Can the Best Magazine in Texas Be Saved?

Eleven major fixtures of Texas Monthly’s editorial team have quit since the new regime took over, and a new dustup over the latest cover has led to dwindling morale.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Eleven major fixtures of Texas Monthly’s editorial team have quit since a hedge fund bought the publication for $25 million in October 2016, and a new dustup over the publication’s latest cover has reportedly led to dwindling morale inside the National Magazine of Texas.

According to multiple interviews with former staffers, the environment inside the Austin-based publication is now largely characterized by fear and precariousness, with employees worried about job stability and unsure if they can trust their leadership.

What’s worse, the heart of the award-winning magazine—its uncontested editorial talent—is bleeding out of its halls. According to several sources, that exodus began when Texan Paul Hobby swooped in as the new owner.

In October 2016, Texas Monthly announced that Hobby’s private-equity firm, Genesis Park, had bought the magazine. That December, Editor in Chief Brian Sweany left. He was followed by Director of Editorial Operations Stacy Hollister, website editor Andrea Valdez, Editorial Director Kate Rodemann, Executive Editor Pamela Colloff, Creative Director T.J. Tucker, longtime staff writer and Senior Editor John Spong, longtime staff writer Jordan Breal, copy editor Shannon Stahl, and Features Editor Dave Mann.

Copy Editor Jill Meyer confirmed to The Daily Beast on Friday that she announced her departure more than a month ago—to focus on another project. Other former and current staffers have told The Daily Beast that more departures are on the way.

Those names are especially jarring considering the decades of experience they share and the formerly limited turnover the Monthly experienced, according to several former staffers with deep knowledge of the magazine’s history.

Former staffers at the magazine say things deteriorated unevenly.

“It’s been like an entire year of roller coaster. One week where everything was fine, and then it’d be a disaster,” said a former staffer. “One crisis after another. After a while, you stop expecting things to turn a corner.”

In February of last year, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that newly minted 33-year-old Editor in Chief Tim Taliaferro—freshly picked by Hobby from an editorship at a university alumni magazine—planned to take the publication, known all over the state as a force in political reporting, in a “lifestyle” direction.

He told CJR reporter Lyz Lenz,“Texans don’t care about politics.” He included specific examples of stories he was not interested in covering, including those on transgender bathrooms. Readers all over the state were dismayed by Taliaferro’s remark, including former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who commented: “And another one bites the dust.”

Taliaferro claimed his words were taken out of context, but CJR defended its reporting by posting the reporter’s notes. Later, Taliaferro posted a response to the Monthly’s website, claiming he “unfortunately gave the CJR the wrong impression.”

Less than a year later, CJR created another firestorm for the magazine when it reported that the politics-allergic Taliaferro had ethically compromised the magazine by allegedly entering into an “arrangement” with the dating app Bumble: Founder Whitney Wolfe Herd would appear on the cover in exchange for a $25,000-$30,000 social-media push by the dating company, according to the CJR story.

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“I can’t stress enough how much is on the line for me with this deal,” Taliaferro wrote in an email quoted by CJR. “I must have this story perform and earn lots of eyeballs.”

According to the CJR story, Taliaferro denied any such formal arrangement but confirmed the emails as legitimate. He characterized them as a “nitty gritty” conversation intended to coordinate a social-media push for the magazine and the dating app.

CJR called it “an ethical gray zone.”

When reached for comment, a media representative told The Daily Beast that the magazine management does not plan to do any one-on-one interviews at this time and would not answer specific questions about the Bumble cover or the atmosphere inside the publication—but in a released statement to The Daily Beast, Hobby noted the magazine has an “ironclad commitment to editorial integrity.”

“The magazine did not and will not sell our covers,” Hobby continued. “Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd was the best option for the cover of the newsstand copies of our February issue, and that’s why she’s featured. No money changed hands to promote any story. No editorial or cover considerations were influenced by outside interests.”

Hobby added, “We take seriously our responsibility to maintain the hard-earned reputation of this magazine. We stand by the tenets of journalism and are committed to making our processes—and this team—stronger than ever.”

Still, staffers who told CJR about the internal announcement of the Bumble deal called it “a clear violation of one of journalism’s most fundamental ethical guidelines,“ adding, “to hear [Taliaferro] brazenly admit this deal in the meeting, bragging about it like it was some sort of major coup, it was like he truly didn’t understand why it was actually bad.”

One former staffer told The Daily Beast, in reference to the Bumble cover: “At best, you were in league with the subject of your story. At worst, you sold your cover.”

In a statement issued to CJR, Hobby denied that characterization.

“In the course of preparing this story on [Herd], we treated [her] the same way we do any of the cover subjects in the illustrious history of this magazine: smartly, fairly, and with the highest editorial standards,” Hobby told the publication. Taliaferro also told CJR that the decision to feature Herd on the cover was made by early January and was not contingent on whether or not the company promoted the story.

According to CJR, “He insisted there had been no deal made with Bumble, that no promotion of the story had been promised by the representatives of the company or Herd prior to the decision to make it the cover story, and that no monetary amount to be spent on promotion had been promised.”

In an apparent attempt to clean up the mess in the wake of the weekend’s CJR story, Taliaferro sent out a newsroom email—a copy of which was reviewed by The Daily Beast—to announce a new third-party ombudsman. Rich Oppel, former editor of the Austin American-Statesman, will work to “review our processes and organizational structure and to make recommendations for how we can implement every appropriate safeguard to protect our credibility,” he told the staff.

Taliaferro noted that the magazine’s “credibility” is its “most precious resource.”

He added, “I must stress that it is unacceptable for anyone on staff to put Texas Monthly’s reputation in jeopardy publicly.”

Paul Hobby himself comes from a long line of notable Texans. He is the grandson of a Democratic Texas Gov. William Hobby and the son of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. His grandfather was publisher of the now-defunct Houston Post, and his father served as president of the newspaper until the early 1980s. The second-largest airport in the city of Houston is named after his family.

But Hobby is, according to many of the staffers who recently left the magazine, an unpopular figure with the staff, with one single descriptor popping up over and over again: “arrogant.”

The magazine has “been bleeding talent, but there’s still a lot of talent,” said one former staffer. “There’s a lack of trust on both sides—I don’t know that that’s reparable.”

Michael Levy, who founded the magazine in 1973, is a plumber’s son. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the same class as President Donald J. Trump, went on to law school, then ultimately decided to found the National Magazine of Texas at the age of 27.

“My mom and dad taught me by example that if you want anything, you have to work hard,” Levy told The Daily Beast on Thursday.

When Levy chose his first editor of the magazine, he said he interviewed more than 300 applicants before hiring William “Bill” Broyles, who shared his vision for what it should be: “Texas is the city—and the neighborhoods are Dallas and Houston and Marfa and Wichita Falls.”

He asked me, “You identify yourself as more of a Texan than a Houstonian, right?” (“Yes.”)

“That’s why,” he said. “The state was increasingly sophisticated, but the media hadn’t kept up.”

As journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Steve Harrigan told The Daily Beast this week: The Monthly “created an unblinking sense of what Texas is and where it’s going and where it’s been.”

The now-71-year-old Levy added: “It was the gold standard. It’s not that way anymore. There are two different magazines with the same name. Now, they have a different vision of what they want to do.”

“When I started the magazine, I wanted staff writers and great journalism. I wanted fact-checkers, I wanted copy editors, I wanted church and state. It was The New Yorker model,” he added.

By all measures, that paid off in spades. Since its founding, the magazine has won 13 National Magazine Awards for public interest, politics, feature writing, and general excellence, according to CJR.

Levy was reticent to directly criticize Hobby, but addressed the mass exodus on Thursday: “People work for a lot of reasons. Money is only one of them. Pride of association is just as important.”

“We were very successful by doing it the way we considered to be the right way,” Levy said. “What Hobby considers the right way—that’s his business. He owns the magazine now.”

“What tied the five editors who worked under me together is they were all leaders,” said Levy. “A person can be president only as long as the people want them to be president.”

The magazine’s past editors include Broyles; Gregory Curtis; Jake Silverstein, the current editor of The New York Times Magazine; Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith; and Brian Sweany.

Steve Harrigan began writing at the magazine in 1973, the year it was founded by Levy.

