Texas Monthly drops its ‘hard paywall’ for all of 2020

Leadership said they hope that visitors will benefit from practical journalism on all things Texas and the “diversion” of offbeat stories.

April 9, 2020

Texas Monthly, long the lead horse for the city and state magazine sector, announced to digital visitors today that the site will be free through all of 2020.

A message Wednesday from editor-in-chief Dan Goodgame and president and chief creative officer Scott Brown expressed the hope that those coming to the site would benefit from practical journalism on all things Texas but also from the lighter “diversion” of offbeat stories.

“When you’re ready,” the note continued, “we will welcome you as a subscriber. In the meantime, please be safe, stay informed, and enjoy the stories that connect us.”

The pivot is a significant change — the monthly magazine’s site typically has maintained a “hard paywall” like The Boston Globe’s. After you had read two or three stories in a month, you would be blocked from reading more unless you bought a subscription.

I asked Goodgame how and why he and Brown picked the visitors-welcome policy, a longer term freebie than most newspapers have offered when taking down their walls for pandemic coverage.

“We closed our May issue last Thursday, barely making the deadline,” he said. “Then put our heads together the next day. We were trying to figure out in the moment how we could be most useful to our readers … and listeners too -— we have a lot of podcasts now.”

Weighing potential benefits versus risks, he and Brown decided new phases of the pandemic and related recession are likely to last through the year. That makes for an extended opportunity to showcase Texas Monthly’s work to new audiences.

As at many other news sites of all kinds, Texas Monthly has experienced a surge in visits, pageviews and new subscriptions in the last month

The crisis is having multiple financial impacts on Texas Monthly — not all of them bad. Advertising is down, of course, and a big annual event in conjunction with South by Southwest was canceled along with the festival itself.

But a new line of business — optioning out profiles, features and local lore content to TV and streaming services — was already growing. That trend has accelerated as the millions stuck at home become an even hotter market for entertainment. Ditto books.

Texas Monthly has consistently been honored in the National Magazine Awards. Editor (and television personality) Evan Smith departed a decade ago to become co-founder of The Texas Tribune. Texas Monthly has been sold several times since Michael Levy founded it in 1973.

However, except for the addition of the digital site and other related businesses, the magazine’s winning editorial formula has stayed consistent.

Texas Monthly’s paid circulation stands at roughly 270,000.

I asked Goodgame if he had a sense of how the city-state group of magazines nationally is doing under current financial pressure. Not well, he said. A number of the magazines are shrinking, others are folding, as 72-year-old San Diego Magazine announced March 23 it was doing.

In fact, the Texas Monthly site did a feature a week ago on the troubles of the state’s alt-weeklies and city magazines.

Texas Monthly’s four-paragraph take-down-the-wall note concludes by offering a “special gift” to existing print + digital subscribers. That will be a special issue on Willie Nelson in September, originally planned as a premium item not part of the $24 yearly subscription.

I mentioned to Goodgame in an email that The Star Tribune in Minneapolis had great success when it launched a quarterly slick format magazine with a cover story with fresh material on native son Prince. That was after the paper had already run at least a hundred stories about Prince’s death and legacy.

Goodgame replied, “Willie (and Selena) are to us like BBQ (and, lately, tacos): The more we publish on these topics, the hungrier readers get for them.”

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.