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Forty years ago, as the very first issue of Texas Monthly was being put together by Bill Broyles & Co., Life magazine folded. Though it would later resume publication (before finally folding again in 2007), and though it continues on today as a pretty amazing photo site, the coincidence of the legendary magazine’s demise and the new upstart’s birth served to make a point about the way the business was changing at the time. As Mike Levy, Texas Monthly’s founding publisher, wrote in his introductory note to readers:
The trend in magazine journalism away from big, mass circulation, general interest publications such as Life, Post, and Look towards the so-called ‘special market’ magazines, such as Psychology Today, New York, Sports Illustrated, and Road & Track. Americans are becoming more local in their perspectives, their interests are being narrowed and defined, and their magazine reading is being focused on what is going on in their own fields of interest and in their own backyards. Texas Monthly is a special market publication.
I’ve been thinking about this observation as we’ve been building this new website, which debuts today, on our fortieth birthday, at high noon low noon noon El Paso time … (what’s a few hours here or there?). Everyone knows that we’re living through another disruptive time in the journalism business. The web, and social media, and mobile devices, and everything else that you can squeeze under the umbrella of the Digital Age has upended the way readers read and the way journalists reach those readers and the way publishers make a business around the whole proposition. Texas Monthly’s print magazine has been an outlier to these trends. Our print product is a roaring, profitable enterprise that supports a large staff of exceptionally talented and experienced journalists doing exceptionally high-quality work. I’ll admit that this gives the magazine a sort of pleasantly old-fashioned feel at times: This is a place where, for a variety of reasons, the old way still works. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pressure and see the opportunity presented by the way digital media are transforming our business. This new site is the biggest step we’ve yet taken to grab that opportunity.
There are a lot of changes here—and there are more coming. For readers who care, I’ll be returning to this space periodically to talk about them. (And to hear from you, I hope, about what you like and don’t like.) Today, I’ll start with the basics. About a year ago we started sketching out what we wanted this new site to look and feel and act like. Our notion was that above all else, it should be simple. We didn’t want to overwhelm readers with bells and whistles and doorways and animation and dizzying amounts of content. We wanted a straightforward site that emphasized reading and looking at photos and video (and sharing). Perhaps the most radical notion we had was that we wanted to eliminate the sometimes rigid internal distinctions we had about different story types. On the web, we figured, a reader wasn’t going to get hung up about whether something had been written originally for the magazine or the site; or whether it was long or short; or whether it was a blog post or a story. All those distinctions don’t matter as much as the fundamental question that burns at the center of any relationship between a reader and a publication (which neither the trend away from mass market magazines nor the rise of digital has changed): do I want to read this?
So we designed the site with the idea that by and large all content would be equal. Readers would choose what they want to read based on how interesting it looks, not based on where it comes from. Everything, whether it’s a blog post or a story from the magazine or a quick piece for the web, would be presented in a simple little tile. Those tiles are what you see on the home page and on the different channel pages. They look like this:
Both of these tiles are on the home page today, presented side by side in the same manner, but they’ll take you to very different types of pieces. The one on top is Pam Colloff’s 14,000-word longform magazine feature about Michael Morton from our November issue (we’re putting it up today because next week the court of inquiry into his wrongful conviction will begin). The one on the bottom is a smart piece about Ted Cruz that Erica Grieder wrote yesterday for the site. Both pieces are valuable. And the fundamental question isn’t how or why they were written. The fundamental question is: do you want to read them? (Hopefully, the answer is yes on both counts.)
Of course, you can still go search the current issue, or the archives, to find all of our magazine stories organized in a very clear and orderly way, just as they are in print. And you can still go directly to our blogs to read only blog posts. (And hey, many of you are just coming in the side door through a social referral to an individual story page anyway!) But on our home page and on our channel pages we’ve created a design that mixes brand-new stories, blog posts, stories from the magazine, stories from the archives, and more, all presented in a clear, simple, stripped-down way.
The larger site architecture is organized in a familiar way, around content channels that reflect the same core subject areas that we’ve always been known for in print—Politics, Food, Travel, and a fourth channel we’re calling “The Culture.” Some people ask why we added the “the” to “culture.” We did it to emphasize that this is not just an arts and culture channel, this is a channel about the culture of Texas—high, low, traditional, modern. Everything is in here: music, book, and movie reviews, arts and culture stories and profiles of entertainers, but also stories about who we are and what makes this state special and interesting. You’ll find the Texanist here, doling out his accented advice. You’ll find Jason Cohen’s blog It’s Always Football Season, about our year-round secular religion. You’ll find Matthew Diffee’s hilarious profiles of Texas animals. And so forth. This is not just Culture, it’s The Culture.
We’ve also built a channel called Encyclopedia Texanica, where we’re bundling up our archival content on the extra-special subjects (Willie Nelson, NASA, King Ranch, George W. Bush, etc.) to which we return time and time again over the years. We’ll be adding to this continuously and building out this extremely fun and browsable encyclopedia of the stories and subjects our readers care about the most.
Encyclopedia Texanica isn’t the only thing we’ll keep building after today. The site you’re on right now is only the beginning. We have a lot more in store for you in the months ahead—new features, new channels, new blogs, new technologies. From our side, it’s going to be extremely fun to keep innovating and trying new things here, and hopefully getting you to answer the question, “Do I want to read this?” with a resounding “Yes!” And I’ll be back to tell you about each one. And to answer questions too. So let us know what you think. And thanks for reading.