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?
Then, in early June, the Tribune teamed up with the Houston Chronicle on an exposé that no one could ignore. The Tribune’s Emily Ramshaw and the Chronicle’s Terri Langford produced an investigation into a “fight club” at a state-contracted facility where disabled girls were rewarded with snacks for fighting. The Morning News published a truncated version in its state wire section, and the American-Statesman put it on its metro cover. Zipp, by way of explanation, called it a story “that could move the needle at the legislature. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, we felt it made more sense to pick up the story from the Tribune.”
The piece makes clear that if the Tribune continues to produce high-impact journalism, then hard feelings, old-school attitudes about competition, or whatever, will dissolve and the distribution of good work will take care of itself. Increasingly, such collaborative efforts are producing important journalism across the country, from the Pulitzer-winning New York Times Magazine-ProPublica piece that chronicled the life-and-death decisions at one hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the promising teamwork profiled in the May/June issue of CJR by the news outlets working with the investigative nonprofit California Watch.
Zipp freely admits that the Tribune’s arrival has ignited his newsroom’s competitive juices. The American-Statesman has ramped up its state coverage—in January, the paper began partnering with the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact franchise, a St. Petersburg Times project that judges the truth of public officials’ statements. It also has increased marketing efforts to highlight the paper’s statehouse reporting team. “I think anything we do to beef up our state coverage is at least in part a response to the Tribune,” Zipp says. “There’s no question that the existence of the Tribune has made us better, and caused us to think about what we do in different ways.” As the Tribune has evolved, Zipp has come to regard it as both competitor and contributor: “We’re all drifting into a better understanding of each other’s needs and strengths.”
Bob Mong, the Morning News’s editor, recently told me that his paper will publish Tribune stories when they meet the News’s standards for impact. “I’m eager to work with them, under the right circumstances,” he says.