New blood: Can a Texas transplant make the Times Magazine matter again?

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Jake Silverstein. (LeAnn Mueller)
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When New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and other members of New York’s media establishment come to Austin, Tex., they hit up Torchy’s Tacos. Jake Silverstein, who joins their ranks this May as editor of The New York Times Magazine, is more of a barbecue guy.

“Market-style barbecue is one of the things I’m gonna miss about Texas,” the outgoing Texas Monthly editor-in-chief said at Stiles Switch, a down-home joint in north Austin that was cranking yacht-rock when Silverstein took me there on a recent Wednesday. Having ordered an ungodly pile of brisket, pork rib, beef rib, sausage links, turkey slices, coleslaw, pickles and potato salad, Silverstein rolled up the sleeves of his white button-down and dug in caveman-style. (Utensils are for barbecue amateurs.) The cover of Texas Monthly’s National Magazine Award-nominated June 2013 issue, “The 50 Best BBQ Joints ... In the World,” was mounted on the wall. The locals were no doubt familiar with the publication’s BBQ app, BBQ website, BBQ editor and BBQ Fest, all conceived during Silverstein’s tenure. “For better or for worse,” he said, “that’s gonna be a part of my legacy.”

The other part? Keeping up the literary bona fides of The Lone Star State’s 41-year-old monthly magazine while managing its adaptation to the digital world. Now, as Silverstein trades those brisket smorgasbords and airy commutes in his 1999 Toyota Tacoma for $10 Dean & DeLuca sandwiches and Midtown traffic jams, there’s a new legacy to start working on: The reinvention of the paper of record’s venerable Sunday supplement.

The magazine’s been something of a Rubik’s Cube for the Times lately. In the 1990s and early aughts, Adam Moss transformed it into a Zeitgeisty agenda setter. But neither of his successors, Gerry Marzorati nor Hugo Lindgren, had the same magic touch. Parts of the newspaper, meanwhile, have increasingly begun to feel, well, magaziney. And T, the Sunday magazine’s richer and sexier younger sister, achieved breadwinner status by siphoning much of the luxury and style content that advertisers love. Unromantic types might argue that only one of the two titles should exist, and you can guess which book they’d toss into the fire.

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With the Sunday magazine’s success at stake, it’s no surprise Abramson’s to-do list is about as tall as Silverstein’s Stiles Switch order. “It will be more fully integrated in the newsroom and will play a significant role in the big news stories of the day,” she wrote in a memo announcing Silverstein’s appointment. There is to be a “beguiling” redesign, masthead additions, storytelling innovations, increased reader engagement, multimedia enhancements, the works.

Silverstein said it was too early to go into specifics about his vision and strategy, but he is clearly well briefed on how the masthead views the challenge these days. “There’s a need to bring the newsroom and the magazine closer together, but at the same time clarify the magazine’s identity.”

SILVERSTEIN'S TIMES COURTSHIP began late last year after the Lindgren era came to a screeching halt. But it wasn’t until the morning of March 10, over coffee with Abramson at Austin’s Hotel San Jose, where the Times editor was staying during SXSW Interactive, that the marriage started to look like a fait accompli. “I loved the way he talked about narrative,” Abramson told me. “Mainly, I just love the stories that are in the well of his magazine.”

On Monday, March 24, Silverstein flew to New York as furtively as possible for a meeting with Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. By that Friday, the job was his. When the news began leaking out of 620 Eighth Avenue late in the afternoon, Silverstein hastily called a meeting in his office so the staff could hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. There was nary a dry eye in the room, not even Silverstein’s, but there was also “this huge sense of pride,” said executive editor Pamela Colloff, “that a publication like the Times Magazine would pick our guy.”

Texas Monthly’s parent company, Emmis Publishing, has its own pride. On April 11, Emmis sued the Times for an amount between $200,000 and $1 million, for allegedly refusing to negotiate the termination of Silverstein’s contract, which wasn’t set to expire until February 2015. (A settlement had not been reached at press time and Silverstein declined to discuss the litigation.)

The whole thing has a bit of a David vs. Goliath vibe. But the Austin-based Texas Monthly is a giant in its own right. Founded in 1973, it has achieved the sort of acclaim not often accorded to regional magazines. Silverstein, 38, is the latest in a long line of media stars who cut their teeth there: James Fallows, Nick Lemann, Joe Nocera, Robert Draper, Dominique Browning, Emily Yoffe, Scott Dadich, Evan Smith and so on.

At five-foot-eleven, Silverstein has smoky eyes, dark-brown bedhead and a calm California demeanor that betrays his West Coast origins. Stylish and outdoorsy, he’s a recovering poet who worships at the altar of Joseph Mitchell and the great New Yorker writers of the mid-20th century. His iteration of Texas Monthly was known for its ambitious long-form journalism, gripping southwestern crime noirs, sophisticated treatments of the state’s prominent politicos and high-minded packages on issues like water, immigration and urbanization. It felt modern and plugged into the world at large while true to the cowboy mythos at its core, blending literary nonfiction with service journalism that Abramson called “smart and sexy” and Smith described as “gracious.” Speaking of Silverstein’s magazine-making overall, Smith said: “I’m not sure it has a sensibility—and that’s good. It’s unpredictable.”

All of this made for a successful six-year stint as editor, including four National Magazine Awards out of 12 nominations. Emmis Publishing president Greg Loewen said that paid circulation has held strong at more than 300,000 under Silverstein’s watch and that “revenues have grown steadily,” hardly the norm for a general-interest magazine these last few years, regional or otherwise. (Texas Monthly made about $74.9 million in ad revenue in 2013, up from $62.6 million in 2009, Silverstein’s first full year with the reins, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.)

Mary Melton, Emmis Publishing’s editorial director, said Silverstein has been “innovative and smart” about extending Texas Monthly’s brand beyond the print edition, whether that’s a top-to-bottom web overhaul, a lively social media presence, events tied to coverage of topics like drought and the oil boom, or hiring the industry’s first-ever barbecue editor. “He’s always thinking along those lines,” she said.

As Texas Monthly’s fourth editor-in-chief, Silverstein upheld the magazine’s traditions of narrative storytelling and deep reporting on politics, policy and criminal justice. But he also “pushed the boundaries of structure and pacing,” said Dadich, the editor-in-chief of Wired, who was Texas Monthly’s creative director until 2006, when Silverstein was hired as a senior editor.

“It was immediately apparent that he was one of the great story editors in the history of this magazine,” said Colloff, who’s been on staff since 1997. Silverstein shepherded her 28,000-word epic about a wrongful murder conviction, “The Innocent Man,” which ran over the course of two issues in 2012 and won last year’s National Magazine Award for feature writing. “He never said stop,” Colloff recalled. “He just said, ‘Keep writing.’”

Silverstein was raised in Oakland, Calif. by a psychoanalyst mother and architect father. The oldest of two children, he first came to New York from Wesleyan University in 1998 with a degree in English, landing an internship at Harper’s, where he immediately impressed then-editor Lewis Lapham with his “fine sense of language” and instincts for what makes a good magazine piece. Lapham tried to hire him, but Silverstein had other plans. “He wanted to wander,” Lapham told me.

In the fall of 1999, that wanderlust took Silverstein to a weekly paper, The Big Bend Sentinel, in the west Texas town of Marfa, where he earned his reporting stripes covering everything from the weather to Mexican border issues. Sterry Butcher, a fellow Sentinel alum who went on to write for Texas Monthly, described him as curious and adventure-seeking. “He’s a natural storyteller,” she said. Robert Halpern, the Sentinel’s editor and publisher, said Silverstein embraced Texas from day one: “He didn’t dress like a city slicker. He assimilated—looking people in the eye, shaking people’s hands, saying hello right away.”

The next few years were peripatetic: A 10-month stint in New Orleans doing carpentry; a master’s degree in English from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.; a Fulbright Scholarship in Zacatecas, Mexico; and an M.F.A. in non-fiction from the University of Texas at Austin’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, where Silverstein worked on his memoir-cum-novel, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which was published in 2010 by W.W. Norton & Company. Along the way, he met Mary LaMotte, herself an accomplished editor, whom Silverstein married in 2004 in Marfa, where the couple owns a tiny adobe fixer-upper. They have two boys, 7-year-old Leo and 4-year-old Joe, who are excited about moving to a place where it snows during the winter.

In 2006, Smith, who was Texas Monthly’s editor-in-chief at the time, was looking for someone who could be groomed to replace him. He’d set his sights on Clara Jeffery, but she wanted to stay at Mother Jones, where she soon became co-editor. Jeffery recommended that Smith talk to her friend Jake. Smith was impressed with Silverstein’s pedigree and the freelance work he’d been doing for Harper’s. But Silverstein had limited editing experience, and Smith figured the most to come out of their meal at a now-closed Mexican restaurant called Las Manitas would be a new writer. Then he fell in love: “After talking for five minutes, it was like, ‘This guy’s the one,’” said Smith, who abdicated in 2009 to start The Texas Tribune. “In that short conversation, he conveyed to me everything I was looking for. He had really insightful ideas about the magazine business and long-form narrative non-fiction. I gave him a chance, and he never disappointed.”

Silverstein’s transition at the Times might be bumpier. For one thing, the lawsuit casts a pall over a high-profile appointment that was otherwise seen as a triumph for the Times following a protracted search that had media gossips in a chokehold. For another, shaking up the magazine is always a risky proposition. Lindgren nearly incited a reader riot when he did away with old mainstays like Ethicist Randy Cohen and Questioner Deborah Solomon, and while his feature-well was generally considered strong, new creations like the “One-Page Magazine,” “Who Made That?” and “Riff” got mixed reviews. Ad pages, meanwhile, were down 4 percent in 2013 (they were up 5 percent at T), according to figures provided by the Times, but Silverstein said: “Things I feel need to happen from an editorial standpoint will also greatly benefit the business side.”

There’s also this: Silverstein was chosen over two well-liked internal candidates, deputy editors Joel Lovell and Lauren Kern. “I’m not unaware that it’s a little awkward,” he said, adding that both editors are “huge assets” and that they’d done a bang-up job putting out the magazine under difficult circumstances. To top it off, there’s the task of finding new digs, and Silverstein’s already catching flack from his Brooklyn buddies for leaning toward the Jersey suburbs, perhaps Montclair, where he and his wife would fit right in with the legions of Times journalists and other media folk who live there.

But enough about logistics. After dinner, over drinks on the terrace of a decidedly un-Texas-like lounge down the road from Stiles Switch, I asked Silverstein if there were any butterflies flapping around in his stomach along with all that barbecue.

“Are the stakes high? Yeah. Is there a lot of pressure? Yeah. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to put together an excellent staff and put out great issues,” he said. “You’d have to be somewhat insane, have some sort of screw missing, to not have a little bit of fear about the challenges. I’m fully aware that putting out a great version of the Times Magazine means having to solve a whole number of problems that I can’t even imagine right now sitting at this comfortable restaurant in Austin, Texas. But I just really feel like I’m up to it.”

This article appeared in the May issue of Capital magazine.