The Texas two-step: Is political coverage like ballet?

Communities / Article

Cross-posted from Texas Tribune is one the best examples of a nonprofit journalism model, an initiative that Steve Waldman seems to have in mind.

It’s a nonprofit, community-initiated Web site that banks on donations to finance a perceived void in state political coverage and public interest journalism. It has poached journalists from the newspapers that apparently didn’t cover state politics and public policy well enough in the first place. TexTrib is real proud of its stories, so it is making them available to any of those pokey, newspaper armadillos to use for free.

There’s no advertising and no plans to charge for content. The model assumes funding almost exclusively through philanthropy, gradually transitioning to an equation where earned income from events and premium products support the philanthropy.

The nonprofit startup scares the boots off the patrician press barons in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio who are scaling back staff, coverage and investment as circulation and ad revenue slip-slide away. For the beleaguered news industry, a nonprofit competitor funded by the most engaged and affluent audiences is yet another serious threat to survival.

TexTrib’s founder, John Thornton, has emerged as the leading evangelist for the non-profit, philanthropy model for news. An earnest and energetic capitalist who’s the general partner of high-flying Austin Ventures, he’s seeded TexTrib with $1 million from of his own pocket. He and his wife Julie, a ballet teacher and patron, lead a tiered investment group of corporate friends and high-profile friends who donated an additional $1.6 million.

Big donations get you ‘elected’ to office– $1 million for ‘POTUS’ level (John and Julie) while lesser donations give you title to lesser public office such as ‘State Representative.’ Nonprofit foundations added $1.1 million, and small contributions of $50 and $25 raised another $13,000 for a total of $3.6 in seed capital — a budget for two years of operation.

I heard Mr. Thornton speak at media and technology summit in the Silicon Valley. He had the look and sound of a man who had just made a small fortune by starting out with a big one. He ran through slides that showed why VCs wouldn’t touch an investment as bad as news, then explained how much he believed in public service journalism. The only business model that made sense to him was an endowed patron-model: Here’s a coupla mil. Now do some good. Build it and lovers of quality journalism will pay.

Mr. Thornton believes there is as much public passion about journalism than there is about dance or art. Well-heeled patrons donate millions to ballets and museums in the public interest. Why not to journalism? He acknowledges that passion for the vision is expensive and must be shared.

That vision is shared by Evan Smith, who signed on as editor of TexTrib after making his name editing the highly-regarded Texas Monthly magazine. Smith admires ProPublica for obvious reasons: he picked the founder’s pocket, quipped Slate’s Shafer. Smith’s starting salary of $315,000 annually is twice what editors outside of New York typically make, and about $200,000 or more than what editors of non-philanthropic sites are paid, not to overlook the aforementioned annual budget in Chi-Town. The talented Mr Smith, a native of Queens, nods instead to Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal who earns $570,000 a year as editor of the nonprofit ProPublica. Obviously, Mr. Steiger is very proud of himself. (McKinsey essay)

The first editions of TexTrib tackled big issues in Texas such as immigration, water and education. There’s good reporting delivered through the metaphors that Internet users expect. There are blogs, video, a mobile edition, a Twitter stream, and a weekly audio-cast (sort of an All Things Considered radio conversation). Like GPS systems, iPod players and sensors in the latest car models, the features are must-haves for websites these days. Stories are stamped with time/date and comments, nods to immediacy and feedback. But most of the initial stories had zero or just a few comments, a bad sign for a new product that relies on public enthusiasm. These things can take time to catch on, but initial interaction is decidedly one-way.

The site is better, more focused, than news sites from The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle or Austin American-Statesman. The approaches are livelier; the tone noticeably younger. But TexTrib still has the familiar look-and-feel of a product produced by a news organization. And they’ve hung a name associated with an endangered species on an otherwise entrepreneurial brand: Tribune.

While all the tools haven’t been turned on yet, TexTrib manages to incrementally advance the cause of public service journalism. It is the kind of us-to-you site that news organizations should have created years ago. The problem is that it lacks the presence and authority of the audience, so much a part of an informed society these days. Community journalism, particularly the kind that tackles politics, is evolving as an exercise in participation, not merely as observation.

Is it enough? The philanthropy model asks a lot from its audience. It should reward it with more involvement, as well as richer, more personal, more imaginative approaches to public interest journalism and the way the public might experience that journalism. Or donations could dry up faster than a ranch during a Texas drought.

A post from the 2011 Media Learning Seminar. At Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar, community and place-based foundation leaders meet with journalism and technology experts to explore the topic of community information needs. Follow the event on Twitter at #infoneeds and @knightfdn.