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.”
But just how much bite this watchdog has is open to question. Bill Minutaglio, a veteran Texas journalist and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote as much in 2011 in the Texas Observer:
The Times reported early on that the Tribune was going to offer “the good-for-you, Brussels sprouts journalism—education financing, lobbying, bureaucratic priorities, civics and state government … a niche site with a very narrow focus.” It has delivered on that, and it’s also been constrained by it. There are drawbacks to the demands of providing instant online journalism aimed at insiders.
What the Tribune needs is consistent, long-ball narrative and multipart investigative projects. It needs the 5,000-word drill-downs like Sy Hersh does for The New Yorker. It needs the huge packages that win Pulitzer Prizes for ProPublica, for investigative work and public service.
In fairness, Smith said from the start that the Tribune would not be a place “where the reporters go into a windowless room for six months and try to win a Pulitzer.” In an essay published in Texas Monthly earlier this year, the faults Smith found with Texas’s papers—an inability to serve as a “true public square,” an abdication of the role of explainer and arbiter—were reverse images of the Tribune’s strengths. What’s more, the Trib’s politics coverage is often accountability-minded—“transparency” is a watchword—and the site has done quick-hit enterprise reporting and investigations. Ramshaw herself recently pegged a Houston-area Tea Party leader with ties to none other than the American Fascist Party. But blockbuster investigations “have not been our strongest suit over the years,” she concedes.
Now, she says, “I think we now have our feet under us.” In January, the Tribune rolled out a new project, “Bidness as Usual,” which focuses on potentially unsavory connections between lawmakers’ financial interests and their legislative efforts. The Trib clearly has high hopes for the effort, and seems eager to ruffle some feathers in its well-cultivated community. In a note accompanying the project’s launch, Smith invited irked officials to call him directly: “We like you, but this is business.”
Bidness As Usual is still in the early stages. In typical Tribune style, the related Ethics Explorer feature offers a lot of data, painstakingly gathered from various sources and presented in an easy-to-digest format. You can quickly learn that the top donor to Attorney General Greg Abbott, for instance, is Harold Simmons, who has contributed nearly $1 million. It’s a valuable resource and an interesting guide, especially if you know what you’re looking for. But read through the articles on the project’s landing page, and amid the discussion of ethical concerns and disclosure loopholes you’ll find only one lawmaker singled out for potential conflicts of interests so far in what amounts to the Tribune’s signature sustained investigative project.
A very short trip down the hall from Ramshaw’s standup desk, just past the coffee pots, is the office of Rodney Gibbs, the chief innovation officer. Unlike a legacy news organization, the Tribune is something of a technology company, too, in its own way. (Co-founder Thornton made his fortune in the technology business.) And the technology is, after all, where most of the Tribune’s community resides.