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?
Well, one reason is that expectations can and should continue to rise. In that Texas Monthly piece, Smith wrote, “The technology that has been so disruptive to the economic and content models of many papers is pointing the way to a new era of, yes, quality and ambition.” Smith’s own creation is more adept with technology than most newsrooms, and the Tribune has momentum. But what Minutaglio wrote in 2011 is still true: there’s room for the Trib to set its sights higher, too.
The Tribune has found firm financial footing; mastered its own fast-paced, data-heavy approach to politics and policy coverage; and established itself as a key player in Texas’s information ecosystem. It’s been exciting to watch, even if the course wasn’t always as planned. It will be even more exciting if the Tribune now moves to expand its mission—to tackle hard-hitting investigations and big sweeping stories, and to broaden both its subject matter and its understanding of its community. Among the things to watch for:
How pointed will Bidness as Usual really be? Will there be other investigations?
What will the Tribune do about Washington coverage? Texas is one of the largest recipients of federal dollars, after all, and Texas lawmakers wield plenty of influence inside the Beltway.
Setting sights even higher—what about global coverage? No island unto itself, Texas is one of the top 20 economies in the whole world, and its global trade will only rise as the Panama Canal is widened and more shipping moves from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast.