his place in a long queue of people in Austin who've clashed publicly with Levy. It includes several members of the City Council and various city boards and commissions, heads of city departments, environmental activists, cable TV officials, a newspaper editor and, of course, Texas Monthly critics.
Those who've taken on Texas Monthly seem to prefer to surrender rather than fight. Several people contacted for this story who are critical of the magazine refused to be quoted because they didn't want to endure a backlash from Levy or editor Greg Curtis that they were certain would follow.
"Mike's a lunatic when he gets mad," says one person who has incurred Levy's wrath. And that unflattering description comes from someone who is fond of him.
A lot of people call Levy a lot of things.
"The basic take on me is the three A's: arrogant, abrasive and abrupt," Levy says, leaving out an obvious fourth. "And you know what? The people who call me those things are probably right."
Levy, frumpy and a tad clownish, isn't above poking fun at his own manic ways. He also can laugh it off when others gently rib him. But when the ribbing turns to criticism that hits close to home about things for which he cares deeply -- specifically, his magazine, his politics and himself -- Levy responds as if mortally wounded. His first reaction is denial, followed by anger.
"It's just magnificent to watch," Skip Hollandsworth says of Levy's legendary temper. "It's like being in Costa Rica and watching a volcano go off. There is something just rapturous about being in a tropical paradise watching this thing explode. But it doesn't last very long, and the lava eventually runs back inside the mountain."
Sometimes, though, the lava bubbles inside him as a grudge. Robert Draper, one of the two Texas Monthly writers who left during the same month in 1997, is persona non grata in Levy's world. Draper's comments in a January 1998 Dallas Morning News article about longtime editor Greg Curtis, written to coincide with the magazine's 25th anniversary, made Levy blow his cork.
"Greg's style is antithetical to the publisher's style," Draper, who now writes for GQ, told the Morning News. "Mike Levy is a hands-on, maybe even thumbs-on, manager. You feel his breath on your back every moment of every day. At Texas Monthly, the primary job of the editor is to deal on a daily basis with the publisher.
"I have a lot of admiration and exasperated affection for Mike Levy, but he can be a very unpleasant person. The writers are not made to feel that unpleasantness because Greg deals with it. Most people who had to do that would, in a week, be out of there like a kerosened cat. But Greg shows the stress only on the rarest occasions."
Levy reacted by disinviting Draper to all Texas Monthly 25th anniversary events, banning him from the magazine's offices and sending an unflattering letter about him to his former colleagues. The two still do not speak to each another, although Draper says he hopes and suspects Levy's hard feelings will blow over.
"I'm not sure his reaction bespeaks of anything other than Mike gets his feelings hurt easily, especially by people he considers in many ways to be part of his family," says Draper, who still lives in Austin.
Levy justifies his reaction this way: "Draper left having told everyone that the magazine made him what he was, that he would be nothing without Texas Monthly, and then he goes out and tells somebody that Greg Curtis's job is to keep Mike Levy away from the writers. You know, it just really upset me because it wasn't true."
Levy, 52, founded Texas Monthly at age 26 with a loan from his father and has overseen its evolution into a magazine that raked in $23 million last year in gross advertising revenue. He views his role as the magazine's advocate. No doubt about it: He is Texas Monthly's biggest promoter. He's been known to visit important advertisers in person to extol the magazine and praise them for their support.
When Levy sold Texas Monthly to Emmis Broadcasting of Indianapolis in January 1998, both he and Curtis entered into two-year contracts with their new boss. The pair hope and expect their tenures will extend well past 2000. That decision mostly rests with Emmis's chairman and chief executive officer, Jeff Smulyan. A wildly successful businessman, he nevertheless remains a pariah in Seattle several years after buying the Seattle Mariners baseball franchise because he threatened to move the team to another city. He was run out of town when local owners came to the rescue, buying the franchise from Smulyan and keeping it in Seattle.
Smulyan says he has no unpleasant surprises in store for Levy and Curtis. "You can never say never, but that magazine reflects the passion of both of those guys, so we would like to see them stay," he says. "We love what they do. We're obviously very proud of the product, and we think they do a spectacular job."
Levy started his successful venture boasting little experience in journalism or the magazine industry, working as a copy boy for United Press International in his native Dallas and later in Philadelphia while attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. While back east, he also sold ads for Philadelphia, a respected city magazine.
