The Least Interesting Man in the World
Evan Smith has no secret life. He doesn’t masquerade at night as a costumed vigilante dispensing justice. He doesn’t have a second incarnation as an Elvis impersonator in Vegas. There’s no dark underbelly, no tortured soul within. In fact, he relates more to Clark Kent than Superman. Rats! Evan Smith, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the The Texas Tribune and former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, is the very incarnation of the mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan media outlet. When he’s not at the office, he drives his two kids to and from school, eats supper at home as often as he can manage it and falls asleep watching reruns of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because he has to get up at 5 in the morning to go for a run with his dog . He plays poker and tennis with the same small group of amigos he’s run with for y ears. And even though he is seemingly ubiquitous at social e vents and fundraisers throughout town, he says he doesn’t like parties— or even being around people other than his family—all that much. (The reporter listening to this pedestrian litany, in search of the kind of dish that sells magazines, sinks further in to a slough of despondency. “Dude,” he’s thinking, “work with me here.”) It’s no use. “The happiest time for me is the 20 minutes before the beginning of the movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, watching whatever nonsense they put up on the screen,” Smith says. “I’m drinking a beer. I’m powered down.” Really? “I’m the most open book you can imagine,” he adds. “There’s no dark side. It’s boring.” To hear Smith tell it, he is the antithesis of the pitchman for Dos Equis: The Least Interesting Man in the World. And yet, for nearly 18 years, until 2009, he helped shape and then led Texas Monthly, one of the most compulsively readable magazines in the country, with the circulation figures and industry awards to prove it. After he left Texas Monthly at the top of his game, Smith co-founded and became editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune (texastribune.org), a cutting-edge, non-partisan online publication focusing on political issues and public policy in the state. He also hosts a nationally syndicated television interview series on PBS, Overheard With Evan Smith (formerly Texas Monthly Talks), during the course of which he’ s gone head to head with personalities as colorful, diverse and memorable as rocker and firearms firebrand Ted Nugent, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, late governor Ann Richards and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. (Smith’s two children, Wyatt and Carson, are so over the fact that their dad’ s on television, reported their mom). This is not the kind of company you’d expect a boring guy to keep. And, talking to him, it ’s clear that, despite his best protests, he’s anything but. “Yes, he’s boring,” says Julia, Smith’s wife. “If by that he means he falls asleep on the couch every night. But at the dinner table , he’s not boring. He lives in his head, and that ’s the most interesting and funniest place to be, so I love getting to be in there and hang out with him. ” On a late-April day, Smith is presiding over the sepruchrally quiet newsroom of Texas Tribune reporters from his second-floor corner office on Congress Avenue. A corner of the Capitol building is visible out his window. Heads are hunched over computer monitors, fingers typing, Googling, consulting notes and laying out the next day’s website. On this day, the breaking story is a federal judge’s ruling that Planned Parenthood was entitled to take part in a state-run women’s health program, a development that the state opposes. (The issue is expected to come to trial before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in early June.) The Tribune, which Smith co-founded with venture capitalist John Thornton and political reporter Ross Ramsey in November 2009, focuses on health and human services issues, along with energy, criminal justice, water, immigration and public education. According to its mission statement, the Tribune seeks to foster “civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and other matters of statewide concern.” Content is available for free to newspapers throughout the state. The website also has an ongoing partnership to supply stories to the New York Times. Oddly, for a journalistic lifer like Smith, it ’s the first time he’s found himself in a breaking-news environment, let alone an all- digital format. “This is a huge transition,” he says, closing his office door on the newsroom. “I went in to this with the assumption that most of what I didn’t know about starting a breaking-news operation, I would figure out as we went. How hard could it be? “The funny thing about this hamster wheel we’re on is it’s a continuous stream. It’s like drinking from a news firehose. You’re never finished; you’re only on pause . It’s less about what we publish than being in this catlike state of readiness.” That last, gently ironic phrase may be a key to understanding the inner Evan Smith. It is possible that he is one of the smartest, most witty, best-informed, articulate (though some might say glib) people in any given room, but he doesn’t seem to let it go to his bespectacled head. “A gentleman magazine editor ” is how he described himself before the onset of the Tribune. He came to town from his native New York in 1992 at the behest of Texas Monthly’s then editor Gregory Curtis to take on a vacant editor’s slot. In hindsight, it’s hard to know how the Lone Star-centric staff of TM viewed the arrival of the Jewish, urbane and passionate young hire. “Yankee carpetbagger” might perhaps have been one characterization. (Smith counters, “Texas has always been a place where people go to make their lives. It’s all about what you do with the opportunity.”) “We were terrified that Evan was going to come in and turn it in to Texas Entertainment Weekly,” says Michael Hall, TM senior editor. “But when he came on, he assured us that that wasn’t going to be the case . He said, yeah, we’re still going to be putting Matthew McConaughey on the cover, but we were still going to be doing long-form reporting. And his commitment to that only got stronger.” “I think people were suspicious, but welcoming,” Smith recalls. “I was all about getting here as fast as I could, but I wasn’t going to last eight seconds if I didn’t mind my manners, learn, listen and use that job as a gift and an opportunity . And treat everybody there with respect.” Hall has known Smith for decades, dating back to when Hall’s Austin band, the Wild Seeds, played at Hamilton College in 1987, where Smith was a college station DJ. In addition to working for Smith at the magazine, Hall is also one in a close circle of friends who’ve gathered for years for a weekly poker game. “He’s a pretty good poker player,” Hall reports of Smith. “He can be very aggressive and then lay off for a while and then get aggressive again, so you can’t tell when he’s bulls**tting.” He also rats out Smith as the music nerd he is. “He was a huge Deadhead in college,” Hall says. “And he’s obsessed with Wilco. He will do anything for that band. If [Wilco frontman] Jeff Tweedy were to wink at him, I think he’d faint.” (When Smith snared Tweedy for an Overheard With Evan Smith episode earlier this year, Smith’s friends were in the audience, waiting to see if he’d lose it on camera. Smith, himself, made one hilarious and unprintable comment about trying to keep it together in the presence of his idol.) Smith’s legacy at Texas Monthly was to burnish the magazine’s tradition as a place for serious, long-form journalism. Current TM editor Jake Silverstein (who Smith hired to replace him) says, “When Evan took over Texas Monthly, it was a great magazine but it had begun to coast a bit and he just immediately stomped on the gas . It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this. His vision and energy and confidence completely reinvigorated the pages and brought the magazine in to its next phase. And that was a very necessary thing.” Yes, McConaughey was on the cover (on a recent issue, in fact), but Smith also committed to long, intricate, in-depth pieces that examined Texas’ seldom-seamless transition in to the 21s t century. “There was a time in the ’90s when people said, ‘Write shorter, be funny. People don’t have the attention span.’ And of course, that ’s wrong,” Smith maintains. “People always have the attention span for good, robust stuff. They’ll invest in you if you treat them with respect.” Hall, for his part, recalls that his longest story for the magazine, a 10,000-word piece about a young Texas convict caught in the grinding gears of the justice system, came under Smith’s stewardship. “He found a way to sell magazines while still allowing us to do serious work,” Hall says. “He left a great magazine for Jake to inherit,” says Mike Levy, TM founder and former publisher. “He said he’d been reading our magazine ever since he was a kid. Evan was one of only four editors we’ve had. My feeling was always that anything that’s successful is ultimately the reflection of one person’s taste, vision, judgment and interests. And even though I owned the cookie store, it was always the editor ’s magazine.” But then it wasn’t; at least not his. Smith began looking for an escape hatch fr om TM nearly three years before he left in 2009. “Everybody’s got a sell-by date. As a magazine editor, I was always asking, ‘How can we be a part of the conversation?’” he says. The Texas Tribune was his way of answering that question. “I was trying to see how the priorities of the state could take place in a more robust and productive setting.” Smith tries to explain that mission to his kids by saying, “There’s a lot of ways to change the world. There's a lot of ways to be of service, and public-service journalism is a way to change the world and a way to be of service to the community you live in.” Even if the Tribune had not materialized, he and Julia (who works for Corcoran & Co., a full-source development department for hire) are Austin lifers. Smith was charmed by the city during a Kerouac-style cross-country trek in the late 1980s. “I remember sitting at the Hole in the Wall, sipping tequila shots and watching the Yankees on television,” he says. He’d been a longtime fan of Texas Monthly, and when an editor’s slot opened up, he jumped. “I didn’t even think twice. Load up the car and get down to Austin.” He arrived during the Christmas holiday in 1991. It was a great time to be here, he says, in spite of the fact that, “ You couldn’t get a decent slice of pizza or Italian food of any kind. No Chinese food recognizable to people who’d lived elsewhere. The basic cultural things. If I wanted a suit from Barney’s, I had to drive to Dallas or Houston, but that was no big deal.” What there was, and what keeps Smith enamored of the city is the much-heralded quality of life. “It’s so great and can’t be replicated,” he says. “There’re so many interesting, smart people. I’m never bored here. I love the combination of the political, the cultural, the athletic and the intellectual. I love the weather and the food. I’m very emotionally connected to Austin.” But, as Satchel Paige observed, the social ramble ain’t restful. On the town, Smith seems ubiquitous, turning up at seemingly every A-list party, premiere, fundraiser and awards show. Most of that is a necessary part of his Tribune persona. But he could live without it. He’d rather be watching his kids play sports, filling an inside straight with his poker buddies or watching TV with Julia. “I’m not a lonely person, but I am anti-social,” he says, adding, “Those are two different things. Over the years, I’ve become very anti-social. I do not like being out among a lot of people . I feel uncomfortable in a crowd. I don’t like being with people particularly, and yet the job and life I’ve chosen are completely counter to that. It’s so much to do what I do and take on those things I happily take on, that when those things are not happening, I want to retreat.” The thing that has been most transformative in his life, he will tell you, is his family, and that’s what he tries to prioritize away from the Tribune. “Once you factor in the Tribune and the events he has to go to, I think he’s very protective of what little time remains,” Julia says. “I think that the energy it takes to be Evan is enormous. I see it. So I completely recognize his need to be,” she bubbles with laughter at the thought, “boring .” There’s that word again. One of the couple’s favorite getaways is Portland, OR, walking the streets of the city, poking around bookshops, going for hikes, the usual. On a recent visit, says Julia, her husband was totally blown away by a tour of the Tillamook Cheese factory. God help him. “He had a blast!” she confides. “He said it was awesome!” Walk on the wild side , man. On the other hand, maybe the highly visible tightrope walk that is The Texas Tribune is wild enough. “This two and a half years has taught me something,” Smith says. “Before, I always had the luxury of existing in someone else’s structure. There was always a soft landing . But I’m out of soft landings for the time being. It’s a high-wire act to be running something and have people out there go for that high-wire walk with me. I’m aware every day when I walk into this office that there are people counting on me not to fail. We are all responsible for this success, but if it fails, it’s on me.” Duly noted. But are you really sure you wouldn’t also like to try a little nocturnal crime fighting on the side?