united states project

Seriously slick

At Jake Silverstein's "amped up" Texas Monthly, water policy, immigration, and BBQ are all cover stories
December 5, 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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“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.

For a magazine attentive to politics, there is a topic that has been surprisingly slow to dawn at Texas Monthly: the potential for Texas to become more politically competitive between the two major parties. Paul Burka confessed as much in his excellent Burka Blog earlier this year after Politico raised a ruckus about the Democrats’ Battleground Texas initiative. And Silverstein acknowledges that the conventional political wisdom in Texas holds that Abbott will be the next governor, conservative voters will outnumber liberal ones, and Republicans will continue to win at the voting booth and dominate the state capital. (Not that the magazine hasn’t recognized change in Texas: the 40th Anniversary issue, in February of 2013, was devoted to the explosive growth of urban Texas, which will also have political consequences.)

“It would stand to reason [Texas] has to go blue at some point,” says Silverstein. “But it is still a Republican state, a conservative state… It’s Abbott’s to lose. Can he lose it? Sure.” If the magazine has a bias, he says, it really is toward the narrative of conflict–like any journalism, of course. There’s bound to be plenty of conflict ahead, with a gubernatorial election next year and the potential for a Texan in the 2016 presidential race. The Texas Monthly seems poised to take on those coming battles and the related journalistic responsibilities.

With a lot less fanfare than his predecessor, Silverstein has managed “the national magazine of Texas”–as the Monthly proclaims itself right on the cover now, reviving an old tag line–through some dangerous times: a leadership transition, a recession and long-term trends which have forced even the mightiest magazines to fold. He has subtly but firmly put his imprimatur on the venture. Newsstand sales and ad pages edged upward last year as the industry slipped downward. Under Silverstein, and unlike any glossy magazine left standing but The New Yorker, Texas Monthly does serious in a compelling, even slicker and cooler way than it used to–even slicker and cooler than its offices. And that’s saying something.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.