Hey everyone, welcome to Medialyte, a newsletter devoted to analyzing the latest goings-on in the media industry. Going forward, I hope to publish three or so times a week, but bear with me while I get everything figured out.
There are a lot of insane things happening in the world of journalism right now, but few boggle the mind more than Texas Monthly’s mysterious decision to drop their paywall for the rest of 2020. In the announcement, Editor-in-Chief Dan Goodgame explained the magazine’s decision:
“Texans have always connected over shared stories, and that’s more important than ever right now. That’s why, effective today, we are giving free access to the full range of storytelling on TexasMonthly.com to all visitors, for the remainder of 2020.”
Goodgame’s decision comes at an odd time. Because of Covid-19, traffic to news sites across the country is soaring. According to Pete Doucette, now a managing director at FTI Consulting, “At metros, daily visits on digital are up an average of 122 percent as of the third week of March.”
However, advertising now brings in substantially less revenue than it has traditionally. This means that more traffic does not necessarily mean more money. Many media companies have responded to this reality by pushing digital subscriptions, memberships or donations as a way of drumming up a substantial, reliable source of revenue.
But for media companies without a robust subscriber base already in place, or for those for whom a membership option has not historically existed (i.e. alt-weeklies and other ad-supported enterprises), this spike in readership has not translated into meaningful money. So, because most advertisers have begun shrinking their ad-spending in recent weeks, this already-evaporating source of revenue has simply disappeared.
As a result, despite the fact that many sites are attracting historic levels of traffic, newspapers, alt-weeklies and magazines across the country are shuttering.
In response, newspapers that initially lowered their paywalls to ensure readers could access vital Covid-19 reporting have, in recent weeks, begun to put those paywalls back up. Some companies, like The Atlantic, have managed to convert a substantial portion of these new readers to subscribers, but most have not been so lucky.
All of this makes Texas Monthly’s decision that much more baffling. Why choose now to remove their paywall — not just to their Covid coverage (which is sparse), but to everything on their website? And why do so for the rest of the year?
Hypothetically, the magazine might have such a lucrative advertising infrastructure that they are an exception to the rule; maybe they can make so much money off traffic that removing their paywall is a smart choice. This, however, seems unlikely. Another potential explanation: They might have found that their paywall was actually discouraging readership, and the magazine has simply used Covid as a sly excuse to change their financial strategy.
Whatever the case, Texas Monthly is certainly zigging while everyone else is zagging. I can’t understand the move, but maybe the coming months will bring more clarity to their decision.