HOUSTON, TEXAS — The audience that reads Texas Watchdog’s reporting may not be familiar with the news site or the organization behind it, but that’s okay by TW. “Being online, half our visitors, quite frankly, don’t know who Texas Watchdog is, and they don’t care who Texas Watchdog is,” says Trent Seibert, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief. All that matters is the quality of the investigations that they produce, with the goal of keeping local government honest. That said, Seibert adds: “Certainly, every politician we write about knows who we are.”
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With Texas newsrooms doing less investigative work at the state government level in recent years, Texas Watchdog, a web-only, Texas-focused, nonprofit investigative news site with a full-time editorial staff of six, has been able to help satiate the appetite for political news and policy oversight in the Lone Star State.
Texas Watchdog launched in August of 2008, thanks to a generous grant from the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit. Seibert met members of SAA at a conference; the organization was interested in launching an accountability journalism initiative, and urged Seibert to make a pitch. During the course of eight or nine months, they went back and forth before coming to an agreement. Seibert, who was a newspaper reporter and editor for twenty years before this opportunity came along, was working in Nashville at the time, but the SAA grant hinged on whether Seibert could base the project out of a somewhat larger market. Seibert says he thought that New York and California media seemed oversaturated, but that Texas sounded about right.
Enter Houston. Aside from the fact that the nation’s fourth largest city has the kind of market to sustain the project, and that it is a one-newspaper town, Seibert was looking down the road toward what he would do once the initial grant (which was about a quarter of a million dollars) ran out. “It’s a town, quite frankly, you can raise money in,” he says. “I think it was a very good choice for us.”
Although SAA is a libertarian organization with ties to the Tea Party, Seibert says the grant came through with no strings attached, and SAA had no say in what topics Texas Watchdog would cover, or how. “In fact, they wanted all journalists on our board of directors–no one with any ties to the Sam Adams Alliance,” Seibert says. “Look from day one to today: we’ve pounded the right and the left, and we’ve put a real spotlight on the real conservative folks and real liberal folks here in Texas, and didn’t hear boo from them.”
The site now attracts about 70,000 visitors a month, but the group doesn’t judge its impact by web analytics alone. Seibert and his team think Texas Watchdog’s outreach is probably best proven by its partnerships, an essential factor for a nonprofit news outlet. For instance, TW has teamed up with YourHoustonNews.com, a chain of Harris County newspapers that garners about 1.5 million visitors a month–comparable to that of the Houston Chronicle. And on the broadcast side, the CBS affiliate in Houston (KHOU), the NBC affiliate in San Antonio (WOAI) and the ABC affiliate in Houston (KTRK), the latter being the top-rated TV news station in Houston, have each produced and credited pieces from Texas Watchdog investigations and analysis. While no formal partnerships exist, Seibert says his reporters often team up with print and broadcast outlets to enhance and amplify TW’s individual investigations.
“We certainly measure success by ‘Are we influencing the people who are able to influence?'” says Seibert. “I don’t care where they go to get the news as long as people are getting it.” To that end, all of Texas Watchdog’s content is available for free reprint, under the Creative Commons license. While TW doesn’t receive any revenue from these arrangements, Seibert says he thinks that the fact that they contribute to newspapers is appealing to charitable donors.
The SAA grant funded Texas Watchdog for about the first year and a half, Seibert says, and since then, they’ve had to diversify a bit. In addition to finding a balance between aggressive and loyal small-money donors and a couple of bigger donors, Texas Watchdog makes money by teaching investigative training courses for bloggers, citizen journalists, and journalism students. The training includes a wide array of topics, including how to craft a public records request and how to understand the libel and legal issues that go into an investigative story.
Two recent spinoff ventures indicate that Texas Watchdog will continue to branch out. In March, the group launched Texas Healthcare Report, a sister site focusing the group’s investigative efforts solely on health and drug issues at the state level. Another site, Texas Education Report, is dedicated to education policy and reform. Later this year will likely see the launch of a Watchdog site devoted to local Texas primaries. Seibert says these types of sites, while attracting niche audiences, may also eventually allow Texas Watchdog to sell topic-specific ad space, although they have not yet taken that step.
“I wish I could tell you what 2012 will bring,” he says. “I am going to work like heck to keep the lights on and make sure we keep a staff of top journalists on board, but no one can tell.”
One thing’s for sure–Texas has no shortage of news. With Texas governor Rick Perry going for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Watchdog, along with sites like the Texas Tribune, should provide a go-to destination for accountability journalism in Texas politics for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been around for three years,” Seibert said. “How many small organizations can say that? We’ve already beaten the odds and hope to continue to beat the odds.”
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