All told, the Tribune had revenues last year of $4.5 million and expenses of $4.3 million, mostly for the 38 full-time staff, nearly half of whom are editorial personnel. Yes, in 2012, the not-for-profit turned a sort-of profit. I suggest that it all sounds nearly too good to be true. Ramshaw acknowledges that it does kind of sound “like unicorns and rainbows.” Says Smith: “We’re in big pants mode.”
So, how did the Tribune reach this point when digital startups from Chicago to San Diego to the Bay Area have struggled or simply failed? By going where the money is—sometimes, in creative and unorthodox ways.
In Texas, where a generally conservative political culture generally mistrusts journalists, the idea of “non-partisan journalism equaled jumbo shrimp,” as Smith puts it. Still, politically active Texas residents were the natural audience for the Tribune’s output, and so the organization’s hunt for donors includes targeting politically active people appearing in the Federal Election Commission records. Smith stays busy, by his own account, flying around and talking to politically active millionaires.
Those donors haven’t always been satisfied, by the way; some conservative funders were not happy that the Tribune showcased Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s many flops, foibles, and blunders on his errant run for the White House. And they told him. (I know because they told me.) But only once, Smith says, has a big donor ever tried to influence the content—in which case he offered to refund the money. At the end of the day, keeping donors’ hands out of the content—published, live, or whatever—is really no different than asking an advertiser to respect the editorial.
Another key step in the Tribune’s path from startup to stability, though Smith doesn’t exactly agree with the way I formulate this, was its ability to deftly open up a new market: a lucrative events business that offers nearly the only game in town for Texas politicians to talk policy outside the capitol—to each other, their supporters, and even the public. On the day we spoke, Smith himself was just back from one such event in Abilene, more than 200 miles to the northwest. Unlike members of Congress, state legislators don’t have big travel or town hall meeting budgets, and the event offered a rare chance for residents there to hear a state senator and a state representative talk about education funding, Smith said. The audience at such events—along with the politicians who appear at them, donors big and small, corporate sponsors, and the roughly 550,000 visitors the Tribune site draws every month—are part of “a community,” he says. “We’re raising the level of engagement.”
The coverage that flows from that mission has its upsides and its downsides. The Tribune’s work is fast, accurate, and often insightful—the site is a wonk’s paradise, featuring granular policy coverage and a heaping of data, along with a hefty dose of horse race politics. A typical home page is blanketed with detailed stories about legislative proposals and process ranging from water policy to transportation funding. Want to know where fracking wastewater is being disposed? The Tribune’s got a map of 7,000 sites. The Trib even produces proprietary polling in partnership with two University of Texas political scientists, Jim Henson and Daron Shaw.
And while opinion is verboten, analysis is welcome. Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, for example, recently penned an analysis explaining the sources of a struggle over conservative proposals to change higher education, and the political ins and outs are revealing. Ramsey’s piece is pointed and revealing, but carefully doesn’t pick a side, let alone a partisan one.
But the Tribune has not earned its awards or reputation, to date, for hard-hitting, long investigations. Upon its launch in 2009, Smith at times raised the expectation—to be fair, urged along by eager observers, including CJR—that the Tribune would be a hybrid of policy wonk and muckraker. He told the Austin Chronicle: “Just as you wouldn’t leave [the fates of] clean air and clean water to the free market, you shouldn’t leave journalism in the public interest, the watchdog function of journalism, to the free market.”