Pride of the Yankees?
Evan Smith and the New 'Texas Monthly'
"I'm not sure that Texas Monthly is all that interesting a story," says Paul Burka, senior executive editor and lead political reporter for the magazine. "But Evan Smith, though ... that's an interesting story." Which is better than being a punch line: "Did you hear the one about the Yankee kid who took over Texas Monthly?"
If Evan Smith were the editor of Self or Sport or Guns and Ammo, his story would not be very intriguing. He would at best be a stock figure, the New York media type, a bantamweight package of spin and buzz and fast talk. He'd turn up in Sex and the City, the kind of guy TV women date and then throw over for a trucker or rodeo clown. Instead, Evan Smith is in Austin, at the top of the state's admittedly short media food chain but still neck-deep in the turbulent cultural currents of the New Texas and the bubbling hot springs of the Texas Monthly cult. Whatever the result, it will not be predictable.
Texas Monthly has now been with us for 28 years, and Smith -- who, after nine years with the magazine, took the helm from Gregory Curtis last year -- is only its third editor. He was a 6-year-old riding his Big Wheel in Queens when the first TM hit the stands in February 1973, the month Lyndon Johnson died, and his youth may actually be his best qualification for the job he holds today.
Back then, the Monthly was avant-garde for pointing out that Texas was, indeed, part of the modern world. (Or, in the words of an early house ad, it was "the first magazine to chronicle contemporary life in urban Texas.") The state has caught up, the Monthly is mainstream, and part of Smith's job is to keep the magazine relevant to a state whose citizens -- whether new or native -- now have more in common with Evan Smith than they do with TM's charter subscribers.
From his first days at the Monthly, Smith has embraced Texas Monthly's image, and self-image, as both the acme of the magazine industry and the dominant political and cultural voice of Texas. At the same time, though, Smith has been full of ideas, expressed with varying degrees of brashness, about how to change the publication whose partisans felt needed no fixing. And in his brief tenure so far as editor, Smith has already done a bunch of things nobody -- at least nobody within Texas media -- thought the Monthly would, or could, ever do. And he's not done yet.
Smith's self-imposed mandate -- to make Texas Monthly, in Greg Curtis' words, "exactly the same, only different" -- may be easier, or may be harder, because he's surrounded, and liked and admired, and was hired, by native Texans who've been with the Monthly since Day One or Two and who are (rude though it may be to point out) old enough to be his parents. In other words, the sort of people who should be editor of Texas Monthly. But Evan Smith wanted it more. Indeed, if Evan Smith ever wanted to be a fireman or ballplayer or astronaut, it passed quickly, replaced by a singular passion to be the editor of a great American magazine, and then to be the editor of this one. So running Texas Monthly was this Yankee kid's destiny. And probably the magazine's, too.
A few things everybody says about Evan Smith:
What it Takes
(1) He's a workaholic. Says he: "Being editor of Texas Monthly is a 24/7 job. I can't turn it off. Ever." Says his wife Julia: "I realized Evan was happiest when he was working. So now I just enable him."
(2) He's a maniac. Says he: "My management style is a cross between Hitler and Sid Caesar." Says TM writer/editor Michael Hall: "Evan is a high-high-energy guy and he really, really wants to motivate people."
(3) He's a quick study. Says he: "The only way to cover the corners of this state is to go to those corners as often as time and circumstances permit. By throwing myself into it, I learn so much more and do a better job for the magazine." Says Gregory Curtis: "It seemed like within a week [after he arrived in 1991] he had been everywhere in Texas and met everyone."
(4) He knows what he doesn't know. Says TM senior editor and Texana expert Anne Dingus: "Sometimes you'll see him blink in deliberate bewilderment [about some Texas quirk], and he'll say 'It's up to y'all.' Because he won't get it." Says former TM staffer Dick J. Reavis, once Smith's harshest critic: "He knows he's not mastered being a Texan, and he looks to others for advice. He's a New Yorker, but he's so smart that he's smart enough to know he doesn't know everything. And he's only one of two or three New Yorkers like that."
