Update, 4/15, 5:15pm, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced a $1.5 million grant to the Texas Tribune. The Knight Blog hailed the Trib as “one of the most successful experiments in nonprofit online news,” and noted the grant was crafted “to build on the Tribune’s success, contribute to its long-term sustainability and to extend its approaches and lessons more broadly to other news organizations.”
AUSTIN, TX — At 10am on a Monday, what looks like all 17 editorial staffers of the Texas Tribune are crammed into a tiny, windowless conference room as editor Emily Ramshaw reviews the day’s coverage. One editor is headed out of town for a murder trial. Developments in the legislature are hashed over. And then there is the scoop.
The Tribune—three and a half years, 13 million total unique monthly visitors, and nearly $18 million after its launch as one of the country’s most high-profile experiments in not-for-profit news—is about to break a spicy story: a state legislator is being arrested in Houston. But this scoop comes with a twist. The news was actually uncovered by KHOU, a Houston television station; KHOU is sharing the story with the Tribune, which is supposed to run down the lawmaker in question and then amplify the story online to its statewide audience. Both outlets have promised investigators they will not break the news until the legislator’s law office has been raided.
No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and the Tribune’s original, ambitious plans have evolved since it launched in 2009 as both a news outlet about public institutions and the center of a community of engaged citizens. While CEO Evan Smith once strove to funnel his news into the big Texas newspapers, the Tribune is now becoming as much aggregator and curator as creator.
Along the way, there are some important things the Tribune has not yet accomplished. Though often billed as a “watchdog” upon its launch, the Trib has not amassed a long track record of investigative coverage. And in a state of 26 million people, its monthly audience remains small—a little less than 2 percent of the populace.
Regardless, the Tribune is positioning itself at the center of the market on serious news in the country’s second most populous state. In a world where news is still often free and traffic is king, media outlets are running with their stories to the Tribune, thanks to its reputation as not just a source of politics and policy news but a statewide news organization. And while many in Texas wondered if the Tribune would last past its first year, the organization has proven that not-for-profit news can not only survive, but thrive in ways that seem to elude larger, more established news outlets—namely, newspapers. The Tribune is here to stay. The question is: What does it become next?
Stories about the Texas Tribune—this 2010 piece from CJR included—invariably begin and end with Evan Smith, the 46-year-old CEO and editor-in-chief. Smith made his name as the editor of Texas Monthly, where he racked up mountains of National Magazine Awards before partnering with venture capitalist John Thornton to launch the Tribune. For years people would ask me, “Have you met Evan Smith?” To which I just shrugged, “No.” I encountered Smith for the first time in 2011 at the Texas Book Festival. We talked in his office afterward and again, over a year later, for this article.
We were joined by Emily Ramshaw, whom Smith plucked away from The Dallas Morning News back in 2009, and who has since risen from healthcare reporter to editor. Ramshaw, 31, fields my queries about Tribune’s journalism, while her boss—not unlike any publisher—takes the questions about the business of nonprofit news. Ramshaw’s ascension is part of an evolution in which Smith is handing over certain reins to certain people. Down the hall, April Hinkle is responsible for millions in fundraising alongside Smith. And Smith doesn’t even host all of the Tribune’s many live events anymore (more on those later). The Tribune has stopped being Evan Smith’s startup. “We’re growing up,” says Ramshaw.
As with any startup, the first task was survival; the next was stability. Based upon the numbers, it appears that the Tribune has reached both, despite launching with hands out to donors in a very rough economy. Donors once accounted for 90 percent of the Tribune’s revenues, according to Smith. Now, major foundation grants and big individual donations total just 19 and 21 percent, respectively, according to the latest Tribune figures. Another $1 million, or about 22 percent, of the annual budget comes from corporate sponsorships—online, email newsletter, and event advertising.