Lone Star Trailblazer

Will the Texas Tribune transform Texas journalism?
July 6, 2010

Click here to watch an interview with Texas Tribune chairman John Thornton and editor Evan Smith.

A week after the March 2 Texas primary, more than 250 caffeinated Austin insiders gathered in a downtown ballroom for a Q-and-A breakfast with Bill White, the newly crowned Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Policy wonks, political aides, prospective donors, and tweeting journalists sized up White’s plainspoken answers as the morning’s host, Texas Tribune editor-in-chief and CEO Evan Smith, peppered the former Houston mayor about whether he can realistically hope to topple Governor Rick Perry, the GOP incumbent.

Two hours later, Smith’s reporters were back at their desks, scanning the news coverage of that morning’s “TribLive” event. The newsroom banter quickly shifted from the candidate’s interview to how stories referred to the Tribune itself. “Why is the AP calling us an online news site?” asked Matt Stiles, the Tribune’s computer-assisted reporting specialist. Fellow reporter Morgan Smith reminded Stiles that the Austin American-Statesman had called the Tribune an “online news service” in previous blog posts. On his way to the copy machine, managing editor Ross Ramsey cracked: “Are we trying to figure out what we are again?”

If they seem a bit oversensitive, it’s perhaps understandable. Eight months into a deep-pocketed, high-profile experiment in online journalism, the Tribune is still searching for its journalistic identity—even as it has emerged as a buzzworthy brand on the Texas political scene. The startup ambitiously aims to cover what one internal document calls “the ever-hollowing middle between local and national/international topics,” a void created in part by Texas newspapers’ shuttering of bureaus statewide. The Tribune is amplifying its traditional journalism with innovative, audience-focused twists—equipping readers with searchable data platforms, hosting events, and promoting itself as a brainy digital club of civic-minded Texans.

I spent nine months scrutinizing the Tribune’s business strategies and editorial work, attending its events, talking to its reporters, and listening to the Texas journalism and political communities size up the new kid on the block. And while it is too early to make sweeping judgments about the Tribune, I came away mostly impressed with what I saw. It is clear and serious about its journalism, but it also has a sense of humor and is willing to try new things, fail, and try again—two qualities in painfully short supply at most traditional media outlets. But make no mistake, this is an experiment, and its success is hardly guaranteed. The Tribune has shown a remarkable ability to raise startup cash, but no one is certain where the long-term money will come from. It has drawn a lot of readers, but a huge portion come for the interactive databases of public information that, while undeniably a boon to government transparency, remain unproven in their concrete journalistic benefits. But more on that later. The Tribune is exciting. It has shaken up the state’s journalism establishment. And it is trying to be something at once familiar and altogether new.

A (Lone) Star Is Born

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As the news business teetered in late 2006, software investor John Thornton assembled a team of investment pros at Austin Ventures—the largest U.S. venture capital firm not based on one of the coasts—to explore how to profit from the woes of newspapers. “This really started as a search for money,” Thornton says. But the more industry research he did, the more he realized that the copious profits that newspapers raked in during the late twentieth century—profits that subsidized public-interest journalism—would never return. Thornton, forty-five, recalls sitting through a particularly “stultifying” business meeting where one strategy bandied about was for newspapers to run more photos of pets and features about cute couples. “I thought, ‘It’s been two hours and journalism hasn’t been mentioned,’ ” he says. “That’s when the light went on for me that maybe public-service journalism—whatever you want to call it, I call it capital-J journalism . . . maybe this stuff is a public good just like national defense, clean air, clean water.”

From his vantage point as a clear-eyed capitalist, Thornton suddenly saw shoe-leather reporting as something “market forces, left to their own devices, won’t produce enough of.” So instead of scooping up beleaguered newspapers as distressed assets, Thornton decided to donate $1 million of his own money to start something new—the Tribune—whose nonpartisan mission, he says, is to help Texans “make more informed decisions about their civic lives.” Previously a prominent donor to Democratic causes, Thornton now insists that he has abandoned partisan politics.

For advice on this foray into journalism, Thornton approached his friend Evan Smith, the fast-talking, hyperconnected editor of Texas Monthly who guided the magazine to national prominence after arriving in Austin in late 1991 from Condé Nast. As the pair fleshed out the idea for the Tribune, it became clear to both men that Smith should serve as the venture’s leader—a process Smith jokingly likens to Dick Cheney appointing himself as George W. Bush’s vice president. But Thornton maintains, “I didn’t have any interest in doing this with anybody else.”

