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.
The Tribune advocates what Smith calls “content partnership sluttiness,” freely offering stories, multimedia projects, and databases to any media outlet that wants them. But at least two of Texas’ biggest newspapers—The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman—have mostly resisted the Tribune’s advances. The Morning News’s Wayne Slater, one of Austin’s best-known political journalists, says he’s “bullish” on the Tribune but points to two reasons why some papers have been slow to embrace it. First, in the run-up to the Tribune’s launch, Thornton rubbed some newspaper folks the wrong way by insinuating they were outmoded. “When’s the last time you read a story about lobbying in state politics?” Thornton was quoted in an Austin Chronicle story. “I don’t think anybody can say with a straight face that people of Texas are as informed on government today as they were fifty years ago.” Slater and American-Statesman editor Fred Zipp heard the same message: “His early pitch cast the Tribune as the savior of journalism,” Zipp says.
Thornton admits he could have been more diplomatic. “Mea culpa,” he says. “I don’t blame them—it was a silly thing to say. But if they’re really still focused on that, it kind of makes me wonder.” Still, he hopes the Tribune eventually can work closely with the Dallas and Austin dailies.
It’s unclear when that might happen. In March, Slater told me that while the Tribune is producing worthwhile journalism, few stories are compelling enough to scream syndication. “I can think of very little that the Tribune has provided that makes me think, ‘Oh my God, I wish we had had that,’ ” he said. At about the same time, Zipp told me that there’s no edict against collaborating with the Tribune, but “have they brought anything to the table that’s substantially changed the game yet? I don’t think so.”
For months I wondered why, at a time when cutbacks have forced competing papers all over the country to pool resources and collaborate, these two dailies would not publish a first-rate story like Hu’s workers’ comp probe or Thevenot’s counterintuitive analysis on the textbook controversy? Why would they not want to work with an outfit named the best local news Web site by the Radio Television Digital News Association? Was it simply legacy-media hubris?