He takes great pride in giving Curtis total autonomy over the editorial pages of Texas Monthly, a hands-off philosophy that is rare and admirable among magazine publishers, especially those with megalomaniacal tendencies. When "Joe Nick went nuts," as Levy describes it, he gave Patoski assurances that despite his anger, his job was not in jeopardy because Curtis was the only person authorized to fire him. Levy neither attends meetings where story ideas are discussed nor reads a new issue until it is just about to be sent to the printer. He does that on purpose so Curtis and the writers can be assured he won't order changes to the copy.
To his credit, Levy has not exploited the pages of his magazine to broadcast his strong views about Austin city politics. Levy believes that Austin should spend more time and money on police protection and emergency services as opposed to other issues that dominate city attention, particularly environmental protection. No story questioning Austin's commitment to public safety has ever appeared in the magazine.
"Mike is not a shy person," says Bruce Todd, who was mayor of Austin from 1991 to 1997. "That may be an understatement. He certainly was bold and aggressive not only in making pleas for more funding on the issues he cared about, but also in criticizing us when he thought we were doing something wrong. He's up-front, close and personal, straightforward and sometimes blunt. His forceful personality turns some people off, but I found him to be a good source of information."
Levy regularly sends faxes to city officials, business leaders, media representatives and anyone else he thinks should be privy to his opinions. The faxes often are lengthy stream-of-consciousness diatribes. Levy's obsession with local politics has some in Austin figuring he has a future in it, perhaps as mayor. But Levy is blunt about the likelihood of that ever happening.
"There's one problem: I don't believe in democracy," he says. "If the city wants a monarchy, then I am your man. Besides, I think I'd be the first mayor of Austin ever to be assassinated."
If so, the suspect list would be long. Near the top would be Robin Rather, the chairwoman of the Save Our Springs coalition, Austin's leading environmental advocacy group. She says Levy hurts his own causes because "the way he goes about arguing for them frequently involves sliming other extremely good causes," such as the ones she advocates.
"He likes to lob grenades, hurt other people and justify it by saying he's trying to fight for his cause," says Rather, the daughter of CBS News anchor Dan Rather. "People know he overdramatizes, so nobody takes him seriously. He has managed to alienate anyone who might team up with him. He needs to ask himself whether he really wants to be productive for his causes or whether he wants to continue taking cheap shots just to amuse himself."
Mike Levy's Law of Life 33-C, as recited by the man himself: "Any great enterprise ultimately is the reflection of one person's taste, vision, judgment and interest." At Texas Monthly, Levy says, that one person is editor Greg Curtis.
Like the magazine itself, Curtis's tastes and interests have mellowed with age. His vision and judgment of the Texas he wants reflected in the magazine can be difficult to decipher. As Curtis delegates an increasing amount of authority to deputy editor Evan Smith, Levy may need to amend his law, because the magazine now reflects the tastes, visions, judgments and interests of two men.
Two men quite different from each other.
Curtis, 54, has been with the magazine since the first issue and has been its editor since 1981, his longevity rare and remarkable in the high-stress world of magazine editing. Once a hippie, he is now a martini aficionado.
Despite his years on the job, Curtis remains a mystery to many of his co-workers, including some who have worked for him for several years. A private man who chooses his words carefully, colleagues say much of what they know about his private life they read in last year's Dallas Morning News story profiling him. Writers often resort to reading his body language to figure out what he thinks about story ideas they pitch to him.
"He has a great intellectual nature to him, but he doesn't feel the obligation to immediately reveal it," says Hollandsworth, 41, who has written for the magazine for almost ten years. "He's comfortable to have others give their opinions while he listens and contemplates. He keeps his own counsel."
Tall and fit with an enviable complexion that looks as though he's spent an hour in the dressing room with a makeup artist, Curtis breaks several rules of good writing when he speaks, including those pertaining to run-on sentences and overuse of interjectory clauses. In another life, he would have made a fine philosophy professor. He applies logic and theory, however befuddling, in defining the Texas he tries to reflect in his magazine.
Texas, he says, finally is overcoming its long-standing fear of being viewed as inferior in everything from education to the arts.
"I think that the ability to move and be at ease in a cultural way is sort of the defining thing that has occurred in terms of the Texas psyche in contemporary times," Curtis says.
In turn, the contemporary Texas Monthly favors stories that affirm the richness of Texas culture, massaging the Texas ego all the while. Does Curtis believe Texas Monthly's job is to make Texans feel good about Texas?
