After nearly two decades of out-of-state stewardship, ‘Texas Monthly’ is back in Texas hands. Its new owner, Houston’s Paul Hobby, and new editor, Tim Taliaferro, are quickly finding their grip. By Lisa Holthouse & Jeff Gremillion, Photos by Phoebe Rourke
WHEN HOUSTONIAN PAUL HOBBY’S Genesis Park equity firm paid $25 million in October to acquire Texas Monthly from Indianapolis’ Emmis Communications, which had owned it for 18 years, the reaction was largely positive. And that was surprising to some, given the increasingly mercurial and justifiably paranoid nature of a print-media industry buffeted by epic downsizing and retrenching. The consensus was that Texas Monthly, which has a circulation of 300,000 and reaches about 2.5 million people a month, damn well should be owned by Texans.
And Hobby isn’t just any Texan. He’s the grandson of a governor who became namesake of an airport, and the son of a lieutenant governor who became namesake of a theater. And both his famous forebears took turns at the helm of the now-defunct Houston Post newspaper. Media attention and the media business are in his blood.
Hobby, 56, greets his new role as owner and CEO of Austin-based Texas Monthly, which has won an extraordinary 13 National Magazine Awards and is generally considered on par with top national magazines rather than other regional ones, rather somberly. “It’s a sacred trust,” he says. “I knew that before, and I really know it now. When you buy a fiber-optic business, not everybody volunteers their opinion about what you’re supposed to do with it. With Texas Monthly, everybody has an opinion, and that’s awesome. That’s passion for the brand. So I’m obliged to listen, and I do listen, constructively, thoughtfully.”
With the ink not yet dry on the acquisition documents, Hobby announced the hiring of a new editor — Tim Taliaferro, 33, formerly of UT’s alumni association and its magazine. As Taliaferro’s major accomplishments are touted to be less in print and more in the digital realm — websites, podcasting, video — his hiring may hint at new priorities for the 43-year-old company.
In a long chat at Genesis Park’s offices, in a converted warehouse north of Downtown, Hobby and Taliaferro had much to say about their plans, and the mantle they’ve taken on. “It’s an important thing we’re doing,” Hobby says, “and we accept the responsibility.”
Simple question. What is Texas Monthly?
Hobby: If you’re trying to map the DNA of this brand, it is the custodian of Texas’ view of itself, writ large. If that doesn’t bounce you out of bed in the morning, you’re not paying attention. This is the custodian of what it is to be Texan.
We wondered if we’d hear, “It’s a magazine that…” or “It’s a brand that…”
Hobby: It’s a brand. Print was the exclusive delivery system for a long time. But hallelujah, it doesn’t have to be the exclusive delivery system anymore. You’ve got in-person events, you’ve got a digital environment that will become much more robust and interactive. And the magazine is the city on the hill; it’s the perfect thing. You want to leave it lying around in your house. It’s a furnishing. You feel good about it. It feels good about you. It says good things about your brand when other people see it. So, the magazine is the expression of the brand today, but it’s not the only expression of the brand. … Taliaferro: I would add [the magazine is] the best known part of it, for sure, because it’s got the most history. It’s how it made its original splash. But its potential is far beyond that. And so we’re focused on trying to take what you know and what you expect from [Texas Monthly in print] and do it in creative and interesting ways on your phone and elsewhere in your digital life. So it’s not just sitting on your coffee table. It’s something you carry around with you and you associate with as you go about your life.
Paul, you were quoted recently as saying, “Print is not dead.” But it sounds like you might be focusing on other things. How do you plan to balance all that, and at the same time insist print isn’t over?
Hobby: When you’re talking to smart people on either coast, they look at you like, hey, you really must be from Texas. Didn’t you get the memo that print is dead? If I’m on the East Coast I say, “Well, then why did Bloomberg just start a magazine?” And if I’m on the West Coast, I’m like, well, why did Airbnb just start one? They didn’t turn off their digital brands. They just understood that you need a suite of delivery systems. You match media to message in something that’s tactile and beautiful and smells good and feels good and you can carry with you. That’s got a place in the world. So “print is dead” is generally true in the case of newspapers. That’s the most controversial thing I’m going to say today. Print is not dead. I mean, Web MD. I could keep telling you about the new magazines that people are starting, that digital brands are starting. It’s crazy.