“I wouldn’t have a career as a writer without Texas Monthly, and I think that’s true for a lot of people,” Harrigan told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “It created a home base for me and for other writers, and it kept us in Texas. It was the only thing that kept a whole generation from being scattered—from feeling the need to go to New York or Los Angeles.”

“We had a backstop of people who burrowed deep into every story and made sure that everything we wrote was correct and right,” he added. “There was a sense from very early on that this was not public relations or marketing—it was real journalism. I know there’s a kerfuffle going on right now, but I do think that everybody involved with the magazine still believes in that.”

Its political impact on the state—including its ranking of politicians each legislative session on “best” and “worst” lists—was rivaled only by its groundbreaking and award-winning long-form journalism, written by the likes of Gary Cartwright, Lawrence Wright, Pamela Colloff, and Robert Draper.

The magazine also inspired younger journalists.

“It was what we wanted to do with our lives: Write like Gary Cartwright for Texas Monthly,” former Senior Editor John Spong wrote in remembrance of Cartwright, who died in February of last year.

Spong, who declined to comment for this piece, quit the magazine in May.

Meanwhile, Draper told The Daily Beast in an email, “I’ve made my concerns heard [internally]. Those concerns are real—but I’m also painfully aware of the blunders I committed early in my journalistic career and don’t see anything that’s happened here that’s inherently insurmountable.”

Others are less optimistic than Draper and believe the problem goes above the young editor in chief.

“Tim is a symptom,” said one former staffer who requested anonymity out of fear of professional retaliation. “The person who set that situation up is Paul: Paul Hobby.”

“Honestly, I feel bad for Tim,” said the staffer, one of the many who left the magazine over the last 18 months. “He’s been put in a very difficult position. Here’s a guy who wants to move up in journalism. He’s working at a university alumni magazine, and here comes Paul Hobby offering you this incredible job that he’s obviously not qualified for. What are you going to do—turn that down?”

Taliaferro was 33 years old and working as editor in chief of Alcalde, the magazine for the University of Texas’ alumni association, when he was brought in to replace former editor Brian Sweany.

He was “really being set up to fail,” said the staffer. “Paul Hobby is one who bears responsibility.”

Taliaferro is now at risk of becoming the butt of the joke in Texas media. D Magazine calls him “The Most Misunderstood Magazine Man” over his haphazard attempt to explain away the two CJR stories. Elsewhere on social media, subscribers are vowing that they will cut ties with the Monthly.

Former staffers told The Daily Beast that they tried for months to keep an open mind about the changes at the magazine.

In addition to Taliaferro, Hobby brought on Chief Creative Officer Scott Brown, who previously founded The Company of Others, a marketing and innovation firm in Houston.

“Paul [Hobby] and Tim [Taliaferro] and Scott [Brown] came in thinking they were going to kind of reinvent Texas Monthly,” said the former staffer.

Though some former staffers expressed the opinion that Taliaferro’s mistakes may be at Hobby’s orders, more than one source said they no longer believe in the editor in chief.

“Sometimes Tim would give orders that were obviously directly from Paul,” said the former staffer. “When he gets in trouble, he backpedals and fudges things up.”

In his statement to The Daily Beast, Hobby noted, “Editor in Chief Tim Taliaferro’s communications with Bumble publicists may have incorrectly appeared to be a blurred line between the editorial and business sides of the magazine. When it comes to Texas Monthly’s journalism, even the appearance of impropriety can be damaging and is not acceptable. Taliaferro has acknowledged his misstep and regret to our staff, who care deeply about upholding the highest standards of journalism.”

Meanwhile, after the CJR piece, social media had already begun essentially eulogizing the award-winning publication. In response, Nicole Cliffe—a writer and co-founder of The Toast—created a Twitter thread of the magazine’s best pieces in tribute this week.

“It’s a national magazine in quality, and a Texas local paper in the acuity and focus it brings to regional stories,” Cliffe told The Daily Beast. “I have cried over some pieces, called senators over others, and prayed over MANY. It’s vibrant, uniquely American, balanced, and trusted in a way I trust almost no other journalistic venue. If TM says something happened, it happened.”

She added, “The idea that some new management could try to interfere with and dumb down that legacy—creatively, ethically—is horrifying, and I know Texas Monthly will survive it. It means a lot to people all over this country.”