And, (5) He's taken on quite a tough gig. Says he: "It's not literally true that I go home every night and tell myself 'Please don't fuck up.' But it's almost true." And says his boss, Texas Monthly founder and publisher Michael Levy: "I realized that it's an extraordinarily difficult job -- and that it would best serve the organization if Evan was the editor."
Why is it so difficult? Well, says Smith, "There's the Texas myth, and there's the Texas Monthly myth, and I have to weigh each one every month. I'm presiding over this thing that's existed since I was 6, over people who've worked here their entire professional lives. There are people all over the state who were charter subscribers and still are subscribers." (Before TM was a year old -- that is, when its survival was far from assured -- it proudly hawked lifetime subscriptions.) "The psychological history is daunting."
First, the Texas Monthly myth, or at least the publishing-specific part of it. Whether Texans, new, native, or unwilling, recognize Texas Monthly as a uniquely good magazine is not super-relevant, since Texans love talking -- and reading -- about themselves and TM is the best place to do that. But within the media zone, and in the hearts and minds of its staff, TM competes with any "national" New York rag and leaves in its dust most any rag published in the provinces. Says Reavis: "The state of magazines today is pretty sad; they're all short stories and glitterati stuff, and I consider Harper's and Texas Monthly the only truly serious magazines in America."
This reputation is written in copper in the eight National Magazine Awards, the slick-paper equivalent of the Pulitzers, which Levy has piled on his office coffee table. It's also written in the résumé of Evan Smith, who came to TM in 1991, left in early 1994 for a supposedly more prestigious but ultimately disastrous gig at The New Republic, and was back at the Monthly by Labor Day of that year. "In New York, it's not about the work," he says. "It's about boldfaced names and book parties and editing for other editors and almost everything but the content of the magazine. I got away from that deliberately and never want to go back. It would be defeatist and invalidate my experience here."
He's not the only returned prodigal. Witness longtime Monthly brand name Mimi Swartz, who left to work for celebrity editor Tina Brown at Talk and is now back. "I certainly don't feel like I'm settling," she says. "A great thing about Texas Monthly is that if you want to do a story, and you have the fortitude to do it, nobody's going to get in your way, which is very rare in the magazine business."
So what needs to change, if TM is already the gold standard of American publishing? Naturally, Evan Smith is not Greg Curtis, who held the job for 20 years, or Bill Broyles, who held it for the first eight years of TM history. So some things about Texas Monthly will be automatically, unconsciously different. That's what the magazine expected and the boss wanted. "I told Evan what I told Greg when he became editor," says Levy. "It doesn't need to be your predecessor's magazine. Give me what's in your vision."
Turning the Bus
But Smith seems to have something a little more deliberate in mind for the new Texas Monthly. Perhaps something younger, less white, less friendly to the Bush brigades. (Smith says TM will no longer be "a courtesan" to the only president we've got.) Texas Monthly "has to be turned like a school bus -- slowly, or it tips over," he says; changing the editorial focus "would have to happen over time." But not in the far-off future. Witness the April issue, the first to appear after Smith's long-planned redesign and reorganization of the magazine.
Sure, a cover glam shot of Laura Bush did not put off those TM readers who peruse the golf-resort advertorials with great interest. (Well, as "glam" as Laura will ever get; in the words of a certain former Chronicle staffer, "It's a fashion statement: 'Help me!'") Then those readers turned the page and read Michael Hall's posthumous profile of DJ Skrew, the cough-syrup-banging hip-hop star and OD victim from Houston's meanest streets. (And you think Eminem is weird and creepy.)
"I'd never been to the south side of Houston before; it's this completely different side of the state," says Hall, who in a past life was the managing editor of the Chronicle and a hall-of-famer of the Austin music scene. "It was a part of Texas I really wanted to know about; that's as much 'Texas' as Marfa or cattle ranches or bluebonnets. And I think Evan has a lot to do with it -- he's brought this sense that we can go out and find that side of Texas."
