But the Trib’s coverage has been embraced by smaller outlets across the state and in second-tier markets, such as El Paso and Corpus Christi. And increasingly, content flows both ways: from television and radio outlets, like Austin’s KUT, to the Tribune, not just from the Tribune to them. The Tribune already devotes a valuable chunk of its home page real estate to the Tribwire, a compilation of links to other news organizations stories from around the state. There are also editorial partnerships, from a 2010 report with the Houston Chronicle on a “fight club” in state homes for adolescents to a brand-new niche email newsletter on water coproduced with a research center at a state university. And then there is The New York Times; the Tribune functions essentially as an outsourced Texas bureau and is on the hook, says Ramshaw, for six stories a week—including a recent one where both got the scoop on anti-abortion legislation that would limit legal abortions to as few as six or seven medical facilities, this in a state that is smaller only than Alaska.
If the Tribune’s arrival has been a prod to competition among the news organizations covering state politics, it has also signaled an era of increasing cooperation. “We hang separately,” Smith says about the current media landscape, “or survive together.”
Which brings us back to the story boiling over in Houston, the Tribune’s collaboration of the day. The raid is still either not started or still underway. “Text or call when we can publish,” Ramshaw says as the hours tick by.
Finally, in the afternoon, investigators down in the Houston area give the all-clear. The raid is over. Tribune reporter Alana Rocha pushes the button: State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat, has got an arrest warrant with his name on it for barratry—a fancy way of saying ambulance-chasing, which, in Texas, is a third degree felony that could earn him up to 10 years in prison.
True to the terms of the arrangement with the television station, Rocha cites KHOU, not her original reporting: “According to KHOU-TV in Houston, the Montgomery County district attorney has issued arrest warrants for Reynolds and seven other Houston-area attorneys on barratry charges connected to an alleged quarter-million-dollar kickback scheme.” So far, no luck getting Reynolds to comment.
Reynolds is not exactly the biggest fish in Texas, but the piece has value. And while it may seem strange to an old newspaper reporter like me to cite a TV station in a somewhat obscure white-collar case, there’s no sense in trying to reproduce the story from scratch. Sharing information and pooling resources will make it easier for someone in El Paso, say, to learn something about the alleged ethics of a legislator in faraway Houston—without a lot of cost.
And while the revelation of the Reynolds allegations won’t exactly change Texas politics forever, the way the news was reported bucks an economic tide. Digital ad sales on news sites have been discouraging, but there’s money to be made in the hyperlocal ad market; the last estimate I saw for the Austin market—only the 13th largest city in the country—was $100 million per year. But the logic of that market, coupled with retrenchment across the news business, encourages publishers and general managers to cut back on state capital and especially Washington coverage. Think about it. How valuable is a Washington story online—especially if it’s not that different from lots of other Washington stories? But how about a story or a chart about a local school’s performance? Priceless, next to a geo-targeted ad.
There’s an editorial-side logic here too, about avoiding commodity news and paying attention to what local readers and viewers really want. Still, the trends have led—in my opinion and that of others, like Texas Observer editor Dave Mann—to a certain kind of insularity even among the big papers. They don’t really have to compete with each other because they serve local audiences with specific needs and tastes that match up with the new hyperlocal business model.
Against that backdrop, it’s not hard to imagine a future—not that far away—when the Tribune doesn’t just cover legislative hearings and create big data sets, but acts as a clearinghouse for news all over Texas—and beyond, for Texans. The Tribune gets hard news from markets outside Austin; other outlets get some traffic and high-brow validation. More people get more news, on a business model that makes sense. Ramshaw says she is interested in opening a bureau in the Rio Grande Valley, and maybe one in Washington; co-founder Thornton, now chairman, has expressed similar sentiments. But in a sense: Why bother if every other outlet is bringing its news content to the Tribune?