How to Keep a Great Magazine Going

From a story on texasmonthly.com by Stephen Harrigan headlined “How to Keep a Great Magazine Going”:

I have two recurring dreams. One of them is about a movie theater from my childhood that was long ago torn down but whose luminous marquee I magically reencounter when I turn a corner onto an unfamiliar street.

In the other dream, the phantom is me. I’m reporting for work at Texas Monthly, on the sixteenth floor of the Austin office building at Sixth and Congress where the magazine’s first grown-up headquarters was located.

I walk past the receptionist desk, down a long hallway into the sprawling cubicle landscape of the editorial department, where the magazine is written, edited, and fact-checked. I head for the bank of mail slots in the center of the room, each slot labeled with the name of a writer or editor.

It’s the first thing I do every morning, my favorite part of the day—sorting through an accumulation of mail, newspaper clippings, and other items of interest that have been routed by colleagues concerning an article I might be working on, along with pink message slips indicating return calls from sources I’ve been trying to get on the phone.

But in the dream I can’t find the slot with my name on it. And then I slowly become aware of all the unfamiliar staff members who are looking at me and trying to figure out who I am. That’s when the truth seeps in: it’s not the eighties anymore, and I haven’t been a daily inhabitant of this office—a salaried staff writer for Texas Monthly—for a very long time.

Why do I keep having this dream? Though I’m a long-serving writer for this magazine, appearing in its pages more or less consistently for fifty years, I was an office denizen for only about a decade. But those were crucible years, and I think that dream has such a claim on me because it represents a time when, after years of serving a solitary apprenticeship as a writer, I was at last part of a surging group experiment.

When I first heard, late in 1972, that there was a new statewide magazine planned for Texas, I thought that I might be able to write a few articles for it and make a few hundred dollars before it went out of business. I was only 25 but already had a jaundiced understanding of the life span of new publications. My credentials as a journalist were scant—a beginner’s luck byline in Rolling Stone and a couple of oddball assignments for the Texas Observer—but they were enough to get me a meeting with editors William Broyles and Gregory Curtis. It was at Texas Monthly that I arrived at the first floor of my career. It was where I met lifelong friends, began to sharpen my own inchoate ambitions, and joined an enterprise that didn’t quietly flame out, as I had expected, but kept gathering more and more momentum.

As a fledgling freelance writer, I was so acclimated to failure that it took a while for me to catch on to the fact that the magazine was catching on. Mike Levy, its founder and publisher, had divined that there was a hunger among Texans for a publication that was, at its core, about what it meant to be a Texan. Not necessarily in a sweeping philosophical sense (though every so often we took a swing at that) but through the accretion of honest detail about business, politics, sports, crime, food, music—all the happening elements of an increasingly urban state that the outer world still regarded as cowboy territory at the edge of the national map.

There was an exhilarating sense of mission from the beginning—“Hey, here’s what Texans are really like!”—along with a growing realization of what an opportunity we had: 269,000 square miles of the Lone Star State and its whole saturated essence to write about.

In 1973, the year that the magazine began, Tom Wolfe published an anthology called The New Journalism, which Broyles gave as a pointedly inspirational Christmas present to his writers. In his introduction, Wolfe decried the “off-white or putty-colored” shades of the traditional magazine writer’s neutral voice. He called for journalists “to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment.” Our job in the second half of the twentieth century, he said, was to “give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.”

Nobody at Texas Monthly needed convincing, not at a time when we had Gary Cartwright, a veteran New Journalist of our own, to look up to. Or when writers such as Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Wolfe himself were filling the nation’s magazine pages with immersion reporting and amped-up scene setting.

Wolfe’s charge to be there was intoxicating. The monthly editorial meetings represented, for me, a magic door opening to an unknown future. What story would I be assigned? Where would it take me? Who would I meet? There were stories that I reported by phone from inside my house, others that deposited me in the empty middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, or in the suffocating botanical abundance of the Big Thicket, or in the operating room with Denton Cooley, or a world away with a Dallas disaster consultant in the rain forests of Madagascar. Every magazine piece led to new interests, new expertise, ideas for more articles, and even sometimes a branching path to a new career. My first two novels were incubated in stories I wrote for Texas Monthly, and so was the first screenplay I sold.