Of all the This-Ain't-Daddy's-Texas-Monthly moves Smith has made -- including a column by the charmingly offensive Kinky Friedman -- DJ Skrew has rattled the most cages. "I've had people ask me why we published that story," he says. "But if we simply reaffirmed the world-views of our readers, we would not be doing our job or doing the readers any favors. We need to push the envelope -- just not push it over a cliff. I think that expands our horizons and those of our readership."
And what is the world-view of Texas Monthly readers? It's easy to say they look at the world through mod-GOP, suburban-boomer, Bush-colored glasses, because that's the Texas (monied) mainstream, and it's hard to argue that the Monthly doesn't reflect that mainstream, or define it, or both. You could say that Texas Monthly has changed along with its readership, who used to be more spunky and less square in their wild Seventies years. (The average Monthly reader is a decade older than Evan Smith.)
But you'd get an argument from Mike Levy, which is not unusual (see "The Plumber's Publisher," p.24). "The only thing that's changed about Texas Monthly is that it's gotten better," he says. "We cover the world of Texas, and as it's changed we've had to cover that world as it exists today. But it's still a place with a unique history and culture and traditions and lifestyle. When we tried to do a magazine in California, we found it was really five different states that hated each other. But readers here still identify as Texans. And Texas Monthly is still an intelligent national magazine that talks up to rather than down to the reader."
Now, most magazines have a distinct world-view of their own and thus get exactly the readers they ask for -- and, not coincidentally, can then sell those pre-selected readers' time and attention to just the right advertisers. The Monthly, however, is so proudly un-authoritarian -- Levy says, if you can believe it, that in 28 years as alpha dog he has never overruled the editorial staff -- that even if there was a TM party line many writers and editors would just ignore it. "At other magazines, when an editor tells you they want you to do a story, you very rarely get to say no," says Mimi Swartz. "At Texas Monthly, we're not a bunch of spoiled brats, but you can say no or that there's a better way and you'll be listened to. Everything's open for discussion in a way that it isn't in a lot of major magazines."
It's fair to say that, in the beginning under Broyles, Texas Monthly was more tough and scrappy that it became, because Broyles -- Rhodes Scholar, jock, ex-Marine, and now successful Hollywood screenwriter -- and his staff were young and operated from the gut. "We weren't kids, but it was just fun. We wrote what interested us, and that's still part of the culture," says Paul Burka, a former Daily Texan editor who joined TM in 1974 after five years as a staff lawyer at the Legislature. (Both Burka and Levy are UT law grads and members of the State Bar.) "The key is making sure you have a staff that's interested in enough different things that you cover all the bases.
A Lone Star User's Manual
"Bill says, 'We just made it up. It just happened to be the right thing,'" Burka continues. "It was instinctive. Bill knew three months in advance what everyone would be thinking three months later. I think Evan has a well-thought-out vision for the magazine that I don't think either Bill or Greg had."
Greg Curtis might not disagree. His personality and reputation are the opposite of tough-and-scrappy: a tall, quiet, dignified man of letters, Gregory Peck to Broyles' Gary Cooper and Smith's James Cagney. Beyond his personal predilections, he says, he brought no agenda items to the table. "Every magazine that lasts has a reason for being, and Texas Monthly is a magazine for people who want to understand and enjoy Texas. It tells you how. That's it, period. It doesn't do anything else.
"And as long as the magazine fulfills that mandate, and as long as the reader feels that he or she understands Texas better and can enjoy it more as long as they have Texas Monthly in their life, then the magazine will do fine," Curtis continues. "And I think Evan would agree that's his mandate still. But understanding Texas is a very difficult thing to do. The economy, the power, the society have all shifted, and detailing these things, and recognizing what stories portray these changes -- that's the challenge that Evan faces, and it's a very difficult one."
