Interview: Evan Smith

Former New Yorker Evan Smith took over the reins at Texas Monthly soon after President Bush was sworn into office in 2000. Smith talks to PRWeek about stepping on the toes of powerful PR pros, and whether Texas will come into play in next year's election.

Former New Yorker Evan Smith took over the reins at Texas Monthly soon after President Bush was sworn into office in 2000. Smith talks to PRWeek about stepping on the toes of powerful PR pros, and whether Texas will come into play in next year's election.

PRWeek: For the past eight years Texas has been the center of a lot of political attention because of the Bush Administration. What has it been like to be editor during this time?

Evan Smith: I took over in July 2000, so I have been able to watch, from this perch, the Bush presidency play out in ways that were expected and unexpected. It has been fabulous because it has provided us with an extraordinary amount of material. On one hand I'm glad to see a new president come in because I think for the country, and for Texas, it may be better. On the other hand, I'm going to miss all the Texans who were in Washington because you could never ask for better material than that.

PRWeek: How do readers perceive the political leanings of the magazine?

Smith: The fact is, Texas is no more monolithic a place politically than any other place. If you look at the content of this magazine over the life of the Bush presidency, we have been in his face aggressively – to point that the perception popularly out there is that the magazine was right-of-center before and it is now left-of-center. What I say, simply, is liberals think we're too conservative and conservatives think we're too liberal. And that makes me happy.

PRWeek: What is it like dealing with the PR folks of Texas politicians?

Smith: By in large, we don't deal with PR people. I respect chain of command, if it's required that I deal with a publicist, I deal with a publicist. But I find a lot of publicists to be pains in the ass and to be carpet-bombing me with press releases that have nothing to do with our magazine. And at the end of the day I find myself more irritated by the experience than thinking it somehow enables my work to be better. I don't want to tar everyone with the same brush, but that's how it is.

PRWeek:What did you think of Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson's blog post outing PR pros that send unsolicited e-mail blasts?

Smith: I linked my blog with Chris Anderson's blog post because I feel like there was a lot of merit in it. It was the unspoken truth, and I think all over the magazine business you had a lot of editors saying, "I'm glad somebody said it, I'm glad it wasn't me. But I'm glad somebody said it."

PRWeek: Texas Monthly does a lot of profile pieces on people in politics. Do you worry about having future access to people after running an unflattering piece?

Smith: We spent the last eight years being very critical of the president. We've written negatively about the president, not always, but we have. We did a story about the First Lady [Laura Bush] on the November 2004 cover that I gather she hated, and her "people" hated. Karl Rove has called and screamed at me. [Yet] if you look at our November 2007 issue, who is on the cover? Jenna Bush – [and we had] full cooperation. We as magazine editors need to stop worrying about invitations to parties, phone calls being returned, and so-and-so is my friend. Do your job, and your job is to serve your readers.

PRWeek: Since Texas Monthly is considered to be a national magazine, how does that affect the scope of its coverage?

Smith: We're a national magazine about Texas, the same way Esquire magazine is a national magazine about men, or Vanity Fair is a national magazine about celebrity. [But] it's tricky, and means first and foremost that we think big and we think ambitiously. It's got to be absolutely, 100 percent authentically Texan, infused with a knowledge, history, and sensibility that is only Texas. But it has to be done in such a way, and presented in such a way that a national audience will say, 'You know what, I'm not from Texas, but this is great.'

PRWeek: How do you approach the coverage to ensure it includes the entire state?

Smith: The model that we're operating under is anomalistic compared to the rest of the country. There is no other statewide magazine for a reason --- there is no other state with as much cohesion spiritually [and] psychically as in Texas. We regard Texas -- not as a state with cities -- but as a city with neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods are Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and so on. That allows us – like New York magazine – to do one magazine for one city but have it speak to different neighborhoods.

PRWeek: Do you think Texas has an image problem?

Smith: I don't think Texas needs to do anything to change its image, but I do think that Texas needs to change. Anybody who stands in the way, through acts of omission or commission, of Texas becoming the very best place it can be incurs our wrath every month. The national media, when they write about Texas, tends to view us as a bunch of shit-kickers who ride on horseback, barefoot through downtown. When in fact, this is an incredibly intellectual state, an incredibly culturally vibrant state, an incredibly sophisticated state, and those who live here know it, and if it's news to people outside of Texas – that's fine.

PRWeek: Do you think long-form journalism has a future in this digital age?

Smith: Long-form is not the disease, it's the cure. What distinguishes us from other magazines is that we believe enough in the intellectual and cultural passions of our readers to give them 6,000; 7,000; or 10,000 words, when appropriate, on big subjects. Our circulation numbers are strong, which tells me that rather than going against the wishes of the people out there, we're actually speaking exactly to them.

PRWeek: How do you appeal to younger readers?

Smith: Like a lot of other magazines, the way that we've worked to reach a new generation of readers is through the Internet. [But] the magazine can't be all things to all people, because then it will immediately become nothing to no one. There is no reason why 25-year-olds won't be as interested in extraordinary long-form journalism as 50-year-olds. But generally, it's very hard to broaden the range of ages of your readers that much and have it speak to everybody with the same success.

PRWeek: How are you using the Web site to broaden readership?

Smith: I think the Web site is a place where we can build a following and some brand interest – if not loyalty – with younger readers. The Web site has been constructed in such a way that it's not simply a magazine site, it's a brand site. And if you access the brand site, you get a sense of the magazine, you get a lot of multimedia, a lot of blogs and conversation stuff. It's the old drug pusher school of marketing – you give them a little taste for free, they get addicted, and then they want to pay.

PRWeek: As a former New Yorker, did you find any Texas stereotypes to be true?

Smith: I believe Texans are inherently enormously friendly and open people. When I used to walk down the street in New York, people would avert their eyes because there is this sense that we're all in this alone. Down here, people are so friendly that when I first got down here I thought – what do they want from me? I came to figure out, it's not about wanting something. They are nice because they're nice.

Name: Evan Smith

Title: Editor, EVP

Outlet: Texas Monthly

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