The ambitions were high enough, the electricity strong enough, that in 1980 Mike bought a regional magazine called New West from Rupert Murdoch, changed its name to California, and embarked on applying the same winning statewide formula to it. Bill Broyles left Texas to become California’s editor in chief, the next step in a career odyssey that would lead him on to the editorship of Newsweek and then to screenwriting fame. But as Bill and Mike discovered, California was not Texas. Los Angeles and San Francisco were separate worlds to each other in a way that Dallas and Houston were not. The secret to Texas, and to Texas Monthly, was that a state with one of the most varied landscapes and populations in the country was held together by a mysterious atomic cohesion. “We couldn’t make it work,” Mike recalls of his out-of-state venture. “The advertisers wouldn’t buy the chili.”

Back on the home range, Greg Curtis took over the editorship from Bill and remained at his desk for the next nineteen years, an epoch that springs back to life when you glance at some of the old covers that are preserved today on the archive page of Texas Monthly’s website. The covers themselves are a gallery of Texas history, depicting the incubating careers of future presidents, the lingering cultural valence of certain celebrities (“Farrah at Fifty”), the eternal allure of the Texas landscape. Something you notice as you page through the back issues today is that Texas Monthly has been a product of its times as much as a witness to them. You can trace the effects of a superheated Texas economy in ads for luxury cars and banks and jewelry stores, and see those ads begin to disappear—and the magazine’s editorial pages begin to shrink—as the eighties oil bust settles over the state.

The office that keeps appearing in my dreams was located in one of only two office towers that Austin sported at that time, and after the bust Congress Avenue was little more than a row of empty buildings with soaped-up windows where the surviving workers wandered around searching for a restaurant that had survived the downturn and was still open for lunch. But there were hints of a new technology economy, and rumors that we would soon have something called a fax machine, and something else called a word processor that might eventually replace our Selectric typewriters or the old manual machines that some of us brought from home to compose our stories on.

Voice mail arrived to replace the pink message slips, and when bulky computers eventually arrived to replace the Selectrics, there followed anguished conversations among staff writers about the cost-benefit ratio of these wondrous machines. Would the literary stylings we had painstakingly developed through years of making corrections with Liquid Paper and literally cutting and pasting paragraphs be forever lost to a homogenizing ease?

Not so much, as it turned out. Producing a magazine every month was harder in the days when the fastest way to get a piece of paper from one city to another was to put it on a bus, or when the art department still relied on X-Acto knives and paste and press-on letters. But—computers or not—deadline pressures never abated, and everyone on the staff still lived with a strange relationship to time, in which each successive week of the month was like a tightening screw, the pressure compounding until it was finally, briefly released when the magazine went to press.

Writers like me could afford to indulge in the self-doubt and procrastination endemic to the craft because we knew we were working with a safety net, a staff of no-drama professionals who kept the machine humming as they waited for us to turn in our stories. We put the words on the pages, but the art directors, editors, copy editors, fact-checkers, designers, illustrators, office assistants, accountants, and sales reps were the ones who actually put the magazine out.

Most of those people have moved on or retired, and some have died, but after fifty years the machine still runs. Like a number of other freelance contributors to the magazine, I retain the title of writer-at-large, but it’s been more than thirty years since the adhesive strip with my name on it was peeled away from my mail slot and I forwent my monthly paycheck to venture out into the At-Large.

But I’ve kept a close eye on Texas Monthly throughout its journey from start-up shakiness to institutional solidity. The magazine has managed to stay afloat in the shifting seas of the Texas and national economies and somehow hold on to its relevance in an age when the delivery of a print publication by mail is beginning to seem as quaint as the Pony Express.

