Silverstein’s approach to compelling policy coverage? Look at the cultural and personal dimensions, and employ rich, long-form narrative from veteran and skilled story tellers. Writing on women’s health for a 2012 cover, for example, Mimi Swartz anticipated the fight over abortion that would come to a head the following year by starting her piece: “There are things about women that men would just as soon never discuss. The stirrups in a gynecologist’s office for one…At least, that’s how it was…”
In 2012, covers also went to higher education and—speaking of potential for dry—water policy (yes, you read that right). With Texas coming off a historic, devastating and terrifying drought, Rodger Hodge began his piece in the water policy issue this way: “At the end of the last ice age, when the high glacial cliffs began to shrink back across a scarified continent, woodlands more typical of northern latitudes covered parts of what we now call Texas.” It was followed by interviews with Texans, and dramatic photographs of parched land, suffering live stock, and ravenous wildlife.
A recent cover story on the oil and gas boom by Bryan Mealer sharply captured not just the growth in fortunes and jobs in South Texas, but the potential social and environmental consequences as well. Writing in the same issue, Paul Burka addressed whether the oil and gas boom should pay for new roads and highways.
But it’s not all serious stuff. Silverstein talks about “amping up” all the coverage, including his much-publicized hire of a dedicated barbecue columnist, plenty of Texana, travel, music and food. There are still 300,000 paid subscribers; the publication claims total readership of 2.5 million. Three hundred thousand unique users online became 500,000 this year and, Silverstein hopes, that figure will soon become 600,000 and 1 million by the end of next year. The December food issue (“We are what we eat, and everything we eat has a story.”), on newsstands now, is thick with chili, barbacoa, beans and chicken-fried steak—as well as a look at the Texas Supreme Court.
“Politics has always been part of the DNA of Texas Monthly,” Silverstein explains, adding that political stories are generally viewed by the audience through a hyper-partisan lens. 2013 has seen more political coverage in (and on the front of) the magazine than policy coverage, per se.
In August, on the heels of Sen. Wendy Davis’s newfound national fame after her filibuster of new abortion restrictions, the magazine ran a bold blue cover with Davis and the Castro brothers (San Antonio mayor Julián Castro and his twin brother, Congressman Joaquín Castro) posed with the overline, “Game On?” The story inside was a fairly conversational piece about Davis, by
Greg Robert Draper, that began over a cocktail with her at the Four Seasons Hotel and proceeded to examine her superstardom against the backdrop of the shabby state of a nearly moribund Democratic party organization.
In October, there followed a provocative cover image of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is wheelchair-bound, with a shotgun slung over one shoulder. The overline carried no question mark this time—despite a governor’s race that had barely begun. It declared simply: “The Gov*.” The asterisk referred to a tiny line that added one caveat: “Barring an unlikely occurrence.” When I saw the issue on sale at the grocery store check out, I was tempted to conclude that the gubernatorial race was entirely perfunctory. So, why even bother voting?”
Opening up that issue, flipping past the Breitling watch, Aston Martin, and cosmetics advertising, Brian D. Sweany’s article “The Overcomer,” profiled Abbott: not great with a shotgun, “a conservative’s conservative,” tough, and campaigning as someone who may appeal to an array of Texans due to his disability and his background. That background includes growing up in a small town, enduring—as a teenager—the loss of his father, dating and marrying a Hispanic woman, and being struck by a tree and paralyzed from the waist down. Sweany recounted the minor controversy over Abbott, nemesis of trial lawyers, getting an $11 million settlement from the owner of the downed tree.
Discussing those cover choices—unique and crucial to the magazine business—Silverstein defends his decisions. “Abbott is not well known,” he says. “But he’s going to be the next governor, barring an unlikely event.” Asked why he did not label that cover: “The Gov?” just as he had with Democrats (“Game On?”) Silverstein says he despises question marks on covers because they’re really just a form of punting the tough call. Then he acknowledges that, yes, he used precisely that device the previous month. But he adds that was the right call because the Democrats’ ability to compete is really in question. Did he get an avalanche of mail objecting to the Abbott cover? Oh, yes indeed.