In 1975, Mike Levy, the publisher of Texas Monthly, and Gregory Curtis, a staff writer, visited me in my office at KSAT-TV in San Antonio. They were on a tour to create good will for the fledgling magazine, which was even then attracting national notice for its quality. In the course of the conversation, Curtis asked me if I would write for Texas Monthly. I jumped at the chance, became a regular contributor, then for twenty-five years a contributing editor, sending in articles and reviews long after I left Texas. Curtis eventually became editor of the magazine and stayed at its helm for nineteen years. We developed a close friendship, as he did with most of his writers. They respected him for his intelligence and journalistic savvy, and for giving a damn about them as well as about their work. During Greg’s run, Texas Monthly won five National Magazine Awards. The Columbia Journalism Review named him one of the ten best magazine editors in the country.
Sometimes, when people learn that I was connected to Texas Monthly, they ask me what made it a great magazine. I have never been able to get beyond cliches; focus, local knowledge, judgment, fact-checking, close editing. Greg, however, understands the reasons for Texas Monthly’s success. I just found on his website a piece he wrote when he bowed out in 2000. He is unsparing of himself for early mistakes, but makes it clear that he knew from the beginning what kind of magazine he did not want.
There was an editorial formula we could have used that would have solved our newsstand problems. In the eighties, I listened in terrified fascination, as if a surgeon were teaching how to perform a lobotomy, to a city magazine editor explaining that he had no choice but to put a yuppie couple on the cover of every issue. “The yuppie couple wants a weekend getaway. The yuppie couple looks for the best hamburger,” he said. “You can even do serious issues: The yuppie couple buys a gun for fear of crime.” When those issues were on the stands, he said, “sales went through the roof.” They may have, but I hated yuppie-couple covers–all those phony-looking models trying to express surprise or pleasure or fear. Most of all, I hated making our magazine look like all the other city magazines in America.
For the whole article, go here. Reading Curtis’s philosophy about shepherding Texas Monthly helps understanding of magazines in general and, in particular, what it takes to make a good one. When you’re through, go to the top, click on “Home,” then roam around Greg’s site. You will discover an editor who can write. In the lower left corner, there are links to several of his pieces. This is from one about horses.
A horse is an animal that weighs half a ton, has a brain the size of a tomato, and is instinctively alarmed at the approach of any predator, including man. Horses can be trained and they can become affectionate toward humans, but they never develop the slavish trust and devotion of dogs. Horses are prey and their trust in us is always provisional, maintained shakily on top of their fear, which can rise up as panic in an instant.
I am adding Greg Curtis’s website to the list of Other Places in the right-hand column. I haven’t mentioned his book. It’s a good one. It’s not about Texas, magazines or horses. It’s about the Venus de Milo.