With key new hires, Texas Tribune continues to reach beyond political insiders

When talk turns to nonprofit journalism success stories, a few names tend to pop up–and the Texas Tribune is usually one. Launched in 2009, the Austin-based news outlet now boasts $6.5 million in annual revenue, a staff of nearly 60 people, and a steady stream of awards and accolades for its coverage of Texas politics and government. Today, it’s no surprise to see other nonprofit startups try to emulate the Tribune.

But the Tribune’s ambitions have always been lofty, and so its success has always been shadowed by the question of what its ceiling is: How far can the Tribune extend its reach beyond the political class in the state capital, while maintaining its focus? And what is the right target audience for the Tribune’s coverage, anyway?

The Tribune has been grappling with those questions, in one way or another, for a few years. Now, it has new leadership for the task. Amanda Zamora, the former senior engagement editor at ProPublica, started as chief audience officer at the Tribune in June. She joins an outlet that has seen a steady rise in readership over the past two years, but believes it still has room to grow.

Not long after Zamora started, I got in touch with her and Emily Ramshaw, a founding staffer who became the Tribune’s editor-in-chief in April, to talk about their plans. They’re thinking big. “We should be a go-to resource not just for those who are in the business of Texas politics, but for those affected by Texas politics, wherever they live,” said Zamora.

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Another way to think about the Tribune’s potential readers, Ramshaw says, is as “people who care about a single issue really deeply, care about governance on a local level, and don’t know they care on a state level.” They don’t know they care, she says, because they haven’t seen what the Tribune offers–and often don’t even know it exists. “Anybody who’s a registered voter in Texas ought to be reading the Texas Tribune, and right now I think we’re reaching a fraction of those folks,” Ramshaw said.

That’s a broad demographic, but it includes more specific targets. Zamora is eyeing a particular group in the middle: those she terms the “professional set,” or “worker bees.” These are people who work in the very sectors–such as education–whose leaders have lapped up the Tribune’s news from the start. They’re frequent users of LinkedIn, and Zamora sees that as an ideal place to connect with these readers.

As the Tribune refines its approach, Zamora is taking inventory of the tools the outlet uses, trying to identify which aren’t working. “It’s a fair assessment that we’ve been product-happy, trying things on to see what sticks,” she said. The Tribune produces videos, livestreams, a podcast, slideshows, radio and TV packages, an opinion and sponsored content site, at least 14 data tools and news apps, and 24 newsletters (when you take into account daily, weekly and bi-weekly permutations). Oh, and more than 50 events a year, including the three-day Texas Tribune Festival.

In a related move, Zamora and Ramshaw are planning pre-launch research on new products, to see whether audiences really want what the Tribune is developing. “For the first seven years we took a pretty educated guess and I think we came pretty damn close,” Ramshaw said. “But we weren’t really asking them.”

These efforts could get a boost from the Tribune’s participation in the Media Impact Project, a University of Southern California initiative. Project director and USC professor Dana Chinn is gathering information from media partners’ websites, email newsletters, social media, and events and donor databases, to find metrics that gauge nebulous variables like audience engagement and changes in reader attitudes.

In many ways, the current plans are a part of a process that has been underway for a few years. Tim Griggs, the Tribune’s former publisher and COO, led the outlet’s first serious audience research and outlined a strategy to target new readers. And the site’s audience has been growing: average monthly uniques were just over one million for the second quarter, a year-on-year increase of 17% from 2015 and 47% from 2014. That progress “gave us the energy to dream even bigger,” said Ramshaw. “Having Amanda on board is really an extension of all of this groundwork.”

I reached out to Griggs separately, for his thoughts on how the Tribune can continue to expand its audience while staying true to its mission. “A huge part of it is content,” he said. “How do you ensure even if it’s a little insider, it’s told in a way that’s accessible?” Headlines, tone, and storytelling techniques are all opportunities, he said, and the Tribune could layer easier-to-understand stories on top of the blow-by-blows.

Some adjustments like that seem to be happening. On a piece about cuts to therapy services for children with disabilities, Ramshaw said, Zamora chimed in to suggest explanatory tweaks. “Amanda said, ‘You haven’t told me why the legislature is saying these cuts are necessary, and you didn’t provide opportunities to give me the backstory.’” When we spoke, Zamora also identified headlines (and URLs) as a place to focus.

But it doesn’t sound like the Tribune plans an overhaul to its voice or style. From Ramshaw’s perspective, the site already has a mix of stories that serve both insiders and a wider audience. The bigger priority, she said, is “marketing and engagement.”

And top of that to­-do list is social media, especially Facebook–a medium where, Zamora said, “We’re not doing enough to put our best foot forward.” Up until now, social media management has been a responsibility shared by the entire newsroom, especially the editors. But last week  former Tribune reporting fellow Bobby Blanchard started as the Tribune’s social media manager, to look after both the little things–like writing more social-friendly headlines–and the big things, like surfacing ideas for stories that meet reader needs. Zamora said the Tribune will also experiment on Facebook with different content formats, such as its recent live-screening of a mini-documentary.

Other areas of focus, Zamora said, will include managing the Tribune’s partnerships and bringing readers into the news-gathering process. The latter in particular is something she knows well from her time at ProPublica. One project there asked veterans about their potential exposure to Agent Orange; more than 5,000 people contributed.

“She’s really a master at involving the audience in the front end of reporting and throughout the reporting process,” said Jake Batsell, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University who spent a year embedded at the Tribune as a visiting research fellow for the Knight Foundation.

At the end of the fellowship, Batsell wrote a report about the Tribune’s revenue strategies, in which he asked how the outlet could serve its mission and “widen its audience beyond affluent insiders,” while at the same time monetizing the attention of “diehard politicos.” Strictly from a revenue standpoint, he said, it’s more efficient to upsell current supporters than expand the audience base.

For her part, Ramshaw believes that a bigger audience can only support the bottom line, even if those readers aren’t paying directly. “The bigger your audience, the easier it is to go to foundations and funders and go to corporate underwriters,” she said.

But she also stresses the key motivation for the audience push isn’t revenue: it’s mission.

“We get emails from people who say, ‘I had no idea you guys existed,’” Ramshaw says. “When that happens, I’m kicking myself. There is a universe of people who already want our product.”

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.