The Tribune announced its intentions in July 2009, billing itself not only as an antidote to the dwindling capitol press corps but also as a new force in Texas political life. Smith rounded up what he describes as a “Justice League” of young reporters, including twenty-eight-year-old Elise Hu, a local TV political reporter and blogger; Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Brian Thevenot, thirty-eight, of The Times-Picayune; and Stiles, thirty-four, the Houston Chronicle’s reporter of the year in 2007. “They’ve got the best young journalist crew in Texas,” says Wayne Slater, the senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, which lost twenty-nine-year-old Emily Ramshaw, the 2009 Texas Star Reporter of the Year, to the Tribune. The staff has since grown to twenty-one, including twelve reporters and a four-person technology team.

After Thornton plunked down the seed money, the Tribune went on a bipartisan fundraising binge, landing $150,000 from longtime GOP backer T. Boone Pickens, $500,000 from the Houston Endowment, and $250,000 from the Knight Foundation, among other big-ticket donors. Throw in about 1,500 “members” who contributed at least $50 each, and more than sixty corporate sponsors at roughly $2,500 a pop, and the Tribune had raised about $4 million by the end of 2009. Going forward, Thornton hopes to reduce the Tribune’s reliance on philanthropy through a strategy he calls “revenue promiscuity”: a blend of NPR-style memberships, corporate sponsors, events, and specialty publications. But even as Thornton watches the Tribune’s metrics and costs with business-like precision, he clearly regards the enterprise as a higher calling. “God did not put me on this Earth to do more software deals,” he told an SPJ banquet crowd in Arlington, Texas, in April.

Is Data Journalism?

On November 3, the Tribune officially launched, “amid a herald of its own trumpets,” as The New York Times’s David Carr wryly noted on Twitter. As the new crew of journalists fanned out to cover primary election season, Smith recalls, a campaign adviser asked one of his reporters how things were going at “the world’s most expensive blog.” The insinuation, of course, was that the Tribune was just another entrant into Austin’s already crowded political blogosphere.

Early traffic figures suggest a broader reach. Of the 1.3 million visits to Texastribune.org during its first six months, Smith says, only about one-fifth originated in Austin. Of the remaining traffic, 20 percent came from other large cities in Texas, 31 percent from the rest of Texas, and 27 percent from outside Texas. The national traffic was padded by one-time hits such as a lead story in The Huffington Post and a collaboration with Newsweek on a cover story about Governor Perry. By spring, readership was ahead of internal targets. A mid-May readership survey drew 1,060 responses from people describing themselves as well-educated (90 percent have a college degree), politically engaged (98 percent are registered to vote), and upscale (58 percent report a household income of at least $100,000).

So the numbers are impressive, but the value of what’s drawing those numbers —from a journalism standpoint—is less obvious. The Tribune’s biggest magnet by far has been its more than three dozen interactive databases, which collectively have drawn three times as many page views as the site’s stories. At a recent international online journalism symposium in Austin, that statistic wowed new-media experts as validation that readers prefer data-driven projects to traditional journalism narratives. The databases, developed primarily by Matt Stiles and software engineer Niran Babalola, allow users to search public employees’ and teachers’ salaries, browse campaign contributions, peruse state-prison inmates’ offenses and sentences, and even see how many citations Texas red-light cameras have captured, complete with a Google Maps street view of each intersection. The Tribune publishes or updates at least one database per week, and readers e-mail these database links to each other or share them on Facebook, scouring their neighborhood’s school rankings or their state rep’s spending habits. Through May, the databases had generated more than 2.3 million page views since the site’s launch.

The databases have been an unexpected hit, supplying readers with access to more than a million public records they otherwise may not have known how to find. They’ve been so popular, in fact, that the site’s biggest initial splash has been not as a fountain of authoritative reporting and analysis, but as a resource for readers to do their own exploring. While that fact may be humbling for reporters, it’s part of a “data-as-journalism” mentality that has become the Tribune’s most far-reaching calling card. “Publishing data is news,” Stiles and Babalola wrote in a May 31 recap of the Tribune’s data efforts. “It aligns with our strategy of adding knowledge and context to traditional reporting, and it helps you and us hold public officials accountable.”

