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.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste