Barney! Biz! Bluebonnets!

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

Swartz, who began writing for Texas Monthly in 1984, won a National Magazine Award, the industry equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, for her 1995 story on HMO abuse. She also wrote memorable stories in the 1990s about racism in Vidor, sexism inside the Texas A&M University Corps, the subliminal effects of the breast implant industry on Houston's psyche and former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith's wooing of an octogenarian. The magazine used the word "shocking" to promote Draper's stories about a prison guard accused of murdering an inmate and a state bureaucrat using a state computer to run an escort service. Draper, who started in 1991, also wrote a prophetic cover story about problems with the Texas Lottery.

Their exits came 18 months after Texas Monthly laid off staff writer Jan Reid and eliminated the staff writer position held by Jan Jarboe Russell, who left on her own to write the Lady Bird Johnson book but might have been laid off had she stayed. Some Monthly writers still grumble that the elimination of Reid and Jarboe Russell's jobs was to pad profits in anticipation of the sale. (Reid, Jarboe Russell and Draper, though no longer on staff, are listed as contributing editors in the magazine's staff box, which means the magazine depends on them to submit stories on a freelance basis. Reid wrote the October 1998 cover story on Lyle Lovett, for example.)

Texas Monthly's search to replace Draper and Swartz focused on two experienced daily newspaper reporters, including Howard Swindle, a 20-year veteran of the Dallas Morning News and a lead member of its special investigative projects team. Swindle says he opted to stay at the Morning News out of loyalty to the paper and his colleagues on the special projects team, and that money never entered into his decision. Curtis, however, says Texas Monthly was unable to hire one of its two candidates, presumably Swindle, because the magazine could not offer a tantalizing enough salary. The other candidate, presumably not Swindle, snubbed Texas Monthly after his paper offered him a glamorous new position.

It has become increasingly difficult for Texas Monthly to retain and attract topnotch writers. At GQ, Draper is paid twice as much to write half the number of stories that were expected of him at Texas Monthly. Daily newspapers and newsweeklies are paying their writers better too. In addition, Texas Monthly no longer can realistically promote itself as the only publication in Texas where good journalism is practiced, an incentive the magazine could wave in front of job candidates in the past.

Curtis has opted to fill the voids by asking three current Texas Monthly editorial employees to spend more time writing. Each was hired in 1997 into a position at or near the bottom of the magazine's chain of command. None has much writing experience. Until recently, one was an editorial assistant, an entry-level job that pays, according to Brill's Content magazine, $19,000 a year to start.

Curtis, who has one more position to fill, says he is happy and comfortable with the moves because they fall in line with the magazine's past philosophy of finding untapped talent that blossoms in the pages of the magazine. Neither Swartz nor Draper was hired as a star, he notes, but they each became one at Texas Monthly. Draper does not necessarily agree.

"It would be misleading to suggest that Texas Monthly spent years grooming me for stardom," says Draper, who had written a book about Rolling Stone magazine before joining Monthly. "I benefited enormously from the kind of creative osmosis that takes place from working at a place like Texas Monthly, but I will not so modestly suggest that with me, it did not take much work."

In his office, Levy is raving about Michael Hall's January 1999 story on singer Nanci Griffith. Hall is one of the three inexperienced writers being asked to perform miracles.

"I was mesmerized by it because it was presented with such intelligence," Levy says of the story. So mesmerized that during his gushings over the story, he repeatedly makes the mistake of referring to its subject as Nanci Griffin, not Griffith.

In another office, Smith downplays the impact of the magazine's losing two top writers. "We feel their loss, but we'll get over it," Smith says. "We're getting over it. We've gotten over it."

Strange, considering that weeks before at Hobby Airport, Smith went into spasms trying to get Levy to understand what he now contends is immaterial. Apparently, denial is contagious at Texas Monthly.

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