Paul, why did you buy Texas Monthly?
Hobby: It’s a good use of me. It’s not a vanity project. It’s very much an investment. So we will make cost-benefit decisions, and we will build the brand in every respect. But nobody should ever think that this is charity work or Paul’s plaything. It’s anything but.
Had the magazine lost its way?
Hobby: Some people say, well, there’re too many ads, or it seems like it’s coasting. All those things may be true at some level, but I think the team that’s there has done a remarkable job of keeping the brand resilient. We’re just adding energy, you know. We’re adding oomph at every level. So it’s not a matter of losing its way. It’s a matter of not going forward at the speed that you or I would take it forward. I’ve been hailed as a liberator, and that’s a bit much. All I’m doing is assembling talented, excited people who love Texas as much as I do.
Will Texas Monthly’s headquarters move to Houston?
Hobby: No. Austin’s the geographic center of the state. It is neutral ground. We obviously have a lot of depth in politics, and it’s three blocks from the Capitol, so there’s no reason to move it.
So, who’s the decision-maker in terms of editorial content? Is it the editor-in-chief? Is it the CEO? Who says what goes into the magazine?
Hobby: It’s Tim. But let’s not deceive each other. There’s a burn-in phase where Paul learns the magazine, and Tim learns Paul. There’ll be a moment here where we’re bouncing things off of each other just to make sure, until the getting-to-know-you part is over. But once that’s over, I don’t expect to have a daily voice in editorial affairs. If I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have brought a brilliant, much younger person into the fold.
Tim, you’ve got an impressive background. But you’re young, and you have no experience in national consumer magazines. Is it fair if people wonder whether you’re up to the job?
Taliaferro: I faced this a little bit when I became an editor at the alumni magazine. I was 26. People were like, “It’s a 100-year-old magazine. What are you doing here?” When I was being considered by the then-CEO, he said, “My concern is just your maturity level.” I said, “Well, I may be the biggest risk, but I may also be the biggest payoff.” The proof will be in the pudding. … Hobby: The healthy, mature reaction Tim has had through this whole process has been respect and fear. And that’s great. He’s already visited with every previous editor. He was raised right. He’s got manners. He’s got respect. He wants to understand the traditions of the magazine. And he gets scared. Tim called me the other day, and he goes, “Well, the good news is I’m sleeping some.” And I said I’m sleeping some, too. I keep reminding him that I get scared, too. But this one’s on me. I said, “If you can’t do it, that’s my fault.” But he can.
What’s your favorite Texas Monthly story?
Taliaferro: A story that touched me was Pam Colloff’s story [from August 2006] about the tower shooting at UT in 1966. It was called “96 Minutes.” It has since been made into a movie that I’m involved with, and we just got great news last night that it’s been short-listed for the Oscars. [The original article] was an oral history of 30 or 40 people smooshed together, broken into pieces that, together, represented something larger than anything you’d get if you just ran 30 oral histories. It was piecing together the horror of that day, from the people who were there. It brought you back to that day. That’s what great journalism can do. It can completely move you. It can immerse you. And it can bring you to tears.
You’re taking over at a fascinating time, given our controversial new president. We wonder how you see Texas Monthly’s role in the political arena.
Hobby: We don’t want to be Orvis, and we don’t want to be a feel-good fashion book. We want to have a voice. But it’s not a shrill or a reactive voice, or a daily who-shot-who at the Capitol. Texas Monthly has always been the adult in the room. And that is: Frame issues, connect dots, use quality writing, use humor, to make people reconsider their positions, against the flow of human events, and the greater good to be served. Good journalism is like good preaching. If you pull people slightly out of their comfort zone, you’ve done your job.