In 1988 Mike sold a one-third share of Texas Monthly to Dow Jones, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Mike remained the majority owner for ten more years, before he and Dow sold the magazine to Emmis Communications, an Indiana company that owned multiple radio stations as well as city magazines such as Indianapolis Monthly. Emmis persuaded Mike to stay on as publisher, which he did until 2008, finally walking out of the office for the last time at a precisely remembered 3:15 p.m. on a Sunday, the last day in August. It had been 36 years. “Everybody thought I was going to stay at the magazine till I died,” he said.

I admit there were times when I thought the same thing of myself. The work was consuming, consequential, and fun. And the pay wasn’t bad, thanks to Mike’s fervent belief that Texas Monthly would be a better magazine if its contents relied more on salaried staff writers than on financially frantic freelancers. My decade or so in that job coincided mostly with the years when Greg was editor. Something he told me recently summed up one of my own big emotional takeaways from those years. “I remember one day,” he said, “when we were in the conference room for the editorial meeting the Monday after the magazine went to the printer. I was sitting at the head of the table, looking around the room. All the chairs were occupied—there were a lot of people there. And I thought, ‘I like everybody here.’ ”

Greg gave Bill credit for helping create the atmosphere that was apparent in the room that day, along with establishing the look and feel of the magazine from the very beginning and, even more important, establishing its aspirations. “We were aiming really high from the beginning. When I became editor I just had to keep the ball rolling.”

Not as easy as it sounds when you have to roll the ball uphill. During the first few years of the magazine, Greg recalled, “there was this feeling of expansion, that there was going to be more tomorrow than there was today—more stories, more ads, more copies sold.” But as time wore on and the economy declined, big-time local businesses—department stores such as Foley’s and Sakowitz—that used to fill the advertising pages started to shuffle off to extinction.

During Greg’s tenure, the magazine solidified and strengthened its reputation, even as the financial infrastructure that supported print journalism continued to erode. He decided to leave in 2000, eager to experience real time at last after living in a monthly spin cycle for almost thirty years. He did some consulting work for Time—another legacy print publication peering into an ominous digital future—before writing books about deadline-impervious subjects like the Venus de Milo and prehistoric cave painters. I had slipped away in the early 1990s, so I wasn’t in the office to observe at close range the human tornado that was Evan Smith, the magazine’s third editor. But I did continue to write stories for him and was able to get a decent sense of the alacrity and clarity with which he ran the magazine.

Greg and Bill were native Texans. Evan—born in New York—had only blitzed through the state once on an after-college road trip. He was a graduate student at Northwestern with a concentration in magazine publishing when he picked up a copy of Texas Monthly for the first time. “I was a big believer in narrative nonfiction, in long-form journalism,” he recently told me, “in publications like the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker that believed that the audience could handle complexity, would be willing to give you their time and attention, and read a long story with some depth and breadth. There were only a handful of magazines that I thought were still doing what I considered serious journalism, and Texas Monthly immediately revealed itself to be one of those. And in a way that I didn’t expect, I became really interested in Texas.”

So interested that he started bombarding Greg with letters, announcing his availability for a job, any job. “I’ll sweep up! I’ll be the janitor!” He got a better offer than that—senior editor, then deputy editor, ultimately editor in chief and president of the company.

He left Texas Monthly in 2009 to start the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit digital news organization supported by venture capitalists, philanthropists, and foundations. The Tribune is as much a product of the scrambled twenty-first-century media landscape as the paper-and-ink, ad- and-subscriber-based Texas Monthly was of the twentieth.

This sort of paradigm shift in journalism coincided, naturally enough, with a generational churn. During those years I had a side gig teaching a class at the University of Texas’s Michener Center for Writers. One of my students was the self-possessed, quietly ambitious Jake Silverstein, who was born in California and had been only five years old when an expansionist Texas Monthly had tried to plant its flag in his home state. Evan saw Jake’s potential too, and practically yanked him out of my classroom. Jake ended up editing the magazine for five years after Evan left, until his talent became too obvious to the media establishment and he was summoned to the East Coast to run the New York Times Magazine.

