The Texas Tribune’s non-profit business model is harming for-profit journalism in Texas and Texas A&M’s corporate sponsorship of The Tribune should have been disclosed in a recent New York Times piece

Update: Click HERE for Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s response (and additional notes) regarding the post below.

My updated conclusion: Led by the success of the non-profit news model represented by The Texas Tribune, the decline of the for-profit news ecosystem is being accelerated by competition from the non-profit world. The role of a non-profit should be to help increase the quality of journalism, but not at the expense of for-profit organizations.

In journalism circles, The Texas Tribune is generally held in high regard for the quality of its content and its ability to lure top reporters from other Texas-based organizations. (After all, it provides reports to the Old Grey Lady but more on that below.) While I have been impressed by many of the Tribune’s special reports, data journalism, and coverage in general, it never dawned on me until I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas.

Since its formation in late 2009, The Trib has received large donations from foundations and individuals. It has also made many big-name hires: Emily Ramshaw from the Dallas Morning News, Jay Root from the Associated Press, and most recently Aman Batheja, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Batheja recently accepted a buyout offer from the Star-Telegram during its latest round of layoffs, and quickly lined up his new political reporting gig at The Trib.

On the surface, this appears extremely positive, as laid-off Texas journalists may now have a news outlet to call home. But this should viewed as a boon for Texas’s other for-profit newspaper publishers and detrimental for their employees, as The Tribune’s open-source model will now enable other Texas news organizations to access Batheja’s high quality content for free. Therefore, the Star-Telegram no longer has to pay Batheja a salary while still getting his ace political coverage.

(Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the Star-Telegram will replace Batheja. Star-Telegram Managing Editor Lois Norder would only say that her organization was “not abandoning political coverage” in the wake of its recent round of buyouts.)

Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune

Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune

The ideas that a non-profit news organization is not beholden to interests that affect for-profit news organizations (corporations, advertisers, etc.) is also flawed. Because The Trib is subsidized by wealthy donors, it may not create the type of journalism that could harm its financial future. Smith has a strong financial incentive not to ruffle any feathers: According to The Texas Tribune’s 990 form, filed with the IRS in 2010, Smith made a $320,625 base salary and $13,038 in additional compensation. (I guess it helps that he’s also on the Tribune’s Board of Directors.)

From the Texas Tribune's 2010 2010 IRS filing.

A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues. Trib co-founder and CEO Evan Smith himself described membership, major donors, foundations, corporate sponsorship, and earned income as the sources of revenue for his non-profit news organization. However, as the screenshot from The Texas Tribune’s homepage below shows, corporate sponsorship and advertising look to be one and the same:

It’s doubtful that The Tribune would now write a damning report against Texas A&M or Austin Recovery. (In fact, only four days ago, Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey wrote a glowing profile in The New York Times titled “A Master Carver, at Work at A&M” about John Sharp, the new Texas A&M University System chancellor. While Ramsey admits previously working with Sharp in at the Texas Comptrollers Office in the 1990s, he does not mention that Texas A&M is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune today.)

Can a startup non-profit news organization that relies on donors, members, and corporate sponsors for growth also excel at reporting that requires it to be non-partisan, as the Tribune claims to be? I argue that the answer is clearly “no!”

A full list of Texas Tribune donors and members is available HERE, as well as The Tribune’s 990 forms for the IRS.

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21 thoughts on “The Texas Tribune’s non-profit business model is harming for-profit journalism in Texas and Texas A&M’s corporate sponsorship of The Tribune should have been disclosed in a recent New York Times piece

  1. Pingback: Update: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s response to my recent post « Stephen Robert Morse

  2. I was one of the first people at the Tribune, and this line is nonsense: “A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues.” I doubt your source, assuming you have one, meant for you to spin the comment this way. But, still, it’s somewhat true if you’re talking about editorials. The Tribune doesn’t have them. That said, reporters there pursue all stories admirably and ethically, regardless of which donors might be involved. Go back and look at all of the A&M coverage over the last two years, for example. You’ll see. And before you impune an important and growing institution that could be a model for niche coverage in media, do some research.

