McALLEN, RGV – The plan was to launch the Rio Grande Guardian on July 4, 2005, and then set off a few fireworks in celebration.
Our web designer, Rick, had come down to stay at our house in Pharr so he could teach me how to upload stories and photos to the new website. But, I did not pick it up as quickly as Rick and my partner, Melinda Barrera, had hoped for and so we did not go live until a few days later.
We wanted a soft launch without much fanfare in case there were any technical glitches. But there weren’t. It went smoothly and off we went on this rollercoaster ride. I was to be the editor and main writer and Melinda was to be the publisher. What a ride it has been!
At the beginning, we had no idea if we would make it. I had my doubts but Melinda was very confident. Many people told us we were crazy. “You cannot start an online newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley, hardly anyone has broadband access,” we were told. Our friends were right. In fact, when we started out some of the Valley’s cities did not even have a website. We were ahead of the curve, trailblazers for this part of Texas. “You will never make it past three months, never mind a full year. You will never get enough subscribers,” I remember being told. It has been a challenge at times, that is for sure, but here we are celebrating our 10th Anniversary.
At the beginning we were a subscription service. We charged $189 a year to access the site. We got the idea from my previous employer, the Austin, Texas-based, Quorum Report. Its publisher, Harvey Kronberg charged a subscription for his state politics and state government news service and we agreed we would follow this business model. I thought I would be able to bring over some of the readers I had built up at the Border Buzz, the section of the Quorum Report I focused on. They were mainly folks from South Texas who wanted more political news than their local newspapers were providing. I was skeptical that we could bring in that many readers. In fact I remember writing a list of potential subscribers and I know I did not get past 100. You do the math. At $189 a subscription, that would not be a lot of money. I remember telling Melinda this. Stick with it, she replied.
Melinda had been bold and adventurous from the beginning. She famously sold one of our two vehicles, the best one, an Isuzu Rodeo to pay for the creation of the website. I think we paid $6,000. She was not averse to taking risks and there is no doubt that without her vision and ganas we would never have launched the Rio Grande Guardian.
In September of 2005 we got our first request from a potential advertiser. It came from the Corpus Christi Convention Center. They wanted to promote an upcoming conference and asked what our rates were. We politely said “sorry, we do not take advertising, we are a subscription service.” It was amazing that we would turn money away but we did not want our readers to think our coverage would be influenced by advertisements. After a while, though, we realized we would have a much more sustainable business model if we took ads; that we could bring in more money from ads than we could subscriptions. So, two years later, in July 2007, we took down our paywall and went “free.” It meant everyday folks could read us, which is what I always wanted. I never wanted to write inside baseball stuff or to be thought of as a newsletter. We were to be a digital newspaper. That was the plan. We have stayed “free” ever since.
So, why did we call ourselves the Rio Grande Guardian? Melinda came up with the name. We had been tossing names around for a few weeks. One day, we were driving through the South Texas brush country on the way from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin and she shouted it out. “I’ve got it,” she said. “We are going to call ourselves the Rio Grande Guardian.” Melinda knew that my favorite newspaper ‘back home’ in England was The Guardian. I had loved the paper ever since my teenage years. But she also liked the name because, she said, we could position ourselves as the Guardians of her beloved South Texas. Not that we wanted to guard the place from undocumented immigrants crossing the river or anything like that. Rather, Melinda wanted to guard the Rio Grande Valley from those who would do it harm, those who misunderstood and misrepresented this fascinating and unique border region.
Our first part-time employee was Rebecca Acuña, a native of Laredo who was going to school at UT Austin. Rebecca was one of the original DREAMers. She did a great job each morning with our News Clips service, finding stories on the World Wide Web that she thought were important to the border region. Our News Clips service has always been an important component of our work. When my assistant editor, Nadezhda Garza took over the clips service in 2007 she took it to a whole other level again. In fact, I would argue it is the best news clips service in Texas – comprehensive, inclusive of Mexican news, in English and Spanish. It is such a popular part of what we do.
We got a lucky break in 2007. A silent partner, Genevieve Vaughan, joined the business and invested enough money for us to hire some up and coming young reporters, in addition to bringing in Nadezhda. Joey Gomez in the Valley, Angie Michelle in Austin, and Maria Gonzalez in Laredo added so much to our product. Apol Sandoval came in to shoot video. Genevieve’s investment also allowed us to purchase some top of the range Apple computers, cameras and video equipment. It also allowed us to revamp our website and rent an office in downtown McAllen. We believed that if we ploughed the money into good reporters and armed them with the equipment they needed to do a good job the ‘hits’ would go up and the ads would come. We did get a lot of buzz and a lot of plaudits in 2007 and 2008 but the ads did not come anywhere near as quickly as we needed them to. No blame attached for this. We were simply ahead of our time. Corporations back then were not convinced they needed to advertise online. Things have changed a lot since then.
When Gen’s investment money was spent we had to go back to part-time help but our reporting team stayed loyal. We had some rocky periods in the middle of the decade when some old friends stepped in and helped us secure a few more ads. I remember one time when I had to let go of all of our office equipment and live in a van in a friend’s backyard in Mission one summer. Thanks again, Ester. On another occasion our office was broken into and we lost some valuable computers. But, we stuck with it and stayed focused.