"I wouldn't put it that way, but if I have to answer that question yes or no, the answer would be yes," he says. "But the way I say it, the way I think about it is this: I have this theory that every magazine should be able to express what it's about in one sentence. And Texas Monthly is a magazine to help people understand Texas and enjoy Texas. That's it. That's what we do. And everything in the magazine falls into one of those two categories or both. And nothing in the magazine is not about one of those two things.
"We're for Texas, 'for' in the utilitarian sense and 'for' in that we are on the side of Texas. But I want the state reflected in our magazine to be real. It has to be real for people to understand Texas and, for that matter, to enjoy Texas. We assume the people who are here want to be here; they've staked out their lives here, and they want to have the best life they can, and in order to do that they want to understand the place where they live and enjoy the place where they live. And we tell them how to do that."
Curtis says there is room in his definition for the magazine to expose the underbelly or defects of Texas. He does not agree with criticism that the magazine is more prone to boosterism these days.
"We're talking about the state and the powers of the state, I think, in the ways we always have," he says.
Curtis gave his 32-year-old deputy editor, Evan Smith, a cassette tape of aging songstress Peggy Lee just before Christmas. Smith politely accepted it and promised to give it a listen. But he's much more psyched about a musical gift that someone else gave him: an advance copy of the new Wilco CD that isn't supposed to hit stores until March.
Wilco is a hot pop band from Chicago with roots in the hot alternative country genre. Smith likes things that are hot. He is responsible for the recent launch of a column in the magazine called "Hot Box," which reviews hot CDs and hot books.
On a recent winter day, however, Smith is feeling chilly as he reclines on the sofa in his corner office. He rises and slips on his black leather jacket, which is hanging on the door.
His office decor is bereft of Texas iconography. Hanging on the wall is a poster commemorating a European concert by Wilco. The most prominent display on another wall is a Washington, D.C., license plate. A New York Yankees baseball cap, comically oversized to fit someone with a really big head, hangs on the doorknob. Those who find Smith to be self-aggrandizing can provide the punch line.
A native New Yorker who got his master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Smith worked nine months as a special projects editor at Self magazine, where he was the only male working on the 22nd floor of the Conde Nast building in Manhattan. He hated it there and landed a job as a senior editor at Texas Monthly, a magazine he'd long admired, in January 1992. Two years later, he left to become deputy editor of New Republic, a left-leaning political magazine based in Washington. Smith's dream job had been to become the editor of New Republic. But after only three months, he was plotting his escape. Curtis eventually offered to hire him back as deputy editor, the post he held when he left.
Now second-in-command under Curtis, current and former Texas Monthly staffers describe Smith, an avowed workaholic, as Curtis's heir apparent. Some say he's already running the place as Curtis grows more detached.
"This is going to sound like I have my nose so far up his ass that you can barely see my head, but I've always liked Greg personally from the first time that I met him," Smith says. "But we are different. He's a product of his generation. I'm a product of mine. I'm very loyal to Greg. He has shown a lot of trust and faith in me and given me a lot of responsibility and autonomy."
Curtis counts on his loquacious and gregarious deputy to bring a youthful flavor to the magazine. The median age of Texas Monthly readers is 41.5 years old.
Smith is fully responsible for the front section of the magazine, called "Reporter." The columns and short articles in "Reporter" are heavy on pop culture. It's where names get dropped and soon-to-be hot personalities get their 15 minutes of fame. "Reporter" also may reflect the future of Texas Monthly if Evan Smith ends up running the show.
Smith is a magazine industry junkie and, as such, understands well the industry trend away from investigative journalism and toward celebrity journalism. He admits that one of his favorite magazines is Entertainment Weekly, which he admires for how it covers the entertainment industry like a business. He wrote the article in the January 1999 Texas Monthly that allowed gossip columnists for four Texas newspapers to yak ad nauseam about such banal things as identifying a certain Hollywood legend as "the bitch of all time" (Lauren Bacall, according to the Houston Chronicle's Maxine Mesinger). Smith also was the brains behind Monthly's May 1998 "Hooray for Hollywood, Texas" issue that glorified the state's film industry and featured actress Sandra Bullock on the cover. Critics of the magazine's recent work tend to cite that issue for its starstruck boosterism and its exploitation on the cover of a pretty face with tenuous Texas ties.
Smith has heard so much carping about the issue that he's prepared a lengthy defense. Putting Bullock, who was building a lake house in the Austin area, on the cover was a fallback from an initial concept that didn't pan out.