The Tribune’s idealistic stance toward data has the whiff of a familiar claim: if we give the public raw information, people will take the initiative to make sense of it and put it in its proper context. In effect, they will do what journalists have historically done for them. But the scale on which this in fact happens is uncertain, and the inherent journalistic value of raw data remains unclear.

Still, the Tribune clearly is on to something. An April Pew Research Center report found 40 percent of adult Web users have sought out raw data about government spending. In an increasingly clickable, on-demand world, it’s almost inevitable that more readers will prefer searchable databases as an alternative to the media’s traditional gatekeeping role. I think these databases, properly conceived, can boost government transparency and help create a better-informed public. But until a citizen watchdog or gadfly breaks news with a Texas Tribune database—spotting overspending or exposing a conflict of interest—the Tribune remains open to criticism that the information is mainly “water-cooler gossip,” as one irate reader suggested in April.

For instance, the site’s government salary database—by far its most popular data application—has sparked some strong reactions and nasty office politics. State hiring managers are irritated that employees now compare salaries with colleagues. Workers are alarmed to see their salaries pop up when they Google themselves. One state employee’s wife called Smith to complain that she considers the database not only a violation of privacy but “rape.” Smith explains it this way: “A lady is sitting in her cube at a state agency, mad that the woman in the next cube drank the milk in the refrigerator in the break room. And she’s on this site realizing that the woman in the next cube makes $100 a week more than she does. She gets pissed off and is refreshing the database over and over.” It’s provocative and good for the Tribune’s traffic. But is it a public service? The answer may depend on whether your salary is listed.

Meet the Press, Texas-style

When plugging the Tribune across the state, Smith is fond of reminding audiences that personal engagement was the “first platform.” And even in a multiplatform world, face time is a major element of the Tribune’s growth strategy. Since its November launch, the Tribune has hosted nearly twenty on-the-record events—breakfast interviews, campus road shows, even a screening of a political documentary about humorist Kinky Friedman’s ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.

As the convener of such gatherings, the Tribune aspires to become a player in the political narrative rather than a mere reflector of that narrative, a high-visibility approach that runs counter to that of the state’s legacy news organizations. Thornton and Smith even hired a full-time director of events, Tanya Erlach, from The New Yorker. Plans are under way for an Ideas Festival modeled on The New Yorker Festival.

Most nonprofit news organizations host occasional member events, but few have been as aggressive from the outset as the Tribune, which sees events as a key part of its mission “to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.”

At most Tribune events, Smith is the emcee, ringmaster, and salesman. Always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, with hair neatly parted above squared-off, dark-framed glasses, Smith comfortably holds court with his guests and audience, dispensing rapid-fire questions and one-liners. As one young audience member tweeted during a late-April panel discussion: “Is it just me, or does Evan Smith look like a modern day version of a character from Mad Men? Dude’s intense.” Rudy England, an Austin-based political consultant who attended the Bill White event in March, says the early-morning TribLive sessions are more off the cuff than traditional political functions. Interview subjects seem to have their guard down. “It’s becoming Texas’s version of Meet the Press,” England says.

And the Tribune’s events make money, too, pulling in more than $150,000 so far through corporate sponsorships, according to Smith. Stories about and videos of all interviews are quickly posted on the site. Sometimes they’re even used by political opponents, as White found out in May when Perry’s campaign used a TribLive snippet to paint him as a tax-happy liberal. That suits the Texas Tribune just fine, as long as you spell its name right.

Risk and Reward

During his reelection campaign in late October, Governor Perry gave an animated stump speech to the Lake Travis Republican Women’s Club in Lakeway, Texas. At the time, the governor may not have fully appreciated that his twenty-two-minute address would soon be scrutinized and irreverently repurposed by the Tribune as part of its Stump Interrupted video series, which applies vh1-style pop-up bubble treatment to candidates’ campaign rhetoric. When Perry’s speech appeared on the Tribune in mid-November, it included a cheeky “Washington Tally” with a chiming bell and a graphic noting how many times (fifteen) he railed against the tyranny of Washington, D.C. The video also juxtaposed inconvenient facts against Perry’s oratory, such as a statistic showing that proportionally more Texans lack health insurance than any other state.

