The End of The Trail
Brill's Content, November 2000
After 19 years in the saddle, the editor of Texas Monthly steps down - and here recounts how he managed to build an award-winning magazine, with its own peculiar editorial recipe, far from Manhattan's media elite.
I think the worst memory is the fish. It was early 1983, and I was still new in my job as editor of Texas Monthly. I had fired one art director but had yet to hire a replacement. I didn't believe in market studies or reader polls as aids to creating covers, and I still don't. I thought that experience and instinct were better guides, and I still do. The trouble was that I had little experience and I was too confused for my instincts to come to the surface.
That February we produced our 10th-anniversary issue. Had I had the good sense to create a celebratory cover? I had not. On newsstands across Texas, horrified shoppers had seen a photograph of a shirtless man in an executioner's hood holding a syringe. "The End," the type read. "Eyewitness At the Execution." The issue sold only 44,000 copies at a time when we were averaging 48,000. Not good.
So in March, in an attempt to lighten the mood a bit, I had a cover published that showed the head of a reclining woman supported by two male hands rubbing shampoo into her hair. The cover line was "Lyndon Johnson, Hairdresser." There really was a man whose name really was Lyndon Johnson and he really was a hairdresser. I thought the absurdity of the line would carry the day. However, except for his name, he was utterly without interest. Sales dipped to 40,000. Even worse.
Texas was in the midst of a craze for eating redfish in April, and I thought it would make a good subject for our cover. I chose a cover line that read "The Redfish Rustlers." When that issue arrived on readers' doorsteps, they saw a photograph of a menacing man in a black cowboy hat with a red bandanna masking the lower part of his face. He was wearing a yellow slicker and holding open one side of the slicker to reveal two silver redfish hanging on hooks. Most readers couldn't understand it, and those who somehow did understand that this was a story about illegal marketing of redfish simply didn't care. That issue sold 33,000, the worst in four years. Selling on the newsstand is an inexact art. Nothing is certain except for one thing: If you want to sell magazines, never, ever put a dead fish on your cover. And I put two.
INTENTS AND PURPOSES
I became editor of Texas Monthly in January 1981 and remained there until I resigned last June. The first issue had appeared in February 1973. I was on staff as a writer, having been rescued from hippiedom in San Francisco by William Broyles, my friend and college roommate at Rice University in Houston, who was the magazine's first editor. Michael R. Levy, the founder and publisher, had worked briefly selling ad space for Philadelphia magazine, but none of the rest of the original staff had ever worked at a magazine. We made it up as we went along-and it worked. Today, with a circulation of 300,000, Texas Monthly is a respected publication that operates nicely in the black.
The quality of a magazine depends on many things. Certainly some of them have to do with money. But the soul of a magazine, the force that seems to have collected all of these story elements and put them between two covers, has to do with its intent. Our intent was to make Texas Monthly a magazine for Texans that could be judged against the finest magazines in the country. I'm convinced that that intent is why we became a success.
Creating a magazine in Austin, Texas, was ever so slightly different from creating one in midtown Manhattan. We had to discover and nurture our own writers and editors rather than find them in a large publishing community. We had to get by, somehow, without the intense daily gossip and conversation about our profession that exists only in Manhattan. It was an interesting post from which to see the magazine world-informed yet distant, like a nonresident member of a private club.
Of course, being a Texan is itself like being a member of a private club. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, but I was born in Texas because of my father's posting during World War II. When pressed on the subject, which as editor I was from time to time, I could truthfully claim to be a native Texan. And it was a claim I was proud to make. I don't like everything I see in Texas, but I've always been at home here. I like the friendliness and all the easy gab and the big orange sky at sunset. I'm a slightly atypical Texan, perhaps: I don't have a Texas accent, and although I like horses, I ride English rather than Western. But I think that vantage point helped me edit a magazine about Texas because I was seeing things slightly from the side rather than head-on.
I spent more time worrying about covers than anything else. That's as it should be: The cover is the single most important page of a magazine. I learned to pay attention to the sales figures as a generally reliable indication of the urgency with which our audience regarded a particular issue. When we sold well, it was usually easy to know why. When Selena was murdered, we had her on the cover shortly afterward, and the wholesalers couldn't keep the issue in stock. But figuring out why issues didn't sell was harder. When an apparently sharp issue with an attractive cover didn't sell, I was often left wondering if we had chosen the right cover story but hadn't found the best cover presentation-or had we chosen the wrong story altogether, or was there just no story any- where in Texas that month that was going to sell very much? Celebrity murderers, where are you when we need you?
Part of the challenge was that we had a different formula from most general-interest magazines today, which is to say that we had no formula. We were a throwback to what general-interest magazines used to be. That was both our strength and our weakness because we had to reestablish ourselves in the consciousness of the reader in a new way each month. Every month was a guessing game, and when we guessed wrong, we lost big.
There was an editorial formula we could have used that would have solved our newsstand problems. In the eighties, I listened in terrified fascination, as if a surgeon were teaching how to perform a lobotomy, to a city magazine editor explaining that he had no choice but to put a yuppie couple on the cover of every issue. "The yuppie couple wants a weekend getaway. The yuppie couple looks for the best hamburger," he said. "You can even do serious issues: The yuppie couple buys a gun fur fear of crime." When those issues were on the stands, he said, "sales went through the roof." They may have, but I hated yuppie-couple covers-all those phony-looking models trying to express surprise or pleasure or fear. Most of all, I hated making our magazine look like all the other city magazines in America. Fortunately, our publisher didn't want that kind of magazine, either, and I rarely resorted to those covers. You don't see yuppie-couple covers quite so much anymore. Even the phrase sounds dated. But city magazines still rely on the same mainstays of cover stories-"Weekend Getaways!" "Best Doctors!" "Cheap Eats!" "Summer Fun!" There is nothing wrong with any of these stories in themselves. It's their repetition year after year that is enervating. Any magazine that knows that every June its cover is going to be "Summer Fun!" is brain-dead.
In national magazines today, editors try to use celebrity in the same way and for the same reasons that city magazine editors used to use the yuppie couple. And I think celebrities as a selling device is starting to feel just as dated. The rationale is that the celebrity lures more readers into the magazine; the serious stories are likely to be read by more readers than if a celebrity were not on the cover. Well, okay, I guess. And I certainly never hesitated to put a celebrity on the cover when it made sense. But the nuances of celebrity are different here in Texas. We once ran a fetching photograph of Farrah Fawcett with a lot of hair and a lot of leg-followed the next month by a photograph of an elderly Lady Bird Johnson in a long green dress standing in a field of bluebonnets. Farrah sold well, but Lady Bird outsold her by almost 4,000 copies. Willie Nelson has consistently sold well; then again, to my surprise, Lyle Lovett has tanked twice.
What bothers me is the unthinking addiction to celebrity covers, which is as brain-dead as relying on "Summer Fun!" each June. When a magazine is frankly about celebrity, then that's fine. It puts its product on display just as an automobile magazine puts a car on the cover. But when a magazine is about a lot of other things besides celebrity, couldn't a lot of other things be on the cover as well?
Boom and Bust
It used to be that Texas's economy ran counter to the rest of the country's. During the seventies, when OPEC sent oil prices higher and higher, it depressed the national economy while putting booster rockets on Texas's. The 1973 debut of Texas Monthly coincided with the euphoric boom that would last almost a decade. We started slowly, but after a few years, we were selling so many ads that it was hard to produce enough stories to keep up. In November 1981 we published a 340-page issue that contained 13 separate stories of varying length; I once wrote a story of more than 18.000 words.
I became editor the year oil prices began to drop: By 1983, Texas had become a disaster area. All the bank loans, shops. restaurants, apartment buildings, and office towers that were built with the expectation that oil prices would continue to rise failed one by one. Our revenue shrank and then shrank some more. For several years we had to tell the staff there would be no raises. I was faced with creating a magazine with roughly half the editorial pages to which our readers had been accustomed.
To my surprise, this turned out to be a blessing. Obviously, I ran shorter and fewer stories. As the pages shrank I ran pieces shorter still. I tried to make room each month for at least one longer story, but the rest I really had to squeeze into the space available. Nearly always, though, the stories were improved by cutting, by being made to say what they had to say and then not one word more. Space in the magazine became precious. It couldn't be wasted. Trying to keep peace among the writers jockeying for space was a management challenge, but less so as it became apparent that the stories were better now that the discipline made for sharper thinking and superior craftsmanship. Most important, the readers liked it better. They could actually finish an issue before the next one arrived. As the old cliche says, we left readers wanting more.
The greater challenge was to edit a magazine in the midst of an economic plunge. We had to show in our pages that we knew what was happening in Texas. There was no choice but to deliver bad news in some fashion month after month. But a magazine is like a friend who shows up regularly on your doorstep. The surest way to spoil that would be for the friend to insist on talking about nothing but gloom and woe. What made this situation even harder was that unique stories about the economic depression were a challenge to find. Every success story is different, but every failure has the air of, well, failure. Once we had chronicled the rise and fall of a Texan buoyed during the boom and shattered during the bust, there was no point in doing the same story about someone else. The poor economy created a social depression as well. There were fewer new ideas, new businesses, new dreams. People just hunkered down.
So we did a lot of personal essays. We wrote about the past. We explored the back roads and byways of rural Texas that were less affected by the bust. We ran a cover giving our solution to the problem of cutting $1 billion out of the state budget. We ran a cover of a woman in a fur coat reclining on a packing crate in the middle of a grand but empty room with the headline "Lifestyles of the Rich and Bankrupt." The story explained how rich people could go bankrupt and still maintain their high-flying lives. We explained how to feign surprise when your credit card is refused at a store. It was fun, and the stories were good. Still, when I look back at those issues, I see a darkness between the lines that reminds me of a sad time in Texas.
TEXAS STORIES, NEW YORK STORIES
The most common question I have been asked by magazine editors from New York is "How do you find enough to write about in Texas?" I usually mumble a few platitudes about big state, bigger-than-life people, clash of cultures, and so on-but I have never been comfortable about my answer or the question itself. It slightly offends my local pride. After all, I've never heard anyone ask the editor of New York magazine if it was hard to find enough things to write about in New York. I always thought that someone with a real understanding of magazines would have stood the question on its head and asked, "Don't you feel lucky that you know exactly what your magazine is about?"
Magazines are about either a person or a subject. Playboy is about a person: the man who reads Playboy, as the magazine's ads say. The New Yorker is about a person; New York is about a subject. This fundamental polarity is why these two magazines with such similar titles are so different. And Texas Monthly, of course, is about a subject. Generally speaking, it's easier to stay on track editing a magazine about a subject than about a person. Your subject can change in ways you don't notice or understand, causing you to lose touch, but at least the subject is tangible. Staying in tune to the consciousness of an imagined reader-The New Yorker, the man who reads Playboy, Ms., and so on-is much more difficult. If the consciousness changes, where are the signs that say why or how? During the past ten years or so in Texas, empty office buildings have filled up and cranes and construction crews have arrived to start building new ones; it didn't take a genius to see that Texas was changing.
And, if you edit a magazine about a subject, you can rely on a huge amount of communal knowledge. There is a whole vocabulary of names and phrases-Shiner Bock, Bill Hobby, the Marfa lights, 135, Goliad, hook 'em horns-that don't need to be explained to a Texas Monthly audience. More than that, conversance with this local vocabulary is essential.
In August 1985, a Delta Air Lines flight crashed as it was about to land at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. One of the first people on the scene was a photographer who worked for the police department in a suburb of Dallas. His credentials had gotten him through the police lines. He wrote a short but rather moving account of his experience trying to find and help survivors and sent it, unsolicited, to me. I bought it. Then, two days before the issue was to go to the printer, he called. The police chief had returned from vacation, found out about the story, and told the photographer that he would be fired if the story was printed.
I pulled the story. It never crossed my mind to do otherwise. There wasn't any information in it that made it worth fighting for, nothing that would justify putting someone out on the streets. A few days later The Dallas Morning News ran an article about our not publishing the photographer's tale. I didn't think anything about it until I received 20 or more calls and letters from people who had read the item, and they all carried the same message: that the media were usually unbearably arrogant and didn't care about the lives of ordinary people, but this time, the media did the right thing. The calls and letters meant a great deal to me.
Despite the inconvenience to the magazine staff, I've never hesitated when circumstances like this have arisen. Too often, the media confuse being tough with being heartless. Just because you have the right to publish something doesn't mean you have the obligation. I know this well, because I've been heartless myself and regretted it. Early in my career I wrote a story that referred in passing to "a rather plain woman in a styleless blue dress." I got a letter from a man who said that woman was his wife and was not plain and did not wear styleless clothes. He went on to ask just who did I think I was, and where were my manners? I've never forgotten it. He was right. Why hadn't I just written "a woman in a blue dress',? The husband's rebuke has affected my writing and my editing ever since. I despise cheap shots. I despise the unthinking, often gleeful publication of embarrassing information. I've published phrases, paragraphs, and whole stories that I wish I hadn't. I've also left a lot of things out, and I've never, ever been sorry.
MY LAST TRIP TO THE WELL
Willie Nelson has been on the cover of Texas Monthly four times; so have Ross Perot, George W. Bush, and Lady Bird Johnson. We continue to feature them because our readers continue to be interested. Our April 1973 issue had a cover story about barbecue; in May 1997 we ran another cover story about barbecue. The issue sold prodigiously, and the story was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Yet the Texas of today is not at all the Texas of1981, when I became editor. For years I routinely checked the price of oil each morning-the price directly affected the magazine's business. Although gasoline prices are back in the news today, it has been a decade or more since I even thought about the price of oil: In 1981, after all, there was no Dell Computer Corporation in Austin or Compaq Computer Corporation in Houston. Through the pages of the magazine I tried to record the history of two decades that included the final moments of the oil boom, the entire oil bust, and the rise of technology as the leading economic force in Texas. In those same years Texas changed from a firmly Democratic state to a firmly Republican one. And there have been other changes in the society, in the balance of power between the races, in the way the state looks and sounds.
Those changes may be the very reason our readers continue to adore Willie, barbecue, the King Ranch, Texas Aggies, high school football, Lady Bird, the Alamo, and any other traditional facet of the Texas soul. They're reliable fixtures amid all the change.
Those are all stories the magazine should continue to tell. But I knew it was at last time for me to move on when I realized I had told those stories as well as I knew how. After 19 years as editor, I left knowing how much I would miss my job, how empty and confusing it will be the first time I see an issue I had nothing to do with. It will feel like not being able to recognize an old friend. But I know this is the right time. Every editor wonders how to know when it's time to leave. My answer is this: when the repetitions become merely repetitious.
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