And the Tribune’s events make money, too, pulling in more than $150,000 so far through corporate sponsorships, according to Smith. Stories about and videos of all interviews are quickly posted on the site. Sometimes they’re even used by political opponents, as White found out in May when Perry’s campaign used a TribLive snippet to paint him as a tax-happy liberal. That suits the Texas Tribune just fine, as long as you spell its name right.
Risk and Reward
During his reelection campaign in late October, Governor Perry gave an animated stump speech to the Lake Travis Republican Women’s Club in Lakeway, Texas. At the time, the governor may not have fully appreciated that his twenty-two-minute address would soon be scrutinized and irreverently repurposed by the Tribune as part of its Stump Interrupted video series, which applies vh1-style pop-up bubble treatment to candidates’ campaign rhetoric. When Perry’s speech appeared on the Tribune in mid-November, it included a cheeky “Washington Tally” with a chiming bell and a graphic noting how many times (fifteen) he railed against the tyranny of Washington, D.C. The video also juxtaposed inconvenient facts against Perry’s oratory, such as a statistic showing that proportionally more Texans lack health insurance than any other state.
Stump Interrupted, which just won a national Murrow award, is the brainchild of multimedia editor Elise Hu. Smith was initially skeptical of the idea, thinking it might come across as juvenile, but ultimately he let Hu run with it. Hu took that as an early sign that the Tribune newsroom embraces a culture of risk-taking: “Instead of being in a place where I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over the hierarchies and bureaucracies that are in place,” she says, “here we can say, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s just go ahead and do it, and if it doesn’t work, let’s fix it.’ ”
In addition to things like Stump Interrupted, which is a product of the times as much as the technology, the Tribune has injected life into some more traditional newsroom pursuits. Its polls, for instance—including a jaw-dropper, headlined “Meet the Flintstones,” that found nearly one-third of Texans believe dinosaurs and humans lived on Earth at the same time—have raised eyebrows from El Paso to Galveston. And while it compiles the day’s top state news from other media outlets in its TribWire, it also aggregates tweets from elected officials.
Despite a few temptations, the Tribune has stuck to its niche of politics, government, and public policy. Its reporters did not cover breaking news events like November’s Fort Hood shootings or a rogue pilot who flew a plane into an Austin IRS building. Of course, steering clear of the day’s big story can be difficult for a room full of news junkies: “The hardest part about this is to figure out what you don’t do, and then not doing that,” says managing editor Ross Ramsey.
Reporters say they feel liberated from the institutional realities at traditional news outlets. As the El Paso Times’s Austin correspondent, Brandi Grissom once had a quota of ten bylines a week. “There wasn’t time to do the kind of reporting that I’ve been able to do here,” says Grissom, thirty-one, who specializes in immigration and border issues.
Robert Rivard, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, who sent the Tribune a check as a founding member, says he can see the payoff of that freedom: “Particularly given the diminished number of newspaper journalists based in Austin, they’re reporting stories that otherwise would go unreported.” Some of the Tribune’s early scoops include a story by Hu detailing how the state’s Division of Workers’ Compensation spiked investigations of doctors who were overbilling and overtreating patients; a piece by Brian Thevenot that challenged the myth that Texas dictates the content of history textbooks for the rest of the nation; and Emily Ramshaw’s investigation into how state teachers repeatedly used physical restraints on students with disabilities.