Stump Interrupted, which just won a national Murrow award, is the brainchild of multimedia editor Elise Hu. Smith was initially skeptical of the idea, thinking it might come across as juvenile, but ultimately he let Hu run with it. Hu took that as an early sign that the Tribune newsroom embraces a culture of risk-taking: “Instead of being in a place where I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over the hierarchies and bureaucracies that are in place,” she says, “here we can say, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s just go ahead and do it, and if it doesn’t work, let’s fix it.’ ”

In addition to things like Stump Interrupted, which is a product of the times as much as the technology, the Tribune has injected life into some more traditional newsroom pursuits. Its polls, for instance—including a jaw-dropper, headlined “Meet the Flintstones,” that found nearly one-third of Texans believe dinosaurs and humans lived on Earth at the same time—have raised eyebrows from El Paso to Galveston. And while it compiles the day’s top state news from other media outlets in its TribWire, it also aggregates tweets from elected officials.

Despite a few temptations, the Tribune has stuck to its niche of politics, government, and public policy. Its reporters did not cover breaking news events like November’s Fort Hood shootings or a rogue pilot who flew a plane into an Austin IRS building. Of course, steering clear of the day’s big story can be difficult for a room full of news junkies: “The hardest part about this is to figure out what you don’t do, and then not doing that,” says managing editor Ross Ramsey.

Reporters say they feel liberated from the institutional realities at traditional news outlets. As the El Paso Times’s Austin correspondent, Brandi Grissom once had a quota of ten bylines a week. “There wasn’t time to do the kind of reporting that I’ve been able to do here,” says Grissom, thirty-one, who specializes in immigration and border issues.

Robert Rivard, the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, who sent the Tribune a check as a founding member, says he can see the payoff of that freedom: “Particularly given the diminished number of newspaper journalists based in Austin, they’re reporting stories that otherwise would go unreported.” Some of the Tribune’s early scoops include a story by Hu detailing how the state’s Division of Workers’ Compensation spiked investigations of doctors who were overbilling and overtreating patients; a piece by Brian Thevenot that challenged the myth that Texas dictates the content of history textbooks for the rest of the nation; and Emily Ramshaw’s investigation into how state teachers repeatedly used physical restraints on students with disabilities.

‘Partnership Sluttiness’

The Tribune advocates what Smith calls “content partnership sluttiness,” freely offering stories, multimedia projects, and databases to any media outlet that wants them. But at least two of Texas’ biggest newspapers—The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman—have mostly resisted the Tribune’s advances. The Morning News’s Wayne Slater, one of Austin’s best-known political journalists, says he’s “bullish” on the Tribune but points to two reasons why some papers have been slow to embrace it. First, in the run-up to the Tribune’s launch, Thornton rubbed some newspaper folks the wrong way by insinuating they were outmoded. “When’s the last time you read a story about lobbying in state politics?” Thornton was quoted in an Austin Chronicle story. “I don’t think anybody can say with a straight face that people of Texas are as informed on government today as they were fifty years ago.” Slater and American-Statesman editor Fred Zipp heard the same message: “His early pitch cast the Tribune as the savior of journalism,” Zipp says.

Thornton admits he could have been more diplomatic. “Mea culpa,” he says. “I don’t blame them—it was a silly thing to say. But if they’re really still focused on that, it kind of makes me wonder.” Still, he hopes the Tribune eventually can work closely with the Dallas and Austin dailies.

It’s unclear when that might happen. In March, Slater told me that while the Tribune is producing worthwhile journalism, few stories are compelling enough to scream syndication. “I can think of very little that the Tribune has provided that makes me think, ‘Oh my God, I wish we had had that,’ ” he said. At about the same time, Zipp told me that there’s no edict against collaborating with the Tribune, but “have they brought anything to the table that’s substantially changed the game yet? I don’t think so.”

For months I wondered why, at a time when cutbacks have forced competing papers all over the country to pool resources and collaborate, these two dailies would not publish a first-rate story like Hu’s workers’ comp probe or Thevenot’s counterintuitive analysis on the textbook controversy? Why would they not want to work with an outfit named the best local news Web site by the Radio Television Digital News Association? Was it simply legacy-media hubris?

Then, in early June, the Tribune teamed up with the Houston Chronicle on an exposé that no one could ignore. The Tribune’s Emily Ramshaw and the Chronicle’s Terri Langford produced an investigation into a “fight club” at a state-contracted facility where disabled girls were rewarded with snacks for fighting. The Morning News published a truncated version in its state wire section, and the American-Statesman put it on its metro cover. Zipp, by way of explanation, called it a story “that could move the needle at the legislature. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, we felt it made more sense to pick up the story from the Tribune.”

