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A New York State of Mind -- in Texas

New York-born Texas Monthly editor in chief Evan Smith successfully revamped the Lone Star State's much-beloved regional magazine.

by Christopher Danzig (J08)

Technically, Evan Smith is not from Texas, but he is undoubtedly, as he says, "of Texas."

When Texas Monthly, the self-proclaimed "National Magazine of Texas," appointed him as editor almost a decade ago, it lit a fire in some Texans' bellies — even raising the eyebrows of some former staffers. He was an outsider — from New York, no less — who could not possibly understand Texas well enough to helm one of the state's most important publications.

"Being a New Yorker in Texas is like being an alcoholic. You're never 'ex' but you're always recovering," Smith says. "I go to my meetings, as it were, every week."

Smith (GJ88) quickly proved himself as editor of the well-respected regional magazine. Since he took the reins, Texas Monthly has been nominated for 16 National Magazine Awards. Earlier this year the magazine won the American Society of Magazine Editors' honor for general excellence in the 250,000- to 500,000-circulation category.

Smith started working at Texas Monthly in 1992 after working his way through the magazine publishing scene, including a stint as deputy editor at the New Republic. He became editor of Texas Monthly in 2000 and was promoted to president and editor in chief of the magazine in July 2008 after founder and publisher Mike Levy retired.

"Evan is a true force of nature," says Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein, who took over the magazine's daily management when Smith was promoted. "He has great instincts. He can look at a story in its rawest form and instantly envision how it will look as a feature story — down to the level of headline, subhead, caption photographs, illustrations and leads."

Texas Monthly, which has a long tradition of hosting Medill School of Journalism interns as part of the Journalism Residency program, has a reach far outside the state's borders. With an emphasis on investigative, long-form journalism, features sometimes stretch more than 8,000 words. The Austin-based publication's design also ranks among the country's best. It has won numerous city and regional magazine design awards in addition to honors from the Society of Publication Designers.

The magazine has also stayed profitable despite shrinking budgets across the journalism industry. Last year Texas Monthly made almost $3 million in profit, says Smith, who also serves on Medill's board of advisers.

"When I took over the magazine in 2000 my focus was really on the print edition," says Smith. "It was on how we could recapture some of the ambition that I had seen at various points in the life of the magazine."

As editor he strove to refocus Texas Monthly, which was founded in 1973, on longer, in-depth stories and quality art, in addition to "helping to set the parameters of the daily conversation that takes place in Texas."

Writing in the public interest was also part of Smith's original goals, as a way to improve the state as a whole. "We [at the magazine] love Texas," he says. "We don't love it blindly. We certainly are aware of the shortcomings and are willing to point out the faults to people in the name of making Texas the best place it possibly can be."

Now, as president of the magazine, Smith has removed himself from day-to-day management.

"These days my focus has been on how we grow the business out from the center," Smith says "We have an obligation these days to be platform-agnostic in the media."

That has meant improving the Texas Monthly web site, developing a mobile site — accessible from handheld devices — and creating live events that give users real-time experiences with the magazine. The magazine also launched Texas Monthly Talks, a local access television program where Smith has interviewed celebrities such as Lyle Lovett, Hillary Clinton and Francis Ford Coppola.

Smith slicks back his short, light hair and wears thick-rimmed, intellectual glasses. He speaks quickly and authoritatively, giving a degree of urgency to conversations with him. Over the years his crisp enunciation has acquired a hint of Texan drawl.

The accent, like Smith himself, is probably here to stay. At this point he has lived in Texas longer than anywhere else in his life. His two children were born in the state, and his family feels at home there.

"I will give up Texas Monthly before I give up Texas," he says. "We love it here."

Editor's note: As Northwestern magazine went to press, Evan Smith did indeed give up Texas Monthly. Smith was just named chief executive of the Texas Tribune, a new nonprofit news web site devoted to government and politics in the Lone Star State.

Christopher Danzig (J08), of Chicago, interned at Texas Monthly. He left InsideCounsel magazine in September for an investigative journalism internship with the Chicago Reporter.

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Evan Smith
Former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith. Photo by Joel Salcido; photo illustration by Northwestern magazine.