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So What Do You Do, Evan Smith?
The New York-born Texas Monthly editor on his career, his mag, and balancing the parochial with the national.- November 25, 2003
The funny thing is that Evan Smith had never set foot in the state before he came to work for Texas Monthly, the glossy chronicle of all things Texan. Somehow, though, the New York City-born and New York State-educated Smith managed to pull it off, and in 2000, eight years after arriving in Austin, he was made editor of the magazine. Texas Monthly has long been a regional magazine that commands national respect—New York is probably the closest equivalent, though right now Texas Monthly's fortunes are much more stable—as Smith has continued that tradition; earlier this year he accepted a General Excellence Award for the magazine at the National Magazine Awards. He spoke to mediabistro.com last week about his career, his magazine, and how to successfully balance the parochial and the national.
Birthdate: April 20, 1966
Hometown: Queens, New York
First section of Sunday Austin American-Statesman: "Insight, which is the opinion section. A close second is the real-estate section, because I'm a complete new-house junkie."
Texas Monthly is such a unique publication; there's no other state magazine with such a high national profile. What's the history of the magazine? How did it become what it is?
The first thing you need to know is that in the early days of the magazine, there were really no rules. As you say, there's nothing like it today, but there was really no precedent. The magazines it was compared to in the old days, like New York magazine, for instance, were obviously city-specific. This is a state. The philosophy behind the magazine that's appropriate for this conversation is that Texas was considered more like a city with Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio as neighborhoods. The common interest, the connective tissue of Texan-ness was similar to what you would find in a big city like New York or Los Angeles.
Bill Broyles was the first editor, and his folks made it up as they went along. One thing they stumbled onto very quickly was the idea of doing long-form journalism in the tradition of the great American magazines; there was no experience that this magazine or a magazine like this one had had that told them not to do it. And that really got the magazine a place at the table early on. People read it; it was a place where great writers could go and do their best work. If you were a reader of magazines and you loved to sit down and spend a lot of time with a magazine, this was one that really gave you stuff to sink your teeth into. I don't know if there was a deliberate attempt to replicate, say, what The New Yorker was doing, but I think that's a good analogy. What The New Yorker had done all those years for New York and for the country by extension, Texas Monthly was doing for Texas.
Over the years, the amount of long-form journalism that we published ebbed and flowed according to the times. It was fashionable in the early '90s, for instance, to move away from that and to move more toward shorter, funnier, quick-hit type journalism, the assumption being that people had less time and inclination to spend many, many hours with a magazine, given all the media competition out there. In the last couple of years, we've moved back to doing long-form journalism in a big way, and the numbers speak for themselves. Newsstand is up. Total readership is up. And the profile of the magazine is quite a bit higher than we had any reason to expect, and I think the reason is that people have appreciated our treating them with respect, treating their intelligence seriously.
How much of your readership is outside Texas?
I would guess around 5 percent of our readership is outside of Texas. The areas in which readership outside of Texas is the highest, best penetration, is two categories, one you'd expect and one you wouldn't. The one you would expect is Texas exes, either people who lived in Texas for a long time and now live somewhere else, or graduates of UT or Texas A&M.
But the other thing is we have incredibly high penetration in Washington, D.C., Hollywood, and New York. It's within the political community—and not just because of the Texan in the White House, though that helps. In Los Angeles, we are among the handful of magazines, we're in the top three, I would say, that have had the best success having our stories bought by studios and made into films. And then we're also read a lot in book publishing. I consider it to be flattering when books are done essentially as a result of our ideas being stolen. Some people get upset about that, I consider it to be flattering.
With this presence in some of the major media markets, how does that work in your editing? How do you balance the parochial versus the national in what you're covering?
It's like that old notion of all cats have four legs, but not all things with four legs are cats. All national is parochial, if we view it as such. If we write a story about Dan Bartlett, who is the White House communications director, or James Baker, or Tommy Lee Jones, we're only doing those stories because of the extent to which they are Texas stories. Everything we do nationally has some parochial aspect to it, or we wouldn't be doing it. Likewise, the parochial stuff we do, you'd like it to have some kind of national appeal, but I'm less concerned about that. If we do a story about the murder of some socialite in Dallas, hypothetically, it may not interest anybody outside of Texas, but presumably inside Texas, it's going to totally interest them. It's a balancing act, but it's one we've pretty much figured out.
You've only been running the magazine for three years. What was it like to come in after such a legend as Greg Curtis?