"I know that people presumed the 'Hollywood, Texas' issue to be not substantive," Smith says. "I saw it as a cultural thing, an identity thing, and an economic thing. It was about entertainment, but it was about who we are and what we are becoming. Film is a growth industry in Texas. It was appropriate to have Sandra Bullock as the poster child of a package of stories on 'Hollywood, Texas.' When people inside the magazine who were opposed to the idea saw the final package, they admitted they were wrong."
Joe Nick Patoski, 47, wonders if the newfangled world of magazines -- a world where tangential Texans such as Sandra Bullock or Dennis Rodman can grace Texas Monthly covers, a world where snooty anecdotes of gossip columnists are strung together with respect and devotion into a Monthly story -- has any room in it for guys like him.
Patoski, who is most comfortable in cowboy boots and western-style jeans, has been a staff writer for Texas Monthly since 1975, excluding five years in the early 1980s when he tried his hand at managing bands. Patoski is best known for his quirky road-trip stories about the Texas landscape. He's written about the best swimming holes and miniature golf courses in the state. He's examined the origins of cedar fever and Texans' devotion to certain brands of jeans. He's also written plenty of stories about Texas celebrities, but he wavers on whether Texas Monthly has become brainwashed by the cult of celebrity.
"We have our own celebrities, and we should tip our hat to them," he says. "And then sometimes I look at what we are doing and think we've gone overboard, that we've gone too celebrity hungry."
Patoski is tormented. How else can he explain his tempting of fate a couple of months ago when he blasted Levy in print? Friends wondered if Patoski had a death wish.
"I was sticking my neck out, and certainly I knew there could be consequences," Patoski says. "It was done in the heat of the moment, and a more rational mind might not have done it. But at the same time, I think a lot of these uncertainties in the changing environment at Texas Monthly prompted me to do so. It was like, 'Well, let's see.' "
The changing environment is the corporate environment that hit Texas Monthly with the sale to Emmis, a publicly held corporation whose holdings today include 16 U.S. radio stations, a radio network in Hungary, five TV stations and three other magazines -- Indianapolis Monthly, Atlanta and Cincinnati. None of these city magazines is in the league of Texas Monthly, and none employs staff writers like Monthly does -- a point that sends cold chills up the spines of Patoski and some of his colleagues. Being a staff writer has perks, including company-provided health benefits and the security of regular paychecks -- two things freelance writers rarely enjoy.
Texas Monthly writers look down upon Emmis's other magazines as lightly regarded cousins. In March, they also will have a sibling to look down upon. That's when Texas Monthly's new quarterly business magazine debuts. Texas Monthly Biz is the first heed to Emmis's order that Texas Monthly extend its good name into new revenue-producing publishing ventures.
Evan Smith, who also is special projects editor, is editing Biz and swears the new magazine won't detract from Texas Monthly, although it already is cannibalizing the time he devotes to it. Like Emmis's city magazines, Biz does not employ its own writers.
Again, Patoski is tormented. He appreciates the need to capitalize on Texas Monthly's good name but worries that Biz could dilute Monthly's quality.
As time passes since the sale, Patoski says he's learning to live in the new environment. A fancy new laptop computer and a Christmas bonus from corporate can do wonders to placate. Still, his moods fluctuate, and his fear of the future has not subsided.
"The place where I bank has changed ownership five times, and it's now based in North Carolina," says Patoski, whose squeaky North Texas drawl sometimes doubles as a whine. "I used to shake my head about it only to discover last January that I joined that world too. It was an awakening. I can't call it a rude awakening, because I have seen a lot of pluses and minuses. I have seen changes. And you have to understand, at Texas Monthly, change is not a constant. It comes very slowly and it has happened very little in the past."
In a strange way, the sale emboldened Patoski to take on Levy. He had grown tired of apologizing for his publisher's actions, both to his environmentalist buddies and to people he interviewed for stories who expressed concerns that Levy's personal views would seep into Patoski's prose.
"I wouldn't have written that first letter if Mike was still the owner of the magazine," Patoski says. "I would have deferred to him. But it's not his cookie store anymore."
As Patoski saw it, Levy was an employee of Emmis, just like he was. "In my opinion, he was abusing his position, and I thought if he could abuse his position, then I was more than willing to abuse mine," Patoski says. "That's the new corporate environment."