Not that it's a new challenge, since if Texas had not already been undergoing seismic shifts in 1973, Texas Monthly would not have had the chance to surpass the typical city mag. In its first year of existence, the Monthly ran stories on the Armadillo World Headquarters, cops on drugs, the closing of the venerable Chicken Ranch -- all signs of the apocalypse that was poised to explode the old Lone Star state of mind. Without this transformation, George W. Bush would not have been possible, so the history of late-20th-century Texas now has global significance. And Texas Monthly has been skillful enough to not blow the opportunity this presented for quality journalism.
Today's Monthly still celebrates Texas traditions and legends and braggadocio, as in the August issue's service-piece (i.e., "news you can use") story on "The Best of Small-Town Texas" with Survivor hunk Colby Donaldson in the same pose and setting that we forced Smith into on our cover. (Let's just say that's not Evan Smith's truck. He drives a Saab and lives in Hyde Park.) Such pieces are an effective way to appeal, in Smith words, "to Texans whether they've been here for five generations or five minutes."
It's precisely because such Texana is not still part of ordinary experience that TM is able to put it in a bottle, so to speak, and sell it alongside DJ Skrew and David Koresh. Given Texas Monthly's self-defined role as the user's manual for the Lone Star State, laying on the Texas chic and kitsch may be a high calling. "I think we have to respond to immigration from the north and south by selling the Texas myth," says Dick Reavis. "We're the same as Reader's Digest was for all the immigrants from Italy and Poland. We have to Texanize these people."
But the magazine also gives those traditions a swift kick in the chicken fried. "We love the myths but we realize that a lot of it is pure bullshit, so it's a bit of a high-wire act," says Anne Dingus, who in recent issues has authored a multipart "Texas Literacy Test." "Texas today is so different from when we started. Texans love reading about the heritage, [and] we try to explain it to the new Texans, as we like to call them. But it's changed. The Confederate flag is a good example; nobody in our pages would dare advocate for the flag as part of our heritage, one of the Six Flags."
Smith says he's trying to get Sandra Cisneros, whose relations with TM have been complicated, to write a piece debunking the myths of the Alamo. "I can guarantee that people within and without the magazine will not be happy to see that story," he says.
Not that he cares that much. "It's an institution, but so is Schlotzky's," he says. "Yes, it's a brand, and an institution, but we publish a magazine. And the one that's most interesting can have a variety of perspectives and voices: left and right, old and young, Anglo and non-Anglo, hip and square, intensely interested in politics or cutting-edge culture or couldn't care less.
"If it wasn't, it'd be boring. It'd be The Nation," he continues. "I'd rather have Dick Reavis and Paul Burka each writing about politics in the same issue. It shouldn't have one thing for one group of people. So whether we're a brand, or an institution, or a magazine, we're about eclecticism and breadth and depth. And that's how it should be."
Dick Reavis and Paul Burka are surely different political voices -- and have especially become so in recent years, with the rise of the Bushoisie and Burka's not-quite-intentional emergence as a voice of the Bush Democrats (see "Burka on Bush," left). But more profoundly different are their experiences with Texas Monthly. Burka is not the only TM senior staffer to say his tenure "has been a labor of love. I'm one of those people who feels like I've never had a job."
But Reavis, who was on staff from 1981 to 1990, left in disgust and protest, he says, for two big reasons. "Bill Broyles made an effort to make a magazine made in Texas about Texans. And since our culture doesn't produce as many journalists as the Northeast, Broyles had to train talent and teach people like me how to write. Greg knew he didn't have to waste his time training people and instead could hire them from the East. The oversupply of journalists in New York means they come down here to run publications, and they don't realize we're like the Basques and can't be assimilated into their culture. So that was one issue.