Here’s how Jake edited Texas Monthly: I once walked into my former student’s office with the idea of pitching him on a short little nostalgia piece—maybe a thousand words—about my Czech grandmother’s homemade kolaches. His enthusiasm spun up my ambition to the point that when I left I was on my way to the Czech Republic and thinking that maybe my thousand-word trifle could be a book. (It ended up running as a seven-thousand-word feature in the magazine.)

But Texas Monthly was only one item in Emmis’s portfolio, and the resources to send writers to distant lands, or even to pay the staff a living wage, were running thin. The steady institutional pulse that had beat for all these decades was starting to feel thready. Brian Sweany, who had worked his way up from intern to, after Jake left, editor in chief, was the last presiding editor of the Emmis years. It was squeeze time in general for the magazine business and especially so at Texas Monthly. “Very, very tough sledding,” Brian remembers. “Holding the culture together was the most important thing I strove to accomplish.”

After Emmis sold the magazine in 2016 to Paul Hobby’s Houston-based private equity firm, Genesis Park, the challenge of holding on to that old Texas Monthly culture—built on long-form journalism, credentialed by more than a dozen National Magazine Awards and many nominations—still lingered. Hobby’s roots in Texas journalism and Texas history were deep: a father who was lieutenant governor, a grandfather who was not just governor but co-owner, along with his indomitable wife, of the Houston Post. Paul had discovered Texas Monthly as a junior high student in the seventies. “The chance to give it Texas-based energy and direction,” he told me, “is something I cherished.” The Hobby family team included not just Paul but his sister Laura Beckworth, who came out of retirement to serve as the magazine’s general counsel, without a salary. The new owners grew Texas Monthly’s audience and broadened its storytelling platform, redesigning its digital presence, creating podcasts, opening new opportunities for movie and TV offshoots and live events. Genesis Park, Paul maintains, “was the active owner TM needed to survive.” But it was a private equity firm, geared more toward swooping in and stabilizing things than tending to them long-term. “There weren’t a lot of obvious opportunities to grow it steadily once it was fixed.”

But steady growth, after too many years of steady erosion, was what the magazine still desperately needed. Morale was shaky, salaries were flat, the staff was shrinking. It just didn’t seem like a world anymore where a writer would have the latitude to take three or four or six months to deeply report a feature story, where it was possible for a statewide magazine to maintain a national reputation. But at the same time, nobody wanted to give up on the idea.

Greater than the wrenching possibility that Texas Monthly would simply close up shop was the fear that it would be sold to a new owner who might keep the name but turn it into what Mike Levy promised in the inaugural issue it would never resemble: “the promotional magazines with their prostitutional story-for-an-ad format . . . the chamber of commerce magazines with their Babbitt perspectives.”

But here we are at the fiftieth anniversary, celebrating the fact that no such catastrophe happened. Hobby, at the end of Genesis Park’s “ownership interval,” began looking for a good steward for Texas Monthly. “We recognized that when the right permanent owner appeared we would know it,” he said, “and she did.” And lo, there appeared Randa Duncan Williams, a Houston petroleum industry executive, dedicated reader, and effective savior.

“Duh, it’s Texas Monthly !” Randa said when I asked her why she had wanted to buy the magazine. She had read it as a girl in her house in Houston, where her mother kept old issues stacked on a coffee table. A few years after she finished law school she got her own subscription. She remembered the magazine most fondly from its seventies and eighties vintage. “It would be so wonderful,” she told me, “to help bring the magazine back to what it used to be—this iconic, incredible source of stories that were written by great writers. Because that’s what I remember reading growing up.”

Readers of Texas Monthly, including me, tend to have a selective memory of when it was most itself. There have been plenty of times over the decades when friends told me they couldn’t read it anymore, that there were too many ads, that it wasn’t as daring or iconoclastic, that there were too many stories about food, too many travel packages about Big Bend or Padre Island, too much grasping coverage of movie stars and celebrities with some sort of Texas connection. My usual response, from having worked for the magazine for so long, was that there was never really a golden age. Of course I have a misty fondness for the try-anything years, when none of us knew what we were doing and the expectations of the fledgling readership were not yet established. As the magazine survived from one year to the next and was on its way to becoming a taken-for-granted institution, it naturally lost the element of surprise, and every once in a while it lost its way. But for most of its existence, I could honestly say that the magazine was better than it used to be. And I can say that especially now, when it has the resources to fire on all cylinders.

In September I went to a monthly editorial meeting in the Texas Monthly office, the first such meeting I had been to in more than thirty years. The magazine is headquartered in a different downtown office building from the one I used to report to for work. The office is bigger and swankier and has a picture-window view of the state capitol in the conference room where Dan Goodgame had assembled the staff. Arriving in early 2019, Dan is the third editor since Brian Sweany left, after brief stints by Tim Taliaferro and Rich Oppel. He’s from a family of shipyard workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and, unlike Bill and Greg and so many of us from the early days of Texas Monthly, he came to the magazine fully formed as a journalist, after reporting on the Middle East for the Miami Herald and serving as Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor for Time.

Could I have ever cut it at this place? I wondered as I took my seat in that packed conference room. The bar was obviously a lot higher than it was when I first stumbled into a magazine that was itself stumbling into existence. Though there were some long-serving Texas Monthly writers in the room, most of the staff seemed to be in their thirties, which made them appear intimidatingly young until I realized they were probably ten years older—and ten years savvier and more sophisticated—than I was when I wrote my first story for the magazine.

The purpose of the editorial meeting was the same as it had been in the early days. Everybody was there to share and discuss story ideas. But thanks to the magazine’s willingness to hire more journalists, especially those at home in the frontiers of new media, there were a lot more faces—almost forty people in the room itself and another twenty or so occupying the Zoom squares on the big TV screen behind Dan. Everybody had a laptop open in front of them; almost nobody had felt the need to bring a pen or a piece of paper.

The meeting began not with the talk about upcoming assignments that I remembered but with staff updates and reports about Texas Monthly’s Apple News presence, followed by a discussion about the traction of online stories as influenced by search engine optimization and reflected by off-platform page views and engaged minutes. There were upcoming Texas Monthly books to talk about, and podcasts, and episodes of Texas Country Reporter (the long-running TV show that the company had recently purchased, which has also been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary). There were updates about some of the fifty or so television and movie projects that were based on Texas Monthly stories, and the annual barbecue festival. One clear indication of how different the world had become was the fact that it was a solid hour into the meeting before the conversation finally turned to the stories that were being proposed for print and digital. Here, during the next hour or so, was where I finally felt the ground under my 1970s feet, hearing writers and editors pitch stories about the politicization of Texas churches, the Hill Country population boom, a boy found in a dumpster, the slow disappearance of the Texas accent.

Four days later I saw many of the people who were in that conference room at a memorial service. Much has been written in this magazine and elsewhere about Paul Burka, who had been at Texas Monthly from the beginning and who, through his prose and presence, had done as much to steer it into its future as anyone. Paul died a few months shy of the anniversary we’re marking with this issue, when the once unthinkable accomplishment of a half century of publication was still on the horizon.

He wouldn’t be there for the celebration, but in a way the celebration came to him. Bill and Greg were among the friends who spoke at his memorial service in the LBJ Library auditorium, and Mike, who had dreamed up the idea of Texas Monthly in the first place and brought us all together so long ago, stood behind the lectern as the master of ceremonies. It was, of course, a profoundly retrospective occasion, with people telling stories and sparking memories that reached deep into a time when we were all young and Texas itself seemed new to us, an endless territory that was ours to explore and chronicle.

But while I was remembering Paul and thinking about the fifty years that had just hurtled by, my mind kept returning to that editorial meeting I had been to only a few days before. It had all been so different, but so much the same: the same energy, the same mission, the same exhilarating sense that the monthly clock was starting again, and we were blessed with the opportunity to go out into the world and walk up to somebody—a shrimp boat captain, or the owner of a strip-mining business, or some politician or movie star or suspected murderer—and say, “Hi, I’m from Texas Monthly.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Trail That Never Ended.”

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