How outspoken should you be on political matters?
Taliaferro: I’m not part of either party. I don’t pick sides. And Paul never said, “This will be your politics.” Never came up. He’s not here to shill. Neither am I. … I’ll try to lead a conversation that’s worth the attention of, and is valuable to, the people of Texas. What are the issues? What do we know about them? How can we talk about them in a way that is worthy of our audience and adds value to their day-to-day?
But Paul, you attempted to follow in your dad and granddad’s political footsteps and ran for state controller, as a Democrat, in 1998. Aren’t you a Democratic politician toeing the party line?
Hobby: I’m not a Democratic politician. I ran for office 19 years ago and lost, and that was the end of my political involvement. I live in an age that won’t elect radically moderate white males. … My take on the party system is this: Nobody remembers a problem that the party system solved. It’s a shattered device. You can’t even have ideological conversations around parties anymore, given what just happened. I mean, free trade? Fiscal responsibility? Which party owns those things anymore? You tell me. I don’t know. They don’t know either. So if you tell me somebody has an R or a D after his or her name, you haven’t told me anything interesting or revealing about that person. It’s utterly useless. It’s all about people. And are you willing to accommodate, live with other people? Will you look for the greater good instead of your private gain?
Paul, what are your earliest memories of the Houston Post?
Hobby: Before offset, newspapers used to be printed slug by slug [in classic typesetting, strips of lead corresponding to words or lines to be printed]. I would go down to the composing department [in the Galleria area building the Houston Chronicle now occupies] when I was a kid. And there were all these little channels with all lead slugs flying down them. And occasionally, when things were slow, the pressmen would create a slug with my name on it, “Paul,” and it was a big deal. And sometimes I would pull a slug out of a story as they were sliding down there, just to see who would notice. So I remember the physical environment, and the smell.
How strong is the advertising business today?
Hobby: I just found out Houston grew by close to 20,000 jobs in 2016 [nearly twice what had been predicted]. There’s no excuse for failure. So I think it’s fine. I think that we have to give advertisers more choices. The media mix has to be richer than it’s ever been. It has to be more accountable than it’s ever been. It has to be a little more creative than it’s ever been. … Taliaferro: Advertisers want to have interesting ways to activate beyond a print ad, and we’re already thinking about that. There’ll be a lot more energy around that, when we’re seen as a creative partner that helps, in a smart way, advertisers to get more lift out of what they’re paying for.
You mentioned that Texas Monthly should get more in the events game.
Hobby: Today we have fun events. I don’t think they’re as deep or as smart as they need to be. I love music, and there’re lots of venues that want to have us as promotional partners, and that’s all good. But I would like to see our events become smarter, whether that’s an ideas festival or a faith festival, all that’s to be determined. That’s what this brand was originally about. It was a smart voice in Texas while Texas was transforming from a rural sensibility to an urban reality. … Taliaferro: Publications, brands, are looking to enrich their interaction with their audience. And events can be part of that. Digital is part of that. Newsletters, the printed magazine itself. It’s about an ecosystem that you’re trying to build and enrich, so the people on the other end of it feel closer to you; so they feel they’re getting more value out of being your subscriber, your reader, your attendee.
Are you’re happy with Texas Monthly’s part-advertising, part-subscriber-and-newsstand revenue model?
Hobby: We are. A dual source of revenue in any media environment is the magic formula. The truth is, the magazine’s too cheap. [It’s $19.99 for a year.] It ought to cost more to subscribe to it than it does. And we’ll demonstrate that value proposition before we raise the price.
A lot has been made of the return of Texas Monthly into Texas hands. At the end of the day, does it matter?
Taliaferro: I think it’s great that it’s Texas-owned. There’s energy, and understanding … of what the core of Texas Monthly is. It’s something Paul gets … and other Texans would get, that’s maybe harder for somebody who hasn’t grown up here, or spent a ton of time here. The way a Texan would.