"The other was that Texas Monthly was lily-white -- we had one black and one Latin out of a staff of 100 people. Greg said he couldn't find talented minority writers, and I said 'Then find a minority secretary,'" Reavis continues. "When Evan became editor, I thought no New Yorker should be editor of Texas Monthly, and I guess I still think that. But I told Evan I'd never work for a lily-white publication" -- Reavis is currently on staff at the San Antonio Express-News -- "and he said 'Send me somebody and I'll hire them,' and I sent him Cecilia Balli, and he hired her. He's started to integrate the magazine, and he understands that South Texas exists, which wasn't always understood before. So I think he's an improvement. I haven't gotten him to commit to 'made in Texas by Texans,' but he's getting there."
Now, Reavis did more than think a New Yorker shouldn't edit Texas Monthly -- he wrote vitriolic letters demanding that Evan Smith immediately resign the gig and move back to New York. He now considers himself "once again a friend to Texas Monthly" because Smith called him anyway, one of many outreach and bridge-building efforts that have marked his first year in the job and attracted attention in the Media Zone. "Getting Dick to come around," says Smith, "gives me cover from the other Dick Reavises and their expectations."
Smith's overtures to Sandra Cisneros fall in the same category, and he recently met with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which was outraged that the magazine's biennial Worst Legislators list included three Latinos. (The Best Legislators list featured two.) "I just go to listen. I do shut up sometimes," he says. "Ultimately, all I can say to people is that they should read the magazine. If it seems better to them, great. If not, move on."
There is a theme here, of course, the Anglo Thing, and of all the potential knocks on the Monthly Smith takes the diversity issue most seriously. "People think we're too white, and I think the staff should reflect -- though isn't obligated to reflect -- the whole state," he says. "That means reaching into the African-American and Hispanic communities." One of the new brand-name columns in Smith's new Monthly format will be on Mexican politics and border issues, which Smiths calls "one step in the right direction."
But "I've never believed that the Monthly is too 'yuppie' or 'suburban'; those are just buzzwords," Smith adds. "Liberals think we're too conservative, conservatives think we're too liberal. But I'd say that, with a very few exceptions, the magazine hasn't been perceived as being hostile. ... It's not about ideology as much as the establishment and who's in power. We give people the benefit of the doubt unless we have reason not to."
The new border column is the fruit of Smith's oft-cited vision for the magazine, which has guided the recent redesign and refocus. The old Monthly had big features by its brand-name writers -- Swartz, Burka, Hall, Gary Cartwright, Skip Hollandsworth, Joe Nick Patoski, and so on -- and front-of-the-book columns often written by freelancers. The new Monthly has the brand names, both veteran and up-and-coming, writing the columns, including Kinky Friedman's essays at the end. "People are now reading Texas Monthly because of Kinky Friedman," Smith says. "I'd like to say I knew they would, but all I knew is that it was an enormous roll of the dice. And he has risen to the challenge.
"Plus, he's around the office now, which is a real trip," Smith continues. Routine handholding and babysitting chores belong to associate editor Brian Sweany, the closest thing to a day-to-day managing editor at the Monthly, which is the role Smith occupied under Curtis. Sweany tells of a friend who, seeing Friedman's words in TM's pages, asked "Do you ever get to see him?" "I told him, 'Kinky Friedman is my life.'"
At the other end of the book, Smith took the unusual step of giving "Between the Lines," written from the beginning by editors Broyles and then Curtis, to Paul Burka. "When he asked, I was dubious, but it couldn't have worked out better," Burka says. "I've gotten to love doing it, and people are reading it. But it would have never occurred to me. Before Evan became editor, he must have dreamed about Texas Monthly every night to have so many ideas. And one of them was to give up his page."
But probably the biggest change so far is not in the magazine's pages but behind Smith's desk -- where you will often not find him, as he cruises the state as a media celebrity in his own right. "I'm comfortable in public, I have a face for radio but a voice for TV, and I've taken the opportunity to be part of things." (This is so totally not Greg Curtis' predilection. "I just wasn't that good at being a public figure and didn't enjoy it as much," Curtis says. "I think it's good and maybe I should have done more of it.")
