"We're Not Doing as Well as We Should."
Two EICs Talk Bylines, Representation, and Diversity in Texas Magazines
Working on the 2021 Texas Writers Byline Scan served as a beautiful reminder, going on three pandemic years, of just how much Texas has to offer the world, and of just how much Texas is its own brilliant, batshit geography. I found myself paging through magazines knowing I didn’t have time to dilly-dally if I was gonna get this project done, and yet here I was, caught up in the stories and the prose and the poetry, anyway.
What I found, apart from the numbers: Texas journalists doing incredibly creative, sometimes ground-breaking work. There are journalists finding our untold — and in some cases deliberately silenced — Texas stories and discerning new ways to tell old Texas stories. There are journalists questioning histories written by ill-gotten victors and journalists finding new angles on well trodden ground. Many of these writers are doing so with minimal resources, or for abominably low pay, or doing so out of their own pockets or going into debt to do so.
I often hear that publications and decision-makers don’t have the time, capacity, or or people-power to look at exactly what diversity, equity, and inclusion means and and how these things manifest at their magazines — especially when DEI initiatives tend to be generally unfunded, unappreciated, and institutionally unsupported, while also usually initiated and managed by by women of color, trans- and gender-nonconforming people of color, men of color, trans- and gender-nonconforming white people, white cisgender women, and LGBTQ folks at every intersection of those identities. I also believe that in general, DEI can be little more than lazy buzzspeak for those who care more about sheer numbers than they do the genuine quality of any given journalistic project writ large, or who believe surface-level engagement that results in exploitation and tokenism ought to be enough, and that genuine culture change is too challenging, or not worthwhile.
It is clear that some magazines are making dedicated efforts to broaden their coverage areas — both geographically and in terms of subject matter — as well as support and develop historically marginalized writers. But in the course of producing this scan, I also heard from writers and editors who are being hired for or working with diversity and representation initiatives that are not backed up fully or even partially by institutional values and resources. There is a lot of (free!) talk and less money for the walk in Texas journalism.
So, about that talking.
WHAT’S HAPPENING AT TEXAS MONTHLY AND TEXAS HIGHWAYS
I reached out to every editor-in-chief (and in one case where an EIC was no longer on staff, a publisher) at the eleven magazines surveyed in the scan to find out more about how Texas publications are approaching these issues — if they’re doing so at all. Most did not respond to multiple inquiries, another declined to talk, and one person expressed openness but didn’t follow through. (If you’re one of these editors and you’re reading this: I would still love to speak with literally any of y’all! You know how to get in touch with me.)
Two editors-in-chief agreed to interviews with me: Dan Goodgame at Texas Monthly and Emily Roberts Stone at Texas Highways. Both editors are white, and both of their magazines have internal diversity committees, and both magazines track representation and diversity in their coverage and among staff and freelancers, but don’t share that information publicly. They’re also a little different structurally: Texas Monthly relies more heavily on staff writers, while Texas Highways relies almost exclusively on freelancers. In terms of scan results for both magazines, white writers made up the majority of bylines, men and women and non-binary writers were represented in roughly similar ways (close to equal byline representation for women and men, and vast underrepresentation for non-binary folks), and Austin-based writers hold about half of all bylines for both magazines. White, male, Austin-based writers hold a disproportionate number of prestige (covers, features) bylines at Texas Monthly, while Texas Highways is better on the representation front on prestige bylines for women and people of color and non-binary writers.
Practically as soon as I sat down in Goodgame’s downtown Austin office — the view is stunning; Goodgame joked it’s better suited for a lobbying firm — he told me: “We’re not doing as well as we should.” Goodgame came on board at Texas Monthly in early 2019, and was eager to note that by the end of his first year at the magazine, they’d gone from one journalist of color on staff to nine. (We talked some about geographic representation and gender representation at the magazine, but most of our conversation focused on racial diversity. Women hold about half of staff positions at the magazine but are just five of fifteen staff writers, and most everyone there lives in Austin — Goodgame himself lives in San Antonio but stays in Austin during the week at his apartment nearby.)
Goodgame said that he considers staff and freelance recruitment to be a key part of diversifying his writer base — he asked Texas Monthly’s DEI committee to help create databases of journalists of color who they might work with, or at least dream about working with. The magazine has started advertising positions more widely on journalism job boards aimed at journalists of color (“Some of those sites are expensive! I said I don’t give a damn, spend the money!”) and he also talked about creating full-time positions for regular freelancers, particularly among journalists of color. Goodgame said TxMo is also looking at how to “get outside our existing networks,” and “shop outside Texas” for staff, which he said had worked well for the magazine in the past, though: “I don’t want any of this to sound like an excuse, because there’s no use, we’re not doing what we should be doing, but COVID has made that kind of relationship-building harder.”
The magazine has also started paying interns, and paying for job candidates’ travel if they’re coming in from out of state or outside Austin. Goodgame said that, since hiring can often be about “taking a chance,” on someone because you’d attended the same school or worked with the same mutual friend in the past, he’d emphasized with staff that “a really good reason to take a chance on a candidate is if they’re a journalist of color. So let’s look at attitude and aptitude, and think about, is this someone we could coach to do this job?”
But I wondered about retention. What’s the magazine doing besides offering competitive pay and convening a DEI committee? Are they working on — especially spending money on — internal culture change so that historically marginalized writers feel good about sticking around? Goodgame said the most they’d done on that front was “some unconscious bias training,” but that he wanted to “take another step the next time we do it, to do it in a more memorable, vivid, and specific way.”
While my own byline scan looked solely at writers’ demographic information, I mentioned that I’d like to do a content analysis as part of future iterations of the project; Goodgame said TxMo has also made efforts to diversify the actual representation of Texans in the magazine — choosing Sandra Cisneros over Lyle Lovett, for example, for their boots issue cover back in 2019. It’s not something all readers have necessarily appreciated: after running a few covers featuring Texans of color, Goodgame says one subscriber complained to him that the magazine should change its name to a racial-slur-Monthly. Said Goodgame: “There are people I’ve phoned, emailed, written back to, to say, you need to stop subscribing right now.”
Goodgame also talked about wanting to improve “ideological” diversity at Texas Monthly, expressing some concern that the magazine wasn’t representative enough of “people like Joe Strauss, Kel Seliger, Will Hurd” — middle-of-the-road Republicans, basically — but that he was also sure his staff could cover those political views thoughtfully even if they disagreed personally. He considers Texas Monthly’s mission to be “delivering the best storytelling about Texas,” whether that’s a Skip Hollandsworth investigation or finding the best gumbo tacos in the state. “To apply that mission today, you have to apply it to Texas as it is and as it’s becoming, and it’s impossible to do that unless you get a staff that represents the state in different ways.”
When I spoke with Texas Highways editor Emily Roberts Stone — we Zoomed — she described similar efforts at finding diverse and representative writers at the magazine. Texas Highways pays interns, reaches out to journalism associations for underrepresented writers, and looks for new talent from places like the Michener Center for Writers. But the editorial writing staff is small, which means most of their bylines come from freelancers. Stone came on board at Texas Highways five years ago, and says she’s worked a “ton” on recruitment in recent years. Because Texas Highways is a travel magazine, improving geographic diversity is especially important to her.
“We’re constantly looking at and trying to find writers outside of Austin,” she said. “Austin writers going to El Paso is not as compelling as someone who understands El Paso, the spirit of the place.”
To that end, Texas Highways produced a freelancers’ guide with the aim of demystifying the pitching progress: “Especially when a magazine has been around for a long time, people think, ‘That magazine won’t want my story or the way I’d write it.’” But Stone says they’re always looking for new voices, especially from folks who live in, are from, or spend time in under-covered parts of the state. Getting novelists and other authors to pen work for the magazine’s essay section has also allowed them to “bring in a lot of different voices.”
But still, said Stone, there are “a lot of goals we haven’t reached yet,” because she wants to approach representation “in an authentic way, having relationships with writers, and not just being about numbers.” So they’re looking internally at accountability measures, determining how they can track progress: looking at, Stone said, “photography, illustrations, sources of stories, subjects of stories … you really do have to get down to the nitty-gritty, because if you don’t, you can have a habit of thinking you’re doing better than you are.”
As an example, Stone said the magazine is looking at Texas Highways’ features and essays — high profile stories but also the highest paid — to find coverage and representation gaps, because “our readers want to be stumped, to hear things they don’t know about Texas, and the more diverse perspectives you bring into that, the more you can tell those stories.” An example: “Tejano culture is such an important part of Texas,” which hasn’t been historically focused on in the magazine. In fact, Texas Highways received its first National Magazine Award nomination ever in 2021 for three “open road” section essays by Latinx writers. Just last week, the magazine was nominated for another NMA for a package that included Katie Gutierrez’s piece on vaqueros in the magazine’s “cowboys” issue.
“We’re in a time where people are really divided,” said Stone, “but what’s great about being a special interest magazine is that we have common bonds with our readers around a love of Texas, and proud Texanness, and within that broader umbrella we can tell all these interesting stories and perspectives readers haven’t heard.”
We can’t just wait on our legacy publications to catch up with the times. For editors and decision-makers who are interested in making change, I extremely recommend sitting with the COLLAB report by DaLyah Jones and Zacharia Washington, who looked at reparative journalism and community models, and who have some strong and urgent recommendations for how Texas journalism can be created by, from, and for communities – not merely targeted at them through diversity or representation models.
The tl;dr is that Texas magazines don’t, in a lot of ways, look like Texas and Texans, even at publications that are making deliberate efforts to improve representation and diversity. It’s 2022 and if you see someone’s name on a Texas magazine cover, pop into the feature section, or or read the letter from an editor or publisher, you’re still more likely than not to be reading the work of a white person, a man, or, in the case of statewide magazines, someone who lives in Austin. I hope that 2021 Texas Writers Byline Scan can be a useful, interesting, and instructive tool for folks who are invested in, and empowered to support, grow, and deepen the diversity of writers telling stories for, from, and about all of us here in the Lone Star State.
And yes, I’ll see y’all here next year for the 2022 version.