Magazines as Experience Makers: the Texas Monthly way. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Jake Silverstein, editor of Texas Monthly “I want my kids to know the glory of great American longform magazine journalism.”April 30, 2011
It is all about sensibility. That sums Jake Silverstein, editor of Texas Monthly magazine, view of what differentiates a magazine from other media entities. “Magazines right now need strategies that can spread their stories and writers and photographers and sensibility (notice I didn’t say “content”) across digital, events, social media, broadcast, etc, but if the magazine itself doesn’t remain top quality, there’s nothing to set the course of the franchise.” Those, my friends, are but a few of the many words of wisdom Mr. Silverstein shared with me in this installment of the Mr. Magazine™ Interviews.
“That monthly sensibility is divorced from the daily grind/sensibility of the web.” The monthly sensibility creates a wide world of difference between printed magazines and digital entities. “Just adding bells and whistles to the print product on the web,” Mr. Silverstein told me, “is not the answer for the digital future.” He believes that we are at least one year away from really finding out what really works on the tablets.
In a typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews fashion, here are first the sound bites followed by the complete interview with Jake Silverstein:
The sound bites:
What every magazine needs right now is a plan.
Some magazines will be more multi-platform than others. But I do believe that for a general interest magazine like ours, there is a balance of media in which print stays strong for a long, long time.
Real quality, timeless quality, the kind of quality that raises to the level of literature—that’s extremely rare. But it’s what we strive for with every single piece we publish.
After 38 years, Texas Monthly has become one of the points in the constellation of things that make Texas a unique place.
On the one hand, the digital revolution has made news the most important commodity in the world. On the other hand, it has totally stripped away its dollar value
And now for the full interview with Jake Silverstein, editor, Texas Monthly magazine:
Samir Husni: What keeps Texas Monthly, after all these years, tick, click and stick with the readers and advertisers?
Jake Silverstein: It’s pretty simple really: great storytelling that’s both relevant and surprising; gorgeous art direction and photography; an authentic perspective on a unique and fascinating place; a sincere commitment to producing journalism that has an impact; and extremely fun, clever, and useful reader service. All of this delivered in a particular voice—knowing, insidery, funny, not overly conventional, local without being parochial, sophisticated without being pretentious.
SH: In the midst of this changing media world, what are some of must-haves (anchors) that you feel a magazine like Texas Monthly should posses to survive and thrive in the future?
JS: A clear sense of identity and mission (see above) that can be transmitted across different media platforms. But you can suffer from Multi-Platform Syndrome too. It’s absolutely key that as we push forward we make decisions that reflect a commitment to and respect for the mothership. Magazines right now need strategies that can spread their stories and writers and photographers and sensibility (notice I didn’t say “content”) across digital, events, social media, broadcast, etc, but if the magazine itself doesn’t remain top quality, there’s nothing to set the course of the franchise. Most of all, what every magazine needs right now is a plan. It may not work, but as the great media theorist T. Boone Pickens once said, “A fool with a plan is better than a genius with no plan.”
SH: We are seeing a return of some editors to print after vowing “never to work in print again.” Did you ever stopped believing in print?
JS: Never. I use digital media constantly, but I still prefer print for reading long stuff.
SH: What is your view about the future of print and what are you doing to amplify such a future if you believe in it?
JS: I’m one of these people who believe that there’s a different balance of platforms that each media outlet will find—a certain percentage of your readers will be consuming your stuff in the tradition print format, another bunch will be reading it all on a tablet and smartphone, some will only interact with you on a daily basis on your website, or come to your events, or listen to your podcasts, some will do all of these. No single one of these media is going to squash the rest, and our challenge is to get the balance right in terms of resources, advertising, audience, etc. The particular breakdown of the pie chart will be different for each media brand. Obviously Texas Monthly will always have a smaller portion of its readers demanding to read the magazine on a tablet than Wired does. Some magazines will be more multi-platform than others. But I do believe that for a general interest magazine like ours, there is a balance of media in which print stays strong for a long, long time.
SH: It has been said that quality content, while still very much needed, is not enough anymore. Magazines today have to be experience makers. How is that manifested in Texas Monthly?
