Happy Fortieth Birthday, Memphis magazine? I don’t really think I’ve known anyone who was happy to see that mark reached.
Even as I approach, personally, my seventieth year, the weight of youth-spent is not as heavy, it seems, as when I first put my foot on that initial rung of middle-agedness. I do recall it as the time when I began finally to think of myself as an adult — even if my bankers were still in doubt.
So, the question occurs to me: Has Memphis magazine finally grown up? I certainly hope not.
To be fair, the publication has always strived to exhibit mature taste, to serve up a cultivated atmosphere, like the best movies of the black-and-white era. But our original idea was that the magazine’s persona should be more William Powell than Orson Wells.
Don’t get those references? Did I mention that I am almost seventy? So in any number of important ways, it is difficult for me to gauge the current state of Memphis. I do know that forty is a ripe old age for any magazine, the species in general enduring more in dog-years than human ones. Not to mention that most print media has been on life-support for a decade now. It’s heartening to see Memphis not only surviving, but prevailing against the winds of change.
But change it has.
In 1976, we launched City of Memphis magazine as a children’s crusade. I mean, we were all so young that we were certain we knew what was best. What was right. And since there were so few voices competing for attention in the community, almost no one even contested our assertions. Altogether, a simpler time.
The list of windmills at which we tilted was long. As were the tomes we directed at them. Somehow, back in 1970s, a 10,000-word article about the waste-water treatment “crisis” seemed reasonable. (I don’t recall when that article actually ran or how long it really was, but to say that it was exhaustive of the fundamental subject is an understatement.) We couldn’t even put our foot down on the side of preserving Overton Park in anything under 1,800 words. And our first survey of the barbecue restaurants in the city ran for umpteen pages in what I recall as 4-point type.
It may have been the pure weight of the paper it took to print them that caused the articles we ran to win more journalism awards than any other city magazine in the country during its first decade. Whatever may be said about the current state of the editorial arts, they’ve certainly been on a diet.
Long-winded we may have been, but I still insist that the arguments were never bloated. The remarkable folks who staffed the magazine during its first decade believed in the full exploration of every side of an issue, eschewing advocacy journalism in favor of allowing the facts to prevail. And what a collection of talent it was, almost to a person rising to the top reaches of their respective professions. I’m fortunate in numbering them all as friends to this day.
Today’s Memphis is more succinct, demonstrating distinctly adult restraint. And a more carefully focused eye on the appetites of its audience. Back in the day, in addition to the laurels we accumulated for journalistic excellence, we also won more National Society of Illustrator awards than any of our peers. Thumbing through those issues recently, I wonder at that. Compared to the gracefully designed pages of current copies of the magazine, our efforts seem distinctly dated. I’m certain that if I re-read some of our “high-styled” content, I’d feel the same way about it.
Nevertheless, there was a fire and energy to the publication at that time attributable largely to youth. My message to the staff of Memphis today is just this: You may be turning forty, but don’t ever grow up.
Bob Towery is the founder of Memphis magazine, and was its publisher from 1976 to 1986. He still resides in Memphis, where he devotes much of his energy these days to racing cars, his other great passion besides journalism.