Click here to watch an interview with Texas Tribune chairman John Thornton and editor Evan Smith.
A week after the March 2 Texas primary, more than 250 caffeinated Austin insiders gathered in a downtown ballroom for a Q-and-A breakfast with Bill White, the newly crowned Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Policy wonks, political aides, prospective donors, and tweeting journalists sized up White’s plainspoken answers as the morning’s host, Texas Tribune editor-in-chief and CEO Evan Smith, peppered the former Houston mayor about whether he can realistically hope to topple Governor Rick Perry, the GOP incumbent.
Two hours later, Smith’s reporters were back at their desks, scanning the news coverage of that morning’s “TribLive” event. The newsroom banter quickly shifted from the candidate’s interview to how stories referred to the Tribune itself. “Why is the AP calling us an online news site?” asked Matt Stiles, the Tribune’s computer-assisted reporting specialist. Fellow reporter Morgan Smith reminded Stiles that the Austin American-Statesman had called the Tribune an “online news service” in previous blog posts. On his way to the copy machine, managing editor Ross Ramsey cracked: “Are we trying to figure out what we are again?”
If they seem a bit oversensitive, it’s perhaps understandable. Eight months into a deep-pocketed, high-profile experiment in online journalism, the Tribune is still searching for its journalistic identity—even as it has emerged as a buzzworthy brand on the Texas political scene. The startup ambitiously aims to cover what one internal document calls “the ever-hollowing middle between local and national/international topics,” a void created in part by Texas newspapers’ shuttering of bureaus statewide. The Tribune is amplifying its traditional journalism with innovative, audience-focused twists—equipping readers with searchable data platforms, hosting events, and promoting itself as a brainy digital club of civic-minded Texans.
I spent nine months scrutinizing the Tribune’s business strategies and editorial work, attending its events, talking to its reporters, and listening to the Texas journalism and political communities size up the new kid on the block. And while it is too early to make sweeping judgments about the Tribune, I came away mostly impressed with what I saw. It is clear and serious about its journalism, but it also has a sense of humor and is willing to try new things, fail, and try again—two qualities in painfully short supply at most traditional media outlets. But make no mistake, this is an experiment, and its success is hardly guaranteed. The Tribune has shown a remarkable ability to raise startup cash, but no one is certain where the long-term money will come from. It has drawn a lot of readers, but a huge portion come for the interactive databases of public information that, while undeniably a boon to government transparency, remain unproven in their concrete journalistic benefits. But more on that later. The Tribune is exciting. It has shaken up the state’s journalism establishment. And it is trying to be something at once familiar and altogether new.
A (Lone) Star Is Born
As the news business teetered in late 2006, software investor John Thornton assembled a team of investment pros at Austin Ventures—the largest U.S. venture capital firm not based on one of the coasts—to explore how to profit from the woes of newspapers. “This really started as a search for money,” Thornton says. But the more industry research he did, the more he realized that the copious profits that newspapers raked in during the late twentieth century—profits that subsidized public-interest journalism—would never return. Thornton, forty-five, recalls sitting through a particularly “stultifying” business meeting where one strategy bandied about was for newspapers to run more photos of pets and features about cute couples. “I thought, ‘It’s been two hours and journalism hasn’t been mentioned,’ ” he says. “That’s when the light went on for me that maybe public-service journalism—whatever you want to call it, I call it capital-J journalism . . . maybe this stuff is a public good just like national defense, clean air, clean water.”
From his vantage point as a clear-eyed capitalist, Thornton suddenly saw shoe-leather reporting as something “market forces, left to their own devices, won’t produce enough of.” So instead of scooping up beleaguered newspapers as distressed assets, Thornton decided to donate $1 million of his own money to start something new—the Tribune—whose nonpartisan mission, he says, is to help Texans “make more informed decisions about their civic lives.” Previously a prominent donor to Democratic causes, Thornton now insists that he has abandoned partisan politics.