Just down Congress Avenue, the cramped newsroom of the Texas Tribune has set the gold standard of policy and political journalism in Texas since its founding in 2009 by Evan Smith, formerly of Texas Monthly, and venture capitalist John Thornton. Smith has spun a web of relationships with public broadcasting and The New York Times into a multi-media, albeit non-profit, empire. Kate Galbraith, formerly of the Times, has kept a steady and nearly visionary eye on water issues, which became critical during the cruel drought of 2011 and will turn even more so as the population swells and the climate changes. Her colleagues, Morgan Smith and Reeve Hamilton, have earned high marks from advocates and wonks for their work on education.
But the Morning-News looks to be giving the Trib a run for its money. Despite big layoffs in Dallas in recent years, Austin bureau chief Christie Hoppe now counts eight journalists in her bureau—a mix of full-timers, experienced part-timers, an intern, an issues reporter, and an investigator. “We’re trying to keep our eyes off our feet and onto the horizon,” she says wryly, “and on what they [the legislators] are doing to us.” After all, no state government fared well in last year’s rankings by the State Integrity Investigation. But Texas? Texas scored a D-plus.
For insiders there is Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report, which was busy Friday tracking gaming interests, $80,000 in campaign contributions to a single legislator, and energy legislation. Also nestled in the downtown landscape is the conservative blogger and unabashed activist Jim Cardle, whose Texas Insider is widely read in the staunchly Republican legislature. Over at the Burnt Orange Report, his liberal counterparts were busy counterpunching. On Friday, Burnt Orange joined with Progress Texas to pound on House Speaker Joe Straus to pull, yes, a birther bill aimed at President Obama from the agenda.
A drive down Congress Avenue and across the Colorado River, the Austin American-Statesman is using its geographic proximity to throw some eight reporters at the legislature. State editor Debra Davis has simply extended the beats of local reporters right up to the steps of the Capitol—but the key player in that crew is Newhouse veteran Jonathan Tilove, who recently covered Washington for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and has now been hired as the Statesman’s lead political writer. Down in San Antonio, Express-News state editor Nora Lopez doesn’t have the same luxury, and is sharing a Hearst correspondent with the Houston Chronicle while sending the odd reporter on a two-hour round trip drive as she searches for someone to place in Austin.
Rounding out the mix of influential journalists are long-time Texas Monthly writer Paul Burka; Ben Philpott of KUT; Brad Watson at WFAA, in Dallas-Fort Worth; and Mark Wiggins at KVUE in Austin. With the cast of characters now set, both in the Capitol and within its press corps, a rich mix of coverage is about to unfold as the legislature returns to session this week. It will likely be a mix of sharp (if wonkish) analysis, local reporters trying to make heads and tails out of issues much bigger than their markets, scoops and investigations. With any luck, there will be some scandal and spectacle. The coverage will likely have failings and successes.
But like its subject, it will be anything but dull. The Texas Legislature—“the Lege,” as it’s called down here—never makes for dull.
Hardy Gest and Holly Regan contributed reporting to this piece.