Patoski's job is to be a master of words, but he falls over them when asked whether he's optimistic about the magazine's future.
"Uh, yeah," he says after a seven-second pause, "because you don't know where it's going to go. It's a pretty interesting time. We certainly have financial clout behind us if there's a need to open up the pocketbooks. Um, yeah, I mean ... that's a hard ... yeah, I'm optimistic. Why? I don't know. I go up and down."
In the industry, Texas Monthly is considered a "writers' magazine." That means the content is driven more by the initiative and insights of writers than by the imagination and ideas of editors.
It follows, then, that the quality of Texas Monthly depends heavily on its writers, and that losing two of its best was a major blow. Mimi Swartz, who went to work for the New Yorker, and Robert Draper, who was hired away by GQ, left Texas Monthly in the summer of 1997. The fact they were recruited away is a testament to their talents.
Swartz, who began writing for Texas Monthly in 1984, won a National Magazine Award, the industry equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, for her 1995 story on HMO abuse. She also wrote memorable stories in the 1990s about racism in Vidor, sexism inside the Texas A&M University Corps, the subliminal effects of the breast implant industry on Houston's psyche and former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith's wooing of an octogenarian. The magazine used the word "shocking" to promote Draper's stories about a prison guard accused of murdering an inmate and a state bureaucrat using a state computer to run an escort service. Draper, who started in 1991, also wrote a prophetic cover story about problems with the Texas Lottery.
Their exits came 18 months after Texas Monthly laid off staff writer Jan Reid and eliminated the staff writer position held by Jan Jarboe Russell, who left on her own to write the Lady Bird Johnson book but might have been laid off had she stayed. Some Monthly writers still grumble that the elimination of Reid and Jarboe Russell's jobs was to pad profits in anticipation of the sale. (Reid, Jarboe Russell and Draper, though no longer on staff, are listed as contributing editors in the magazine's staff box, which means the magazine depends on them to submit stories on a freelance basis. Reid wrote the October 1998 cover story on Lyle Lovett, for example.)
Texas Monthly's search to replace Draper and Swartz focused on two experienced daily newspaper reporters, including Howard Swindle, a 20-year veteran of the Dallas Morning News and a lead member of its special investigative projects team. Swindle says he opted to stay at the Morning News out of loyalty to the paper and his colleagues on the special projects team, and that money never entered into his decision. Curtis, however, says Texas Monthly was unable to hire one of its two candidates, presumably Swindle, because the magazine could not offer a tantalizing enough salary. The other candidate, presumably not Swindle, snubbed Texas Monthly after his paper offered him a glamorous new position.
It has become increasingly difficult for Texas Monthly to retain and attract topnotch writers. At GQ, Draper is paid twice as much to write half the number of stories that were expected of him at Texas Monthly. Daily newspapers and newsweeklies are paying their writers better too. In addition, Texas Monthly no longer can realistically promote itself as the only publication in Texas where good journalism is practiced, an incentive the magazine could wave in front of job candidates in the past.
Curtis has opted to fill the voids by asking three current Texas Monthly editorial employees to spend more time writing. Each was hired in 1997 into a position at or near the bottom of the magazine's chain of command. None has much writing experience. Until recently, one was an editorial assistant, an entry-level job that pays, according to Brill's Content magazine, $19,000 a year to start.
Curtis, who has one more position to fill, says he is happy and comfortable with the moves because they fall in line with the magazine's past philosophy of finding untapped talent that blossoms in the pages of the magazine. Neither Swartz nor Draper was hired as a star, he notes, but they each became one at Texas Monthly. Draper does not necessarily agree.
"It would be misleading to suggest that Texas Monthly spent years grooming me for stardom," says Draper, who had written a book about Rolling Stone magazine before joining Monthly. "I benefited enormously from the kind of creative osmosis that takes place from working at a place like Texas Monthly, but I will not so modestly suggest that with me, it did not take much work."
In his office, Levy is raving about Michael Hall's January 1999 story on singer Nanci Griffith. Hall is one of the three inexperienced writers being asked to perform miracles.
"I was mesmerized by it because it was presented with such intelligence," Levy says of the story. So mesmerized that during his gushings over the story, he repeatedly makes the mistake of referring to its subject as Nanci Griffin, not Griffith.
In another office, Smith downplays the impact of the magazine's losing two top writers. "We feel their loss, but we'll get over it," Smith says. "We're getting over it. We've gotten over it."
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