Taking stock in Texas

Our correspondent recaps the conversation at a CJR event in Austin, and adds some thoughts of his own

AUSTIN, TX — Last week on the sprawling, sunny campus of the University of Texas at Austin, some of the most established and up-and-coming media leaders in this state came together at an event organized by CJR and the UT School of Journalism to assess the state of accountability reporting—and where it can go from here.

What ensued was a frank and open discussion about all the serious work of covering, analyzing, and investigating public institutions and figures. And while the occasional wagon was circled against criticism—more on that later—some interesting points emerged.

Among the points of discussion: first, accountability journalism can definitely be improved. Second, stronger and more formal collaboration between organizations in Texas might play a key role in unlocking the door to that improvement. Third, news organizations will need to do a better job in addressing an increasingly diverse society. Fourth, management is going to have to innovate faster and more successfully to develop sustainable business models—but there’s optimism that can be done.

Making the grade

We’ve been watching journalism in Texas very closely this year through CJR’s United States Project. Among our observations: The Dallas Morning News leads in investigation, including its continued digging into the fatal explosion that nearly leveled the town of West; and the Texas Tribune can be relied upon for both detailed policy coverage and editorial and business-side innovation. We’ve also cited Politifact Texas, run out of the Austin American-Statesman, for its factchecking of the state attorney general on the Voting Rights Act.

But, from this observer’s perspective, there are areas for improvement. Journalism with concrete impact—especially on stories that extend beyond one market or city—can be hard to find. On certain stories, particularly events in the legislature, coverage in the news pages is not always skeptical enough of what politicians have to say. The state’s substantial Spanish-language media can improve the quality of its serious policy coverage, while English-language media could stand to refocus its story selection with a diverse audience in mind. And while competition is healthy and necessary, the state of collaboration could be kicked up a notch.

Participants on one of our panels—editors Emily Ramshaw of the Tribune, Bob Mong of the Morning News and Steve Proctor of the Houston Chronicle, plus anchor Aranxta Loizaga of KWEX, Univision’s San Antonio affiliate—were pretty tough graders, too, handing out middling assessments on the state of accountability journalism in general. And as Ramshaw noted, the best efforts tend to be concentrated in a few major metropolitan markets—there are large swathes of the state that draw very little journalistic scrutiny.

At the same time, the panelists stressed their own strategies and successes . The Morning News’ Mong is a big believer in human capital—hiring right and training, not just on-the-job experience. Ramshaw is big on data in a digital environment, and urged aspiring journalists to understand the basics—if not more—of tools like data visualizations and interactives. At the Chronicle, Proctor is moving to improve the narrative storytelling of investigative reporting. His paper recently published a heart-wrenching, if horrifying, story about parents who accidentally back over their children in a car, focusing on the auto industry’s intransigence to universal on-board cameras.

Univision’s Loizaga directed some honest criticism at her own organization and the Spanish-language media about lightweight news coverage; Univision’s late weekday newscast—the market leader in San Antonio—is moving to carry more serious political and policy news, she said. And speaking on a second panel, the Houston Defender’s Sonny Jiles gave a fact-filled indictment of the persistent lack of diversity in the news business and the blind spots that can result.

Pushing back

It wasn’t all self-flagellation, though. Mong of the Morning News noted that for all the economic pressures on the industry—and the resulting staff cuts—his paper has as many investigative reporters as it did a decade ago. Ramshaw is particularly proud of the Tribune’s data-driven ethics project, Bidness as Usual, monitoring the business ties of Texas officials. Asked whether they had been outdone by New York-based outlets on subjects like crony capitalism and civil forfeiture, the editors got their backs up a bit, arguing that their newsrooms had led the way on those stories. (Here’s some Texas-based coverage of those issues.)

Without sugarcoating the pressures on the industry, or the real loss in reporting resources in many newsrooms, many speakers also pushed back on the “terminal decline” storyline surrounding legacy media organizations. In his remarks Glenn Frankel, the director of the UT School of Journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner, said we shouldn’t romanticize a “golden age” of journalism—the work of a few decades ago wasn’t as good as we like to think.