In late 2008, Melinda decided to pursue other ventures outside of the Valley and relinquished her day to day role in the Guardian. A few years later I was able to buy her out. As I said before, without Melinda’s drive we would not be where we are today. I have had a few trusty advisors along the way and one of them suggested we make a pitch to economic development corporations for advertising. After all, we were focusing a little more on border business news. The idea paid off and through the support of various EDCs, a local bank or two, the odd local school district, a local hospital or two, a healthcare provider and a local community college, we were able to stabilize things.
On the editorial side, our focus has shifted slightly over the past ten years. We started out concentrating on legislative news from the state Capitol that directly impacted the border region, much like I was doing for the Quorum Report. We then had a phase when we covered a lot of grassroots activity, particularly community groups that work in the Valley’s colonias. This coincided with our strong coverage of the Border Wall issue, which generated a lot of noise. Later, we got into border business and economic development issues. We even covered soccer in the Valley for a season, thanks to reporter and videographer Bill Rovira. Today, we like to vary it, with stories in English and Spanish. We have kept away from ambulance chasing, however, which has helped to set us apart. Our stories have been picked up the New York Times, the Washington Post, most of the top newspapers in Texas, ABC World News Tonight, the Drudge Report and the Glenn Beck Show! We also seem to have developed this uncanny knack of finding original news stories that other media outlets pick up on a few days later. In short, we found a niche in the market and staked a claim to it. It has been so rewarding to provide a service that many border residents and even some from further afield appreciate.
We had a major boost late last year when website designer and social media specialist Alex Garrido and his Red Ant Digital team came on board to create a brand new website. We were pleased with our original site when it was launched in 2005 and revamped in 2007 – thank you, Rick – but an overhaul was long overdue. Previously we could not archive our stories in a satisfactory manner and, most frustratingly, our stories did not have dedicated URL addresses. We now have both, thanks to Alex. We have received a lot of praise for the design and user-friendly nature of the website. We are now looking forward to Alex developing our online marketing strategy even further.
We have also developed a good working partnership with Mario Muñoz, presenter of RGV Public Radio 88 FM’s ‘Closer to Home’ show. The Guardian gets promoted on the Valley’s NPR station and the station gets top, local news stories each morning.
Recently we held a one-day retreat in Pharr to look at where we have been and where we want to go from here. Fifteen or so friends, employees, former staffers, columnists and supporters gathered and brainstormed ideas. The program was put together by one of our most loyal supporters, Patricia Fogarty. There was no one better to handle this than Pat because she has been a great friend and a steady moral compass over these past ten years. The retreat was so rewarding – lots of ideas and lots of energy. I was blown away by the level of support these friends provided on the day and the belief they have in what we are doing. I told them they are all now members of our inaugural advisory committee. We agreed we want to shake things up, to explore new collaborations on different platforms and even reshape our business model. We agreed that the Guardian has been an incredible and amazing project but that it has so much more potential. So, we are in the process of developing a new strategy. We will share these ideas with you, our loyal readers, in the coming weeks and months.
And now to the shout outs. I would like to thank our longtime sponsors, without whom we could not be producing our international news service. These include IBC Bank, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, PSJA ISD, South Texas College, Congressman Henry Cuellar, and the economic development corporations of the cities of Mercedes, Pharr, Edinburg, Mission, Harlingen, Weslaco and San Benito.
I would like to thank the enormous contributions of our full- and part-time reporters and staff over the years. I hope I do not miss anyone out but here goes: Rebecca Acuña, Claudia Perez Rivas, Nadezhda Garza, Joey Gomez, Apol Sandoval, Angie Michelle, Maria Gonzalez, Julian Aguilar, Bill Rovira, Maggie Morato, Blanca Zumaya, Salvador Aquino, Jesse Bertron, A.J. Anderson, Esmeralda Torres, Dayna Reyes, Luis Montoya, Raul de la Cruz, and Guillermo Coronel.
We have been fortunate to have a fine group of op-ed writers who have provided different viewpoints over the years. I would like to thank those who have contributed in-depth over the years. They include the late, great Treto Garza, the late, great, Jay Johnson-Castro, Marisa Treviño, Enrique Rangel, Matt Ruszczak, Gary Mounce, Sam Freeman, Nelva Sosa-Slagle, Ignacio Madera, Jr., Ron Rogers, José Lopez, Lino Garcia, Baltazar Acevedo, Placido Salazar, Stefanie Herweck, Scott Nicol, Char Miller, Mike Seifert, Cherie Hodges, Ron Tupper, Tom Haughey, Dr. Lawrence Gelman and Rolf Otto Niederstrasser.
Finally, I would like to say a big, big, thank you to our loyal band of readers and supporters. Your words of encouragement and advice have sustained us over the years. There are too many people to name individually but you know who you are. Here’s to the next ten years and a bigger Rio Grande Guardian providing an even better international news service for the region!