At the Top of His Game
After 18 Years, Texas Monthly Editor Calls It Quits
As any great athlete will tell you, the best way to finish your career is on top -- and, arguably, that's what Greg Curtis is doing. Fresh off of being named one of the 10 best magazine editors in the nation by the Columbia Journalism Review, Curtis is stepping down from an 18-year reign at Texas Monthly. The magazine won five National Magazine Awards during his tenure there. Curtis will be replaced on July 1 by 34-year-old New York transplant Evan Smith, TexMo's deputy editor.
Change at the top doesn't come often for the Monthly -- Curtis was only the second editor in the magazine's history, following Bill Broyles' tenure from 1973-81. Curtis, 55, will continue to be a presence in the magazine's pages, contributing four pieces a year to the mag.
It would be hard to imagine Curtis not staying on in some capacity. He has been at TexMo since day one, originally as a senior editor and then as executive editor, before replacing Broyles.
"There wasn't even a magazine," Curtis says of his first days on the job in '73. "We were headed on this great adventure, and we were trying to create a magazine entirely out of whole cloth, and the state, although it was ready for it, was a very different place." Although a lot of people thought the magazine would never work in Texas, Curtis says, TexMo's founders were determined. "We kind of looked around at other magazines, what they were like, tried to incorporate some good ideas and just kind of made it up as we went along for a while. It wasn't instantaneous, but we had some good success pretty quickly and built from there," Curtis says.
Texas Monthly was, in many ways, the first magazine of its kind in Texas. "I think maybe there had been statewide magazines before, but there hadn't been one like what we were talking about. People couldn't imagine it, because it didn't exist. ... I knew that we were making headway when I was doing stories and I'd call and 'Hello, I'm Greg Curtis from Texas Monthly,' and I'd get 'From what?' After a while, you didn't have to say it. People knew what the magazine was, and we were getting into the consciousness of the state."
Texas Monthly enjoys a reputation as a "writer's magazine" -- a breeding ground for quality scribes, many of whom develop a national reputation there.
"When something ends like this, perspective is suddenly clarified," longtime staff writer Joe Nick Patoski says. With Curtis, Patoski says, "It wasn't like, necessarily, 'Write like this or like this' and very specific. He just let us do what engaged us and was kind of the translator. He certainly made the call as to whether it was appropriate or right for the magazine, but other than that, he let us screw up on our own. And that's getting to be a pretty rare thing in this business. That's what I'm realizing -- how exceptional it's been."
Patoski says the magazine gained definition during Curtis's tenure. "I mean, Bill Broyles did a great job, but it was a hot concept at the time and it was certainly right for Texas. Greg had the more difficult job of defining what it is by carrying on what began, and surviving and essaying the boom and bust and boom again. I just think it's pretty remarkable that he let us do what we wanted to do as much as he did."
"Greg is a remarkable guy," Smith says, "who's been a terrific editor for this magazine. He's a legend in the business, deservedly so. I can only hope to accomplish a fraction of what he's accomplished here."
Of course, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that such praise is not unanimous.
"I always thought he was a good editor, but I didn't think that he was good editor for Texas," says Dick Reavis, whose accent makes his Lone Star roots obvious. Reavis wrote for the magazine as a freelancer and staff writer from 1977-90, and is currently the San Antonio Express-News' lead reporter on the Waco Branch Davidian trial. "He was born in Corpus and went to Rice [University], but he grew up in Missouri, and his interests in life are not like those of indigenous Texans. ...
"The other thing was, I think there are two conceptions of the Monthly. One is that it is a national magazine that happens to be published in Texas. The other is that it is a Texan cultural institution. Those are two different concepts. Greg signed on to the first one. The difference comes down to this: In terms of personnel, who do you hire? Texans or New Yorkers? Greg hires New Yorkers."
That's not just a "get a rope" mentality on Reavis' part: He says Texas Monthly established itself under Broyles by grooming Texas writers such as himself to create the cultural institution he speaks of.
"Those folks taught me how to write a magazine story. They were running a school for talent in an area of the country where nobody cared if talent developed, except them. ... They taught a bunch of us who were Texans what this New York business was about. ... The Monthly was our outpost in the New York-dominated world of magazines until Greg got fully established." Since then, he says, the magazine has been losing its "indigenous sensibilities."
Also, "I believe the magazine should look like the state, which meant that it should have black and Hispanic writers and coverage of those peoples. That never happened. ... Greg was not clued in to the tri-ethnicism that is Texas. Didn't mean anything to him."
Since Curtis's successor, Smith, is from New York, Reavis says he worries that the Lone Star State's premier magazine will devolve into just another New York mag. "My short history of the magazine is that its founding editor was from Baytown, its second editor was from Kansas City, and its new editor is from Manhattan," Reavis says.
Jan Reid, a writer noted for his book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, the definitive history of Austin's early-Seventies "outlaw country" music scene, has freelanced for the Monthly for years. He had a bitter crossing of swords with Curtis when Reid was briefly hired as a senior editor in 1994, but then let go a year later.
Reid, who notes that he has had "a mostly good relationship" with Curtis, nonetheless disputes the notion that the Monthly is a "writer's magazine": "I think there was some truth to that, particularly at the start, and it's been a propaganda that has been promoted over the years." The magazine is a "writer's magazine," Reid says, in the sense that "they have a deep pool of talent to draw from. There were times when they've assigned a story and the reporter gets onto something, and they'll stay with it. ... There are other times when they can edit a story to death, or Greg just didn't get it and it would languish. Several of my stories were rescued, especially by [executive editor] Paul Burka."
However, Reid says, "I don't want to be harsh at all on Greg. I look at that time as kind of like a couple that lived together, and it's all wonderful for a long time, and then they say 'Why don't we get married?' and then you realize you screwed up. But all that has been far outweighed by the accumulation of years. Greg was the first person that got me into being published."
Reid also notes that, during a highly publicized incident in which Reid got shot in Mexico, Curtis was a big help in getting him back to the States and getting his medical bills paid. "My experience with him has been far more positive than negative."
Curtis said his resignation has nothing to do with Texas Monthly's purchase by Indiana-based Emmis Publications from founding publisher Michael Levy two years ago. Deflecting a criticism from media and entertainment webzine Inside.com that perhaps the magazine has grown a bit "softer" and more "service-oriented" since Emmis purchased Texas Monthly, Curtis says, "I've been hearing that since I became editor almost 20 years ago. 'Texas Monthly has gotten softer since Emmis' is just the latest version of that comment. At X time, people are always saying it's softer than Y."
Incidentally, Inside.com -- where, incidentally, Smith is a magazine critic (a post he says he will resign) was also where the news first broke of Curtis' retirement -- according to several sources, about a week before it was supposed to. Inside.com's David Carr says he called Smith to confirm rumors he had heard from "a very reliable Washington media source."
Carr says Smith told him, "I can't help you with that," and advised Carr to just go through "the front door" by calling Curtis. Carr then left a message with Curtis. Within a few hours, "I looked on my e-mail and saw that they had press-released what I thought was a scoop.
"I called Evan, I told him I was delighted that New York publishing motifs had gone to other regions as well, thanked him ever so much for press-releasing my scoop, and he apologized and said that it was a very important transition for the magazine and he wasn't able to help me. I told him, 'All I did was follow your advice and I got screwed.'" Carr says he later calmed down, and also says he thinks Smith will make a great editor. "When I got done screaming on him for letting the story out, I said 'Now we'll do an interview about your bright and brilliant future.' Which we did.
"There's a tremendous amount of interest in that magazine because there's nothing else like it," says Carr. "There's no kind of regional magazine that is able to hit the high notes over and over and over again. It's a very important franchise in the American journalism community."
Evan Smith was hired at Texas Monthly as a senior editor in 1991 and was promoted to deputy editor in '93, a position he has held since then except for a seven-month stint as deputy editor at The New Republic in 1994.
Asked if readers could expect to see any changes under his editorship, Smith says, "I think that in the short run, certainly what you're going to see is the same. I have been involved in quite a bit that's gone on here over the last little while. Much of what's gotten into the magazine has gotten in because I have been interested in it or have pushed certain stories as opposed to others, and Greg has been very generous in giving me the opportunity to take lead on certain things we have done. ... I have some ideas, but nothing I'm ready to talk about right now.
"The key here is that, having been involved, there will be a great deal of stability and continuity in the transition, which is a very important thing for magazines. A lot of magazines run into trouble when there is not a smooth transition.
"I have a great deal of respect for what Greg did. In no way should any changes that I might put into effect should be seen as a repudiation of what Greg has done."
Attracting much less attention, unfortunately, was the news that the editor of another statewide mag is stepping down. Louis Dubose is departing as co-editor of The Texas Observer, "mainly because I have done this for 13 years, and am tired."
Farewell to DuBose
The reasons why it would attract less attention are obvious -- the Observer's subscriber base of about 5,000 is substantially less than the hundreds of thousands who read the Monthly. It's also unfortunate -- ultimately, the left-leaning Observer's political coverage is more thoughtful and relevant than the Neiman-Marcus-targeted fare of TexMo, and we certainly think Dubose's take on George Bush's presidential race is more on-target and substantial than Paul Burka's has been for his magazine.
Dubose says that his future plans are similar to Curtis' -- "I want to devote more time to writing projects and less to the sort of clerical and administrative demands of working as an editor. I have a couple of ideas I have had for three or four years, a couple of book projects in mind," Dubose says. He said the projects should keep him "a thousandaire."
Asked if the Observer's always-poor financial condition contributed to his departure, Dubose said, "Money is always a problem at the Observer, but not for me personally."
The Observer will continue under the other co-editor, Michael King, and is searching for a replacement for Dubose, but wouldn't name any candidates.
Asked if perhaps he and Curtis's simultaneous retirements were more than coincidental, Dubose joked: "We're both retiring to France." (The activist Observer and upscale Monthly have sometimes traded antagonistic shots at one another.)
"This guy's gone to France, and I'm lucky if I get over to Chez Nous."
Lee Nichols can be contacted at email@example.com.