Barney! Biz! Bluebonnets!

And other signs that Texas Monthly's brain trust doesn't have a neuron left

Patoski, who is most comfortable in cowboy boots and western-style jeans, has been a staff writer for Texas Monthly since 1975, excluding five years in the early 1980s when he tried his hand at managing bands. Patoski is best known for his quirky road-trip stories about the Texas landscape. He's written about the best swimming holes and miniature golf courses in the state. He's examined the origins of cedar fever and Texans' devotion to certain brands of jeans. He's also written plenty of stories about Texas celebrities, but he wavers on whether Texas Monthly has become brainwashed by the cult of celebrity.

"We have our own celebrities, and we should tip our hat to them," he says. "And then sometimes I look at what we are doing and think we've gone overboard, that we've gone too celebrity hungry."

Patoski is tormented. How else can he explain his tempting of fate a couple of months ago when he blasted Levy in print? Friends wondered if Patoski had a death wish.

"I was sticking my neck out, and certainly I knew there could be consequences," Patoski says. "It was done in the heat of the moment, and a more rational mind might not have done it. But at the same time, I think a lot of these uncertainties in the changing environment at Texas Monthly prompted me to do so. It was like, 'Well, let's see.' "

The changing environment is the corporate environment that hit Texas Monthly with the sale to Emmis, a publicly held corporation whose holdings today include 16 U.S. radio stations, a radio network in Hungary, five TV stations and three other magazines -- Indianapolis Monthly, Atlanta and Cincinnati. None of these city magazines is in the league of Texas Monthly, and none employs staff writers like Monthly does -- a point that sends cold chills up the spines of Patoski and some of his colleagues. Being a staff writer has perks, including company-provided health benefits and the security of regular paychecks -- two things freelance writers rarely enjoy.

Texas Monthly writers look down upon Emmis's other magazines as lightly regarded cousins. In March, they also will have a sibling to look down upon. That's when Texas Monthly's new quarterly business magazine debuts. Texas Monthly Biz is the first heed to Emmis's order that Texas Monthly extend its good name into new revenue-producing publishing ventures.

Evan Smith, who also is special projects editor, is editing Biz and swears the new magazine won't detract from Texas Monthly, although it already is cannibalizing the time he devotes to it. Like Emmis's city magazines, Biz does not employ its own writers.

Again, Patoski is tormented. He appreciates the need to capitalize on Texas Monthly's good name but worries that Biz could dilute Monthly's quality.

As time passes since the sale, Patoski says he's learning to live in the new environment. A fancy new laptop computer and a Christmas bonus from corporate can do wonders to placate. Still, his moods fluctuate, and his fear of the future has not subsided.

"The place where I bank has changed ownership five times, and it's now based in North Carolina," says Patoski, whose squeaky North Texas drawl sometimes doubles as a whine. "I used to shake my head about it only to discover last January that I joined that world too. It was an awakening. I can't call it a rude awakening, because I have seen a lot of pluses and minuses. I have seen changes. And you have to understand, at Texas Monthly, change is not a constant. It comes very slowly and it has happened very little in the past."

In a strange way, the sale emboldened Patoski to take on Levy. He had grown tired of apologizing for his publisher's actions, both to his environmentalist buddies and to people he interviewed for stories who expressed concerns that Levy's personal views would seep into Patoski's prose.

"I wouldn't have written that first letter if Mike was still the owner of the magazine," Patoski says. "I would have deferred to him. But it's not his cookie store anymore."

As Patoski saw it, Levy was an employee of Emmis, just like he was. "In my opinion, he was abusing his position, and I thought if he could abuse his position, then I was more than willing to abuse mine," Patoski says. "That's the new corporate environment."

Patoski's job is to be a master of words, but he falls over them when asked whether he's optimistic about the magazine's future.

"Uh, yeah," he says after a seven-second pause, "because you don't know where it's going to go. It's a pretty interesting time. We certainly have financial clout behind us if there's a need to open up the pocketbooks. Um, yeah, I mean ... that's a hard ... yeah, I'm optimistic. Why? I don't know. I go up and down."

In the industry, Texas Monthly is considered a "writers' magazine." That means the content is driven more by the initiative and insights of writers than by the imagination and ideas of editors.

It follows, then, that the quality of Texas Monthly depends heavily on its writers, and that losing two of its best was a major blow. Mimi Swartz, who went to work for the New Yorker, and Robert Draper, who was hired away by GQ, left Texas Monthly in the summer of 1997. The fact they were recruited away is a testament to their talents.

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