Fulfilling His Destiny
Being on this TV show and that talk-radio program, moderating this mayoral debate and teaching that journalism workshop, is "not about Evan Smith but about the magazine," he insists. "Being ambassador is part of the job -- being out there in the state representing the 'institution,' making sure people understand that we're there for the whole state, building relationships where the magazine needs relationships.
"Believe me, I would prefer, and my wife and kids would prefer, that I'm not gone as much as I am," he continues. They're not complaining. Julia notes that their 4-year-old daughter recognizes "Daddy's magazine!" at HEB, and says "I'm the luckiest stay-at-home mom in the world, because at night I get to dress up and have dinner with Lady Bird Johnson. It works for me." Not that there's much of a chance of things being different. "There is but one Evan," she says. "He's the editor of Texas Monthly wherever he goes. And he brings the same intensity to just about everything."
Says Burka, "Evan felt it really necessary to raise the visibility of the magazine. He comes from the New York society, where buzz is important, and so it was important to deliver the message that the magazine was going to change." If Smith embodies that edgy New York buzz thing now, imagine what he was like when he first got to Texas Monthly at the ripe old age of 24, with his journalism master's from Northwestern and stints at Self and Whittle Communications under his belt. (He had actually been angling to work at the Monthly for a while before that; under the glass of his office coffee table is his first rejection letter from Greg Curtis.)
"He was very brash," Burka says, citing Smith's "legendary" "Five People at Texas Monthly Who Need to be Fired Right Now" list. "He was the first person other than the editors who had any kind of agenda for where the magazine should be. Clearly, he's ambitious, and there's nothing wrong with that."
However, says Smith, "in my own mind I am an awful lot less ambitious than I once was. I was going to be the editor of every great magazine in America. I thought I was a degree of separation away from being editor of The New Republic, which was a pinnacle and a stepping stone. And I had a horrible experience there, was horribly burned, unhappy professionally and personally, and it gave me a complete kick in the ass in terms of ambition vs. happiness."
In retrospect, Smith's whole TNR adventure seems like an absurd idea, like "that season of Dallas where Victoria Principal wakes up from a dream," he says. He and Julia left for TNR's D.C. digs two months before their Austin wedding, which tells you something right there. By the time they got back from their honeymoon, they knew they'd made a mistake, but they stuck it out through the Summer From Hell. "Evan had always wanted to work for The New Republic, and it was heartbreaking for him," Julia says. "We felt so much better the minute we got back."
Smith soon discovered, to his great relief, that when Greg Curtis told him at his wedding that he could come back anytime, he really meant it. "I still don't know why Greg took me back, but he did, and the whole experience was very humbling," he says.
At the same time, though, both Curtis and Burka note that, once Smith was back at the Monthly, it was nearly inevitable that he would one day run the magazine. "I think it was assumed at the time," says Burka, "that Evan would never have come back without some substantial stake in running the magazine, wherever that led." (For his part, Burka says "I would have been delighted to be the editor, but I'm fundamentally not a manager, and I didn't have any overall vision for it. Clearly, Evan is better than I would have been." Other veteran staffers say similar things about their own interest, or lack thereof, in the job.)
Says Curtis, "From the moment Evan arrived we thought 'He's going to be running a magazine someday.' That was his destiny. When he came back from The New Republic, the fact that the magazine might well be Texas Monthly was something we had to think about. But it was so gradual -- or so self-evident from Day One -- that there was no moment when I realized 'God, Evan could do this!' You never doubted that he could do it."
And will apparently keep doing it for ... hell, a couple of generations. "I don't see Texas Monthly as a stepping stone," he says. "I have no interest in being the editor of any other magazine, or in running for office, or curing cancer, or playing with the Bulls. This is the end, not a means to an end."
Texas Monthly, Evan Smith, Paul Burka, Gregory Curtis, Michael Hall, Anne Dingus, Dick J. Reavis, Michael Levy, The New Republic, Mimi Swartz, Bill Broyles, DJ Skrew, Laura Bush, Paul Burka, Cecilia Balli, Sandra Cisneros, Kinky Friedman, Brian Sweany, Julia Smith