MCALLEN, TEXAS — In July of 2005, Steve Taylor and his partner Melinda Barerra sold their Isuzu Rodeo for seed money and launched the first online-only news site in the Texas border region. The site, called the Rio Grande Guardian, bills itself as “the internet newspaper of south Texas,” and covers the Rio Grande Valley, which consists of the four counties that make up the southernmost tip of the nation’s second most populous state. With relatively few Internet users and plenty of economic problems, the Valley was and is an unlikely place to start a web-only news outlet, but Taylor and co-founder Barrera, who had experience founding small businesses, looked at the growth of online-only news sites in other parts of country and felt that their site could gain a foothold. More than five years later, the Guardian has reported on some of the biggest stories affecting the Valley and gained an audience among working residents and community leaders alike.
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Originally a political reporter in England, Taylor immigrated to Texas in 1996 and, after spending time working at News 8 Austin and the Valley Freedom Newspapers, went on to report on border news at Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report, a prominent subscription-based Texas politics site. Developing a passion for border region news, Taylor, along with Barrera, decided to create the Rio Grande Guardian and planned to charge subscribers $187 a year for an advertising-free product. When that model proved impractical, the two founders removed the site’s paywall and began soliciting ads. “People looked at us like we were aliens when we said we wanted to advertise online,” Taylor says. Although the decision meant giving up what revenue the site had been able to earn through subscriptions, Taylor says the decision was instrumental in growing the Guardian’s audience. As of February 2011 the site boasts 10,000 e-mail subscribers and 115,000 unique visitors a month.
Named after Taylor’s favorite newspaper in England, the Rio Grande Guardian is a comprehensive news source for the Valley, covering politics, education, business, and the multitude of policy and humanitarian issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border. Stories are well reported and written in a traditional newspaper style, and, though the publication is online only, it does little multimedia or blogging. Taylor hopes to begin offering more Spanish-language news, and a Guardian “en español” page is currently under construction.
The national media have picked up a number of the Guardian’s stories, including an alarming investigative piece about the Texas border patrol conducting citizenship screenings during hurricane evacuations and drills. The Guardian experienced a traffic bump in the multiple millions when the Drudge Report highlighted its story about Rep. Pete Gallego, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, endorsing presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008. The surge in traffic crashed the site for half a day as the site’s host scrambled to resolve the issue.
With a bare bones staff of only six editorial employees, all of whom, with the exception of Taylor, are part-time, the Guardian is still able to play a prominent role in the Texas journalism community. During state legislature sessions in Austin, the Guardian is the only border news source that travels to the capital, a distinction that Taylor believes is a crucial difference between the Guardian and his local competition. At the sessions, the Guardian finds itself alongside the most prominent Texas news outlets, including the Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and the Texas Tribune. That’s good company for a website that few could have predicted would remain viable five years after its founding. As Taylor says, “Our job is to be credible, do good work, and stick around.”
Rio Grande Guardian Data
Name: Rio Grande Guardian
Principal Staff: Steve Taylor, editor; Nadezhda Garza, assistant editor; Joey Gomez, video journalist.
Affiliations: KVEO-TV, Brownsville; KGBT-TV, Harlingen.
CMS: Custom CMS