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.
New Texas Tribune publisher Michael Sherrod, formerly an AOL executive, is devising a strategy to expand across the state by building communities of Tribune members and content partners in the state’s counties, towns, and cities. And with 254 counties in Texas, the Tribune has plenty of room to grow. Which raises the question: Can this journalistic model be replicated? What other state has Texas’s size, wealth, and shared sense of identity, along with a well-networked, passionate evangelist like Smith? “That same self-shared bond, shared experience, is crucial to the potential success of the Tribune, in that no matter where you live in Texas, what happens in Texas, you care about it,” Smith says. “I don’t know that we could have launched the New Hampshire Tribune.
“If we’re trying to ‘save’ anything, it’s Texas, it’s not journalism,” he adds. “We are not the new model or the new solution. We may be a new model.”
So after all that, we’re back where we started, with the Tribune’s effort to define itself. To assess an evolving news experiment like the Tribune, we can’t rely exclusively on old models for journalistic success. It is trying to be something familiar—a political news outlet and watchdog—as well as something altogether new—an interactive resource that seeks to empower readers and engage them as fellow citizens. It’s also a town square with a twist, leading public conversation and providing a virtual and traditional forum for politics and policy. Whatever you call it, the Tribune has brought new energy to the Texas media world. The readers will ultimately decide whether it is a renewable resource.