AUSTIN, TX — From his posh office on the 17th floor, Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, has the opportunity to literally look down on his famous predecessor: Evan Smith’s own corner office is just across Congress Avenue.
Smith left the award-winning monthly in 2009 to launch an ambitious online start-up, the Texas Tribune. The two men remain friendly and supporters of one another. Whereas the Tribune’s offices across the street are cramped and crowded—think, messy insurance agency—the Texas Monthly offices look like a Hollywood rendering of a stylish magazine headquarters: airy, giant conference room, memorabilia going back 40 years tastefully hung here and there in a space that is all glass and metal.
Four years after being named editor-in-chief—just the fourth top editor in the magazine’s 40 years—Silverstein, nattily dressed in a dapper suit and skinny tie, explains how he has managed to do something that not even a handful of magazines these days can claim: publish thoughtful policy and political news within the richly designed and ad-packed pages. This magazine is among the few that still finds a way to publish serious news about serious things. And in recent years, the serious things are regularly making the cover, that one valuable piece of real estate that magazines—among all media—uniquely own.
Founded in 1973 by former publisher Mike Levy, the slick, monthly magazine has—through different editors and eras—relied upon a tried and true formula: one part Texas mythology, one part service journalism (“Top” this and “Worst” that), a dose of politics, a heaping of exquisite design and photography, and lots of long-form, elegant writing. The magazine won National Magazine Awards before Smith, during his tenure, and continues to do so now, under Silverstein. Its political coverage has been anchored for some time now by Paul Burka, dean of the Texas political press corps and harsh critic of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
When Smith announced that he was leaving the magazine after 18 years—interrupted only briefly by a short-lived stint at The New Republic—the news was greeted in Chicken Little fashion. The sky was falling on magazines right and left. Recession had struck and ad pages were down across the industry. There were layoffs at the Monthly.
And Smith himself—a product of New York publishing who brought with him that energy and buzz—had once said he would never leave. “I don’t see Texas Monthly as a stepping stone,” he told The Austin Chronicle in 2001. “I have no interest in being the editor of any other magazine, or in running for office, or in curing cancer or playing with the Bulls. This is the end, not a means to an end.” And yet, there he was: Gone. Silverstein, a son of California educated in the East and at the University of Texas, was already the day-to-day editor (as of 2008), having arrived in 2006, via a small weekly in Marfa, Texas and after writing for Harper’s.
Now he was in charge. Nearly simultaneously, the magazine, owned by Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, became something of a nomad, decamping from its old downtown offices to an outpost on I-35 (a return to downtown would come in 2011). Thumbing through back issues, going back to that fateful year, a reader can see the evolution of the magazine, however subtly, under Silverstein.
He has not rushed change. A redesign waited years. The new look is fuller and richer. A new website went up just last year and provides not just more content but greater vibrancy and immediacy. And he has made a priority of policy coverage—a tweak to the magazine’s formula. Policy stories, Silverstein says, are “risky and success is not guaranteed.” Even so, he says he has put these stories, traditionally found inside the magazine, “more often front and center.” The goal, Silverstein says, “is always stuff that changes the course of events.”
In November 2010, Texas Monthly’s entire issue (cover included) focused on immigration, a subject sure to ignite political passions, but one that can also bore people to death in its minutiae. The trick for the magazine was to dimensionalize the potentially leaden topic with a roundtable transcript—“The Immigration Dinner Party”—featuring different voices: politicians, activists, experts, and back that up with rich, long-form and even personal writing. There followed an essay about the border (“a landscape of ghosts”) by John Phillip Santos, a hard stare at the dilemma Republicans faced then (as they do now) on immigration policy, by Nate Blakeslee, and interviews and photos of everyday people and their views. Silverstein braced, he says, for a 40 percent sell-through rate on newsstands-10 points off the average-but said he was pleasantly surprised when the immigration issue (and subsequent other policy covers) sold at 45 percent on the newsstand.