JS: Two things about that: the first is that, when so much of our time is spent reading short, fast stuff online, and when so many journalists are toiling under a whip and lash, expected to turn out so many stories with so many trending keywords in them, quality longform stories are more and more rare. And real quality, timeless quality, the kind of quality that raises to the level of literature—that’s extremely rare. But it’s what we strive for with every single piece we publish. The effort that goes into an 8,000-word reported magazine story is intense—months of research and writing, extensive editing, thorough copy-editing and fact-checking, expensive photography, studied design. All of this produces an extremely fine thing: a carefully considered work that an entire team of people have sweated over for months. And you get a whole bunch of these in a single issue of the magazine! I call that an experience! To be in the hands of a group of talented, well-compensated professionals with job-security and health insurance and decades of experience and expertise, leading you on a surprising, timely, inventive, funny, intelligent, and visually stunning tour through Texas every month. Wow! It’s a more distinct experience even than it was 15 years ago when that kind of reading experience was more common. So there’s that. But I do acknowledge your point, and here one of the things we do is try to find interesting ways to make our print stories relate to our website, to our events strategy, to our social media, etc. Create little campaigns around as many of them as we can. The most shining example of this is our BBQ festival, in which we bring together as many of the BBQ joints that made the magazine’s list of Top 50 (a list we do every 5 years) in one place. But we’ve also done a short film contest based on a special issue of the magazine that’s turned into an annual contest, and radio programs based on magazine stories in partnership with our local public radio station, and an author series with the Texas Book Festival that overlaps with some of our in-book books coverage, and various small Twitter stunts surrounding different stories.
SH: A recent issue of Texas Monthly celebrated the state’s 175 anniversary, can you ever see Texas without Texas Monthly anymore?
JS: Well, we’ve only been around for 38 of those 175 years, but let me put it this way: one of our followers recently tweeted, “You know you’re a Texan when finding the new @texasmonthly inside your mailbox makes you shout.” One of the reasons we could do that anniversary issue (it marked the 175th anniversary of independence from Mexico) is because Texas has such a rich history, which has created a very particular and powerful sense of cultural identity in Texas, along with an intense pride in this state, warts and all. We like to think of ourselves, in certain regards, as a nation, not a state, and we’re big enough, wealthy enough, interesting enough, and crazy enough to back it up. So we have things like our own power grid (only state in the country) and, in the case of journalism, our own national magazine (ditto). Texans like that. After 38 years, Texas Monthly has become one of the points in the constellation of things that make Texas a unique place.
SH: City, state and regional magazines have been an area of growth in the new magazine launches. What do you think is the reason behind that growth and how do you view the regional magazine market?
JS: There’s clearly a move in the direction of local. People want close-to-the-ground reporting about what’s happening in their backyards, and city and regionals provide a unique service in that they give you this reporting with the glamour and class of a glossy magazine. The question is: where’s the sweet spot? How local does a city or regional magazine need to get to fully capitalize on this trend? Do we need to be down at the neighborhood level, competing with online sources, or can we float slightly above that? Honestly, this is less of an issue for Texas Monthly than it might be for strictly city magazines. We’ve never competed very much at the hyper-local level. We are for people who live in Texas, not just one neighborhood in one city.
SH: What advice you will give someone that comes to you and say, “I would like to start a magazine…”?
JS: The deck is stacked against you, so just publish great stories and have fun. That way, even if you fold after a year it will have been worth it. And readers recognize it when a publication is having fun.
SH: As an editor of a major monthly, do you see the journalism cup half full, half empty or… ?
JS: I think you have to go entity by entity, and, frankly, journalism by journalism. Newspaper journalism is a whole topic unto itself—on the one hand, the digital revolution has made news the most important commodity in the world. On the other hand, it has totally stripped away its dollar value. But I’m not in the (intensely complicated) position of having to figure out how to rebuild some of that lost value for a commercial entity, or find a different, non-profit daily news strategy entirely. I’m in the magazine business, and there are a lot of magazines, Texas Monthly included, that are doing some of their best work ever right now, and that are reaching more people than ever before. But the game is much, much harder than it once was. There’s more to think about, more to do, less people and money to do it with, and more uncertainty about the future. Those are facts. And when you put those facts into the equation you inevitably get, in some cases, crappier journalism. Do all these factors exert a downward pressure that will someday reduce all magazines to crap? I don’t know. I hope not. I want my kids to know the glory of great American longform magazine journalism.
SH: Any final words of wisdom….
JS: Always listen to Boone.
SH: Thank you.