And , Jim Moroney, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, provided two memorable defenses. “I’m so tired,” he said, “of the death-of-newspapers narrative.” After all, on most subjects they remain the chief source of original reporting, and the best of them are moving to become leaders in what Moroney calls “PICA”: perspective, interpretation, context and analysis. And he said that while it’s “just a fact” that digital advertising will never produce enough revenue to solve newspapers’ business-model woes, he pledged, to wide applause, that his company will continue to invest in accountability journalism: “We’re here to save the democracy.”

When was the last time you heard a publisher say that?

Collaboration: Going beyond the ad hoc

In general, there was a consensus in favor of more collaboration—though the details of how to do that remained fuzzy, frankly. The Chronicle’s Proctor was the leading advocate for partnerships—the old sense of competing for a share of the audience is outdated, he said, and news organizations should think in terms of serving one common public. He said he wants to work not just with other newspapers in other markets, but with broadcasters in his own market—who still enjoy substantial reach, and a different audience from newspaper-readers. (Debbie Hiott, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, noted that her paper currently shares a reporter with a local TV station: “We want to reach people however they want to be reached,” she said.)

From my perspective, there’s a real opening here to make collaboration more structured, formal, and effective—and to produce coverage that is richer editorially and has greater reach and impact. Such an approach may not have an analogue elsewhere, but growing, changing Texas would be a fine place to start. And the moment is ripe: the big organizations in the big cities don’t compete against one another like they did a couple decades ago for statewide dominance—and statewide ad dollars. Now they pretty much stick to their markets, focusing on targeted local and even hyper-local advertising

So what might such collaboration look like? Think about the subject of immigration, and marry Univision’s reporting on the experience of deportation within San Antonio’s Hispanic community with the Morning News investigative chops and feel for the story on a statewide or even national scale. Imagine a policy story richly textured, aggressively reported, and presented in English and Spanish for Anglo and Hispanic audiences alike. Done well, this kind of initiative could set the news agenda in Texas and potentially beyond.

Surmounting ethnic and language barriers isn’t the only potential benefit of that sort of collaboration. But it’s a real one—and our panelists agreed that those are real challenges, especially for the Anglo media. The Chronicle’s Proctor said coverage in the English-language press isn’t delivering the full story of immigration. And the American-Statesman’s Hiott noted that in about 10 years, Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in Austin—a pattern that mirrors the state as a whole. “That’s not reflected in our newsroom right now,” she said.

And finally… the business model

Collaboration, frankly, might go beyond editorial to best business practices, too. There may be benefits to the broader journalism ecosystem from sharing information in such an environment, as opposed to protecting it for entirely proprietary benefit.

Hiott of the Statesman discussed her paper’s relatively recent dalliance with a paywall; it sounds very much like a work-in-progress. The Defender’s Jiles described an industry that is every day “rolling the dice” to see what works. Smaller organizations face unique challenges, but they can use insights gleaned from larger ones which have moved ahead faster. And maybe vice versa.

Of course, scale is relative. Not long after our panel, the Morning News ditched its paywall model in favor of a free basic site and an optional “premium digital service”; CJR’s Ryan Chittum, who doesn’t hold high hopes for the new venture, sees in the episode the Morning News’ failure to stick to the trail blazed by The New York Times. And on the very day of our discussion, the Morning News announced that it’s venturing into native advertising—new (and controversial) terrain earlier staked out by major digital brands like Gawker and BuzzFeed.

Healthy competition among the media is essential to aggressive journalism; great scoops and great stories come as often from a desire to beat the other guy as an aspiration to serve the public. But there’s also a real sense among journalists, at this tumultuous time, that we’re all in this together. The time is right for the Texas press to up its game—not just by sharing stories, but by actively collaborating in ways that amplify a collective voice in Texas and across the nation, while sharing best practices that make for a healthy press protecting a vital democracy. These are big ideas, certainly. But hey, this is Texas. Everything is big.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , , , , , , , ,