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More than Longhorns laud Texas Monthly

“So, what’s your favorite magazine these days?” a friend asked recently over dinner in New York.

“Texas Monthly,” I replied, without hesitation, “same answer I’ve given from the day I started reading it in 1975.”

My friend was stunned. He knows I read a lot of magazines. He also knows I haven’t spent 30 days in Texas in my entire life.

But Texas Monthly -- which just celebrated its 30th anniversary with three 2003 National Magazine Awards nominations, the Oscars of the magazine world -- has been consistently the best-written, most entertaining and informative of all the magazines I read.

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It helps, of course, that it’s Texas Monthly, not Iowa Monthly. The history of Texas is history writ large. Sam Houston. President Lyndon B. Johnson. Jack Ruby. Ann Richards. Barbara Jordan. Georgia O’Keeffe. Janis Joplin. Stripper Candi Barr. Racketeer Benny Binion. The Alamo. The cowboy. The Texas Rangers. And, more recently, two President Bushes, Willie Nelson, Lance Armstrong and Kinky Friedman.

Texas Monthly has written about them all in a style -- insightful, provocative, often lyrical, sometimes humorous -- that makes them seem both interesting and important.

The cover story in the March issue, a lengthy profile of Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top strategist, was just such a story. So is the article in the current issue on Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower. I can find several such stories in almost every issue, on subjects ranging from true crime to Texas barbecue, all written by some of the finest prose stylists in the country.

Remember all the attention the media gave this year to the trial of Clara Harris, the Houston woman convicted of murdering her husband by running him over? I read about her in Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly story last year. Here’s the lead-in to that piece:

“Why would a devoted wife deliberately run over her beloved husband three times? It’s quite simple, really. He was having an affair with a woman accused by her allegedly pill-popping ex-husband of carrying on a lesbian relationship with her best friend, whose ex-husband has been indicted for an illegal wiretapping scheme designed to catch the two in the act and cover up his own infidelities with her former Lamaze-class buddy. Any questions?”

I don’t usually look at the purely Texas stories in the magazine -- the service features that are the staple of every city and regional magazine (the “around the state” listing of events, the ratings of schools and restaurants, the annual “best and worst” of state legislators). But I find more than enough of interest to keep renewing my subscription.

And judges in the National Magazine Awards find enough to keep honoring Texas Monthly -- it’s had eight national awards and 45 finalists since 1974. (Philadelphia magazine, with six winners and 23 finalists, has the distant second-best record among city and regional magazines.) The three nominations announced this month for Texas Monthly included one for general excellence; only four magazines of any kind have been finalists in this category in each of the last four years.

Texas is a big state with big targets, and Texas Monthly has taken aim at all of them -- from big oil to big law firms to big business. (“How Enron Blew It” was the headline on a story in November 2001, before the company became a Page 1 fixture elsewhere.)

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These stories engage even someone like me, who not only has no intrinsic interest in Texas but who thinks Texans often have all the parochial ego and solipsism of New Yorkers, with even less justification.

Naysayers proven wrong

Michael Levy was a 25-year-old lawyer when he started the magazine, and virtually everyone he spoke to at the time told him the state was far too diverse and spread out for one publication to serve it successfully.

One of those naysayers, Levy says, was Mimi Crossley, then an editor at the Houston Post. After interviewing her for the top editor’s job at Texas Monthly -- on a night of torrential rains in southeastern Texas -- Levy got confused leaving her house and walked straight into her 10-foot-deep swimming pool.

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“This probably didn’t happen to Henry Luce,” he found himself thinking as he climbed out of the pool and staggered back to Crossley’s house to change clothes.

Shortly thereafter, Crossley withdrew from the editor’s race.

Bill Broyles took the job, though, “with no full-time, permanent journalism experience except delivering my high school paper.”

Broyles quickly made Texas Monthly a critical success, even though he operated on such a shoestring budget that for several months, “all the writers had to take turns using the only typewriter we had.”

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Greg Curtis, a college classmate of Broyles at Rice, was his first hire at Texas Monthly, and when Broyles left after eight years, Curtis took over. He was the editor for 19 years -- saving it, many say, when the Texas oil boom went bust in the 1980s and he adjusted quickly and accordingly, with stories like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Bankrupt.”

Evan Smith, the current editor, is just the third the magazine has had in 30 years. (Los Angeles magazine, by contrast, has had five editors in the past dozen years.)

To Smith, the biggest challenge for the magazine today is the “changing face of Texas. When the magazine started, our audience was basically long-term Texan. Now many have moved here in the last five years for jobs or quality of life, and to them, the Texas Rangers means baseball, not law enforcement, and economic boom means technology, not oil. We have to figure out how to put out a magazine for them and for our old core readers.”

Levy is still the publisher of Texas Monthly, but he’s no longer the owner. Four years ago, at age 51 -- recently divorced, concerned with estate planning -- he sold Texas Monthly to Emmis Communications of Indianapolis for about $37.5 million.

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Another company offered even more, but Levy says he felt “the franchise and my people would be better served by being part of the Emmis family.”

Translation: He thought Emmis would safeguard the editorial culture of the magazine better than the other bidder.

He probably made the right decision.

In 2000, Texas Monthly doubled its annual profits to about $4.5 million -- and even though the bad economy sent profits plummeting back to about $2.9 million last year, the magazine continues to publish good, solid, serious, long-form journalism in every issue. (At Texas Monthly, as at other magazines, long stories aren’t as consistently long as they once were -- a concession to “greater competition for people’s time,” as Levy puts it. But Michael Hall’s examination of capital punishment in Texas, “Death Isn’t Fair,” ran 8,000 words last December and was just named a National Magazine Awards finalist in the public interest category.)

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Texas Monthly circulation has remained constant at about 300,000 -- 10% are non-Texans -- since 1990, and Levy attributes the magazine’s continued success to its fidelity to its “core mission: to inform and entertain Texans and to be important to their lives.”

As Tom Spencer, host of the television program “Austin at Issue,” put it during a 30th anniversary show honoring the magazine last month, “Texas Monthly has defined what it means to be a Texan.”

It’s done much more than that. It’s defined what it means to be a great magazine.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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