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.

For his part, Smith says it’s misguided to frame the question of whether to accept the Tribune’s content as a binary choice. “This is not A or B. It’s additive. It’s A and B,” he says. “We can either hang separately or survive together. I hope those guys will work with us.” Meanwhile, the Tribune may soon expand its reach in the print market—The New York Times confirmed that it has discussed a partnership with the Tribune. The Times has introduced local editions in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But Is It Sustainable?

After the fundraising bonanza that accompanied its launch, the Tribune is still raising money at a healthy clip, pulling in around $600,000 so far in 2010. But Thornton, who is pushing the Tribune to wean itself from philanthropy, says building grassroots support “is what keeps me up at night.” It’s what keeps everyone involved in a journalism startup awake at night. How do we sustain these creatures?

In light of this, I asked Smith if his salary—$315,000—has led to a perception problem for a fledgling nonprofit with a populist message. “Populist? What am I, Eugene Debs?” Smith says. “What is this, like a Socialist Party summer camp? You think (NPR’s) Vivian Schiller is not being paid a lot of money? You think (ProPublica’s) Paul Steiger is not being paid a lot of money? . . . I haven’t heard boo about it since the first week of the Tribune.” Perhaps not, but it’s only prudent to anticipate that high CEO salaries at the Tribune and peers like ProPublica (Steiger makes $570,000) and the new Bay Citizen (Lisa Frazier makes $400,000) might, by themselves, present a sustainability challenge for nonprofit news sites down the road. It certainly sharpens the pressure on these CEOs to raise money—as Smith actively does, traveling the state to meet potential donors at least once a week.

Jake Batsell , a former Dallas Morning News reporter and videographer, is an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University.