It was obviously huge shoes to fill. He was really good about keeping me close by for the years that I was deputy editor, so that I got a real good sense of what it took to run the magazine and had also been involved enough at every level of the process to have thought about it long and hard. And to have had some ideas of my own, about what I would do if the day should come when I could take over the magazine. Anybody who becomes the editor of a magazine had better know what he wants to do. This is not a teaching hospital. And if you're going to be the editor of a magazine, you've got to have a very clear sense, and it's got to be one you've drawn up over some time, of things you want to accomplish.
So when I came in on day one, I had a pretty good sense of returning to long-form journalism, that was one thing. I wanted to go back to columns and columnists, to essentially take the dozen or so writers here who have subject expertise—Pat Sharpe on food, Jim Atkinson on health, Paul Burka on politics—and really brand them with that expertise. I knew that I wanted to continue, from a design standpoint, with the emphasis on great photography, great illustration as an additional editorial element. You need to have these kind of thoughts in your head when you take over, and, although you follow in the footsteps of someone like Greg Curtis, and it's definitely daunting, it's doable if you have confidence in what you want to do.
All told, you've been at the magazine for about a dozen years. What had you done before you came there?
Immediately before I came to Texas Monthly, I was at Self, the women's magazine, where I'd been for nine months. Before that I had been on the startup team for Mediaweek, which was the Adweek spin-off, for a short period of time. Before that, I was at a magazine that died after a year called Business Month; I had been working at Whittle in Knoxville, Tennessee, after graduate school for a year and a half, and I was recruited to come up to New York and work on this business magazine before it started. I also did a brief stint at The New Republic as deputy editor during my time here. I went up there as deputy editor, didn't find it to be a place I particularly wanted to be, came back here. It was like that season of Dallas when Victoria Principal woke up after a long dream and the whole preceding year hadn't happened.
You were already at Texas Monthly, though not yet running it, when Emmis bought it, when it stopped being an independent publication. What was that change like?
Any time a magazine you work for is sold it's a jolt to the system. But they've been incredibly understanding of our particular expertise in Texas. They're up in Indiana, we're down here, and they have not attempted, not once, in the time I have been at this magazine, before I was running it and since I have been running it, they have not once attempted to screw with anything editorially.
I have a lot of respect for that, because I know the temptation when you own something is to get right in there and mess with it, you think you know better than the people doing it. But they've been really hands-off. And I'd like to believe that the success of the magazine is a product of their willingness to let us run it ourselves. The business side is more affected by the new ownership than the editorial side, and a lot of stuff that's happened on the business side has been really good. We've made more money in the last five years profit-wise, than we had for many, many years that preceded it.
Considering how successful you've been under Emmis's ownership, both editorially and business-wise, it's sort of a shame they're apparently not bidding for New York.
New York magazine is a terrific brand. And it has the opportunity to be a terrific magazine. But it's going to require a lot of money. Not just the money to buy the magazine, but the money to rehabilitate the guts of it, to rehab it. And then you're going to need a huge marketing and promotions budget just to get the name out. That's an extraordinarily crowded media landscape.
What rehabbing of the guts do you think is necessary?
I think it's unfair for me to comment and pick specifically at things that are wrong there. Let me just say, I think that the New York magazine brand has extraordinary potential. And whoever gets it is going to have a real opportunity to make that into one of the great magazines again, as it has been previously. And as I'm sure it'll be in the future.
The way the business is run these days, a lot of companies are reluctant to pour a whole lot of money into magazines, I'm not speaking specifically about one magazine, though obviously I am talking about New York in the abstract. Nobody wants to spend money, they want you to do everything, but do it cheaper, more for less. And I think a magazine like that requires an investment, on a year-in, year-out basis. And the product is going to reflect how much of an investment is made. And I feel for Caroline Miller, because I think that she has great instincts and good people, and if you're not getting the kind of financial support from your company that a magazine like that requires, it's going to be real hard to convert on that potential.
You did that Walter Cronkite interview in the last issue. What was it like to sit and have breakfast with him?
I'd never met him before. When he got to the hotel and I met him and we went and sat down, he seemed to me to be a little older and a little less together than it turned out he was; maybe he just needed to eat—as the breakfast went along he began to get a little pinker.
He had a lot of strong opinions about things. He was very interesting and sharp, funny. And he was totally unfazed by all these people coming up to pay their respects, and I think on the Jayson Blair thing especially—Jayson Blair's publisher came up and asked if Jayson Blair could come over and pay his respects and of course I'm thinking, "Please say yes, please say yes." Cronkite just smiled. When Jayson Blair came over he couldn't have been nicer, but, at the same time, when Blair left, Cronkite was kind of busting on him. I think it shows that he's still got it going on. Everybody I get to meet in connection with this job is a real treat, whether it's Cronkite or somebody no one's heard of. That was just another day at work.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.
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