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.
For advice on this foray into journalism, Thornton approached his friend Evan Smith, the fast-talking, hyperconnected editor of Texas Monthly who guided the magazine to national prominence after arriving in Austin in late 1991 from Condé Nast. As the pair fleshed out the idea for the Tribune, it became clear to both men that Smith should serve as the venture’s leader—a process Smith jokingly likens to Dick Cheney appointing himself as George W. Bush’s vice president. But Thornton maintains, “I didn’t have any interest in doing this with anybody else.”
The Tribune announced its intentions in July 2009, billing itself not only as an antidote to the dwindling capitol press corps but also as a new force in Texas political life. Smith rounded up what he describes as a “Justice League” of young reporters, including twenty-eight-year-old Elise Hu, a local TV political reporter and blogger; Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Brian Thevenot, thirty-eight, of The Times-Picayune; and Stiles, thirty-four, the Houston Chronicle’s reporter of the year in 2007. “They’ve got the best young journalist crew in Texas,” says Wayne Slater, the senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, which lost twenty-nine-year-old Emily Ramshaw, the 2009 Texas Star Reporter of the Year, to the Tribune. The staff has since grown to twenty-one, including twelve reporters and a four-person technology team.
After Thornton plunked down the seed money, the Tribune went on a bipartisan fundraising binge, landing $150,000 from longtime GOP backer T. Boone Pickens, $500,000 from the Houston Endowment, and $250,000 from the Knight Foundation, among other big-ticket donors. Throw in about 1,500 “members” who contributed at least $50 each, and more than sixty corporate sponsors at roughly $2,500 a pop, and the Tribune had raised about $4 million by the end of 2009. Going forward, Thornton hopes to reduce the Tribune’s reliance on philanthropy through a strategy he calls “revenue promiscuity”: a blend of NPR-style memberships, corporate sponsors, events, and specialty publications. But even as Thornton watches the Tribune’s metrics and costs with business-like precision, he clearly regards the enterprise as a higher calling. “God did not put me on this Earth to do more software deals,” he told an SPJ banquet crowd in Arlington, Texas, in April.
Is Data Journalism?
On November 3, the Tribune officially launched, “amid a herald of its own trumpets,” as The New York Times’s David Carr wryly noted on Twitter. As the new crew of journalists fanned out to cover primary election season, Smith recalls, a campaign adviser asked one of his reporters how things were going at “the world’s most expensive blog.” The insinuation, of course, was that the Tribune was just another entrant into Austin’s already crowded political blogosphere.
Early traffic figures suggest a broader reach. Of the 1.3 million visits to Texastribune.org during its first six months, Smith says, only about one-fifth originated in Austin. Of the remaining traffic, 20 percent came from other large cities in Texas, 31 percent from the rest of Texas, and 27 percent from outside Texas. The national traffic was padded by one-time hits such as a lead story in The Huffington Post and a collaboration with Newsweek on a cover story about Governor Perry. By spring, readership was ahead of internal targets. A mid-May readership survey drew 1,060 responses from people describing themselves as well-educated (90 percent have a college degree), politically engaged (98 percent are registered to vote), and upscale (58 percent report a household income of at least $100,000).