The piece makes clear that if the Tribune continues to produce high-impact journalism, then hard feelings, old-school attitudes about competition, or whatever, will dissolve and the distribution of good work will take care of itself. Increasingly, such collaborative efforts are producing important journalism across the country, from the Pulitzer-winning New York Times Magazine-ProPublica piece that chronicled the life-and-death decisions at one hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the promising teamwork profiled in the May/June issue of CJR by the news outlets working with the investigative nonprofit California Watch.

Zipp freely admits that the Tribune’s arrival has ignited his newsroom’s competitive juices. The American-Statesman has ramped up its state coverage—in January, the paper began partnering with the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact franchise, a St. Petersburg Times project that judges the truth of public officials’ statements. It also has increased marketing efforts to highlight the paper’s statehouse reporting team. “I think anything we do to beef up our state coverage is at least in part a response to the Tribune,” Zipp says. “There’s no question that the existence of the Tribune has made us better, and caused us to think about what we do in different ways.” As the Tribune has evolved, Zipp has come to regard it as both competitor and contributor: “We’re all drifting into a better understanding of each other’s needs and strengths.”

Bob Mong, the Morning News’s editor, recently told me that his paper will publish Tribune stories when they meet the News’s standards for impact. “I’m eager to work with them, under the right circumstances,” he says.

For his part, Smith says it’s misguided to frame the question of whether to accept the Tribune’s content as a binary choice. “This is not A or B. It’s additive. It’s A and B,” he says. “We can either hang separately or survive together. I hope those guys will work with us.” Meanwhile, the Tribune may soon expand its reach in the print market—The New York Times confirmed that it has discussed a partnership with the Tribune. The Times has introduced local editions in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But Is It Sustainable?

After the fundraising bonanza that accompanied its launch, the Tribune is still raising money at a healthy clip, pulling in around $600,000 so far in 2010. But Thornton, who is pushing the Tribune to wean itself from philanthropy, says building grassroots support “is what keeps me up at night.” It’s what keeps everyone involved in a journalism startup awake at night. How do we sustain these creatures?

In light of this, I asked Smith if his salary—$315,000—has led to a perception problem for a fledgling nonprofit with a populist message. “Populist? What am I, Eugene Debs?” Smith says. “What is this, like a Socialist Party summer camp? You think (NPR’s) Vivian Schiller is not being paid a lot of money? You think (ProPublica’s) Paul Steiger is not being paid a lot of money? . . . I haven’t heard boo about it since the first week of the Tribune.” Perhaps not, but it’s only prudent to anticipate that high CEO salaries at the Tribune and peers like ProPublica (Steiger makes $570,000) and the new Bay Citizen (Lisa Frazier makes $400,000) might, by themselves, present a sustainability challenge for nonprofit news sites down the road. It certainly sharpens the pressure on these CEOs to raise money—as Smith actively does, traveling the state to meet potential donors at least once a week.

New Texas Tribune publisher Michael Sherrod, formerly an AOL executive, is devising a strategy to expand across the state by building communities of Tribune members and content partners in the state’s counties, towns, and cities. And with 254 counties in Texas, the Tribune has plenty of room to grow. Which raises the question: Can this journalistic model be replicated? What other state has Texas’s size, wealth, and shared sense of identity, along with a well-networked, passionate evangelist like Smith? “That same self-shared bond, shared experience, is crucial to the potential success of the Tribune, in that no matter where you live in Texas, what happens in Texas, you care about it,” Smith says. “I don’t know that we could have launched the New Hampshire Tribune.

“If we’re trying to ‘save’ anything, it’s Texas, it’s not journalism,” he adds. “We are not the new model or the new solution. We may be a new model.”

So after all that, we’re back where we started, with the Tribune’s effort to define itself. To assess an evolving news experiment like the Tribune, we can’t rely exclusively on old models for journalistic success. It is trying to be something familiar—a political news outlet and watchdog—as well as something altogether new—an interactive resource that seeks to empower readers and engage them as fellow citizens. It’s also a town square with a twist, leading public conversation and providing a virtual and traditional forum for politics and policy. Whatever you call it, the Tribune has brought new energy to the Texas media world. The readers will ultimately decide whether it is a renewable resource.

Jake Batsell , a former Dallas Morning News reporter and videographer, is an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University.