Texas Monthly Is Changing. Deal With It—the Changes Might Help It Survive

At the beginning in 1973.

Yesterday the Columbia Journalism Review generated controversy with a piece titled New editor in chief takes Texas Monthly in a ‘lifestyle’ direction. The opening grafs:

The new editor in chief of Texas Monthly plans to pull back from the kind of longform and political coverage that gave the title a national profile to focus instead on lifestyle coverage, website enhancements, and a live-events business.

Tim Taliaferro, who took over after the sale of the magazine to Genesis Park LP, tells CJR it would be foolish to walk away from the history of the magazine, but he hopes to focus on growing the lifestyle vertical because “lifestyle sells Texas Monthly better.” He added, “Literary circles have a bias against lifestyle, but lifestyle is an important part of the magazine, including travel and food.”

The change has alums and current staffers worried about the potential for layoffs and the future of the magazine as a home for ambitious journalism and celebrated writing. Several top journalists have left, and others are updating resumes.

Today Taliaferro, in damage control mode, posted this on the Texas Monthly website:

Yesterday, the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review published an article asserting that Texas Monthly was heading in a new direction, elevating lifestyle coverage and backing away from politics and longform journalism. The news ricocheted across social media, and it brought many a heart rate soaring up, mine included. In speaking about Texas Monthly’s online coverage, I made a comment about the relative emphasis we have placed on news and politics versus lifestyle and longform. In making this comment, I unfortunately gave the CJR the wrong impression.

Let me first say that I know Texans care about politics, and deeply, especially in these times. Let me also say that I am committed to covering politics, as Texas Monthly has done since its inception, and to uphold its tradition of longform journalism. What I was trying to point out is that there is much more to the Texas identity. As a general interest magazine, Texas Monthly’s coverage—online and in print—must be unique and that in the age of quality online journalism there are other outfits better equipped to cover the daily ins and outs of our political process, such as how a proposed bill makes its way through the Legislature. Texas Monthly, by contrast, must play the role it always has: evaluate that bill on its merits, and consider its potential impact on the state, for a wide audience. It is also the case that on the web, where we already dedicate significant time and energy to news and politics, there is much more that the magazine can do that will make us more interesting to more Texans. Texans care about politics, yes, but they also want to know about barbecue. And energy. And music. And football.

I have loved Texas Monthly since I was a junior in college. It was the magazine that made me realize what journalism could do and be for a community. The way it trained a careful and scrutinizing eye on Texas political figures and explored the public policy questions facing our state helped me see that smart reporting and beautiful storytelling could change lives. It could also be a ton of fun. After interning at Texas Monthly and seeing what went into making a great magazine, it became my dream to one day work here and carry on a tradition I deeply admired. Texas Monthly has a long, rich history of investigating and holding those in power accountable, and that history must continue. Do I think Bum Steers and Ten Best & Ten Worst Legislators could be freshened? Yes. But I have no intention of softening the magazine’s attention on the people who affect the lives of Texans.

Back in November, I posted a piece titled “A New Editor at Texas Monthly Seems to Signal a Dialing Down of Its Ambitions and Its Expenses.” Some key grafs:

When Mike Levy left Philadelphia magazine to start Texas Monthly, most everyone in the city magazine business thought he was crazy. A city magazine identifies closely with its city, with its politics, schools, restaurants, and neighborhoods. A city magazine can deliver useful service packages that help its readers live better, and almost every decent-sized city now had one.

How can a state magazine do that kind of service journalism, even in a state as big and proud as Texas? It can try but it can’t come close to what a city magazine can deliver. So, we editors thought, Texas Monthly had better be great. And it was.

Bill Broyles set a high bar from the start and he and every succeeding editor got the respect of readers and editors across the country, winning 13 National Magazine Awards. Silverstein now edits the New York Times Magazine and Smith started the Texas Tribune, which is creating its own kind of great journalism.

Tim Taliaferro may also be great but his resume—he’s been editor of the University of Texas alumni magazine—suggests a pulling back from Texas Monthly’s ambition to be as good as any national magazine. That kind of ambition is expensive and given the state of print journalism today—ad pages down, it’s harder to get and keep subscribers—it won’t be surprising if Texas Monthly dials down its expenses and ambitions.

Some perspective:

Phil Merrill, the late owner and publisher of the Washingtonian, liked to say, “Don’t announce change, just do it.” His daughter, Cathy Merrill Williams, the current publisher, adds, “And do it gradually.”

The point is that Taliaferro should change his magazine gradually over the next year, keeping its current readers reasonably happy while trying to add new ones and keeping costs in balance with revenues.

One of the challenges facing Texas Monthly is the growth of city magazines in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio along with the continuing strength of D magazine in Dallas. It’s much easier for a city magazine to connect with its readers and advertisers: lots of attention to local politics, schools, healthcare, dining, etc. Texas Monthly can parachute into these cities but it’s a big state.

And the new city magazines aren’t run by amateurs. Houstonia is owned by SagaCity, which has successful city magazines in Seattle, Portland, and Sarasota. San Antonio and Austin Monthly are owned by Open Sky Media, which has successful magazines on Florida’s Gulf Coast and in California’s Marin County.

So the new owners of Texas Monthly have to deal with the facts of media life today: Print revenues are declining for everyone from the New York Times on down and digital revenues continue to be frustratingly elusive.

Emmis Communications, based in Indianapolis, was the seller of Texas Monthly; it’s also selling its magazines in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. Emmis is mostly a broadcast company and it sold Texas Monthly for a lot less than it was worth 10 years ago and it’s still looking for buyers for Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. Not a lot of people out there looking to invest in magazines and newspapers.

The new owner of Texas Monthly is Paul Hobby, who comes from an old Texas family; his grandfather was governor of the state. Texas Monthly readers are probably lucky that the new owner knows and loves Texas; he presumably didn’t  buy the magazine to make a quick profit and deserves the chance to preserve as much as he can of what was great about Texas Monthly and build on it.

Like a lot of journalists I miss the good old days but life in the digital world is tough. You hate to see good editors and writers having to leave good jobs. But Emmis didn’t sell Texas Monthly because it was making money. And Tim Taliaferro is learning you have to be careful talking to journalists, even if that’s the business you’re in.
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In that first issue of Texas Monthly shown above, the cover features a story by Gary Cartwright on Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry.

Texas Monthly today posted “The Writer’s Life: A Tribute to Gary Cartwright, Who Died February 22, 2017, at Age 82.”

With the Texas Monthly post, written by John Spong, are links to four of Cartwright’s early stories. A lot of good reading about Texas from dogfighting to strippers to Jack Ruby.

 

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