The databases have been an unexpected hit, supplying readers with access to more than a million public records they otherwise may not have known how to find. They’ve been so popular, in fact, that the site’s biggest initial splash has been not as a fountain of authoritative reporting and analysis, but as a resource for readers to do their own exploring. While that fact may be humbling for reporters, it’s part of a “data-as-journalism” mentality that has become the Tribune’s most far-reaching calling card. “Publishing data is news,” Stiles and Babalola wrote in a May 31 recap of the Tribune’s data efforts. “It aligns with our strategy of adding knowledge and context to traditional reporting, and it helps you and us hold public officials accountable.”
The Tribune’s idealistic stance toward data has the whiff of a familiar claim: if we give the public raw information, people will take the initiative to make sense of it and put it in its proper context. In effect, they will do what journalists have historically done for them. But the scale on which this in fact happens is uncertain, and the inherent journalistic value of raw data remains unclear.
Still, the Tribune clearly is on to something. An April Pew Research Center report found 40 percent of adult Web users have sought out raw data about government spending. In an increasingly clickable, on-demand world, it’s almost inevitable that more readers will prefer searchable databases as an alternative to the media’s traditional gatekeeping role. I think these databases, properly conceived, can boost government transparency and help create a better-informed public. But until a citizen watchdog or gadfly breaks news with a Texas Tribune database—spotting overspending or exposing a conflict of interest—the Tribune remains open to criticism that the information is mainly “water-cooler gossip,” as one irate reader suggested in April.
For instance, the site’s government salary database—by far its most popular data application—has sparked some strong reactions and nasty office politics. State hiring managers are irritated that employees now compare salaries with colleagues. Workers are alarmed to see their salaries pop up when they Google themselves. One state employee’s wife called Smith to complain that she considers the database not only a violation of privacy but “rape.” Smith explains it this way: “A lady is sitting in her cube at a state agency, mad that the woman in the next cube drank the milk in the refrigerator in the break room. And she’s on this site realizing that the woman in the next cube makes $100 a week more than she does. She gets pissed off and is refreshing the database over and over.” It’s provocative and good for the Tribune’s traffic. But is it a public service? The answer may depend on whether your salary is listed.
Meet the Press, Texas-style
When plugging the Tribune across the state, Smith is fond of reminding audiences that personal engagement was the “first platform.” And even in a multiplatform world, face time is a major element of the Tribune’s growth strategy. Since its November launch, the Tribune has hosted nearly twenty on-the-record events—breakfast interviews, campus road shows, even a screening of a political documentary about humorist Kinky Friedman’s ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.
As the convener of such gatherings, the Tribune aspires to become a player in the political narrative rather than a mere reflector of that narrative, a high-visibility approach that runs counter to that of the state’s legacy news organizations. Thornton and Smith even hired a full-time director of events, Tanya Erlach, from The New Yorker. Plans are under way for an Ideas Festival modeled on The New Yorker Festival.
Most nonprofit news organizations host occasional member events, but few have been as aggressive from the outset as the Tribune, which sees events as a key part of its mission “to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.”
At most Tribune events, Smith is the emcee, ringmaster, and salesman. Always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, with hair neatly parted above squared-off, dark-framed glasses, Smith comfortably holds court with his guests and audience, dispensing rapid-fire questions and one-liners. As one young audience member tweeted during a late-April panel discussion: “Is it just me, or does Evan Smith look like a modern day version of a character from Mad Men? Dude’s intense.” Rudy England, an Austin-based political consultant who attended the Bill White event in March, says the early-morning TribLive sessions are more off the cuff than traditional political functions. Interview subjects seem to have their guard down. “It’s becoming Texas’s version of Meet the Press,” England says.