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  5. Hi Robert,

    I’m one of the Tribune’s original reporters, but left the organization more than a year ago. With the benefit of distance and perspective, I would happily engage in a conversation with you about its various shortcomings. But the two points you make in this post are nonsensical; to blame a single nonprofit news organization for print media’s ongoing decline is prima facie absurd.

    The Texas Tribune was launched in 2009 precisely because market based models of journalism were already clearly in decline; the continuing of this trend is something that founder and chairman John Thornton, a venture capitalist, forecasted well:

    “I can say with even greater confidence that the world is a better place because investment capital tends to flow where it garners the highest risk-adjusted returns. This just in: the business of serious journalism news ain’t in the top 100, probably never was, and certainly won’t be again. Commercial efforts will persist because they just will.”

    So you confuse the existence of one entity as necessarily an opposing force of the other; this is like saying we should blame umbrella salesman for a storm just because he happens to make money when it’s raining.

    I can see how when one organization adds bodies and another subtracts them, the easy thing to do is to assume a causation, but you and I both know gigantic market forces are gigantic market forces.

    And while McClatchy (which owns the Star-Telegram and other papers) struggles and it takes advantage of the reporting that the Tribune gamely provides, I’d argue that journalism in Austin, at least in some pockets, became more robust and competitive with the addition of new blood. I point you to the Dallas Morning News, which after the launch of the Tribune expanded its Austin bureau by hiring longtime AP Bureau Chief Kelly Shannon and former Morning News reporter Karen Brooks to return to legislative coverage, as part of an effort to ensure they were not out-gunned by new competitors.

    In the 2010 gubernatorial race, the Morning News’ investigations team scooped the Tribune with important stories and lengthy explorations into Gov. Rick Perry that went on to trip him up during his presidential run. The local Austin paper, the Statesman, ran ads boasting its numerous capitol reporters (which included editors) in the first session the Tribune was in play.

    We Tribune staffers constantly heard from sources we shared with competing reporters that the sources were hearing from reporters more often and being worked harder than before for story ideas and tips, after we started to play in the field. That’s precisely the kind of influence we wanted to have.

    On your other assertion, about bias in favor of donors, I point to your own words: “By my own admission, I have not done a full review of all of The Tribune’s articles to gauge whether or not they treat their donors preferentially. I simply found one recent incident and wrote about it.” The team of reporters and editors I worked with at the Tribune are among the most aggressive independent journalists I know, and if you did do a full review, you’d find a mountain of evidence showing the consistent production of hard-hitting, investigative, explanatory news that has led to important policy change or public attention in Texas.

    Finally, I love pageviews as much as the next guy, but do we need the sensationalism? I caught that URL, and I’m sure your readers did, too: “The Texas Tribune is Destroying Journalism…” Really? No, seriously. Really? What a powerful feat to credit a single non-profit journalism outfit with! I think you and I both know that is credit the Tribune seriously doesn’t deserve.

    You seem like a smart guy. I’m not out to do blog battle. But you admit your exploration was surface-level, and so we agree on that point. If the recent This American Life debacle reminds us of anything, it’s that if your own mother says she loves you, verify it. And if you have “a chance conversation” with a reporter at South by Southwest “who accused ‘The Trib’ of creating an unfair playing field for journalists,” do some serious reporting before you assert boldly that it’s traditional media’s grim reaper.

    Respectfully,
    Elise

  6. Don’t let the TT backlash scare you. I don’t agree with everything you posted, but there is much much to criticize in what TT does and how they’ve done it, with their chummy chummy circle of back-patting good buddies over there and their willingness to abandon their core mission (a la Perrypalooza) whenever a big chunk of money lands in their laps.

    I don’t know that TT has pushed alt weeklies out, but they’ve lowered the standard on quality as much as they’ve raised it in reporting Capitol news…. Unfortunately, it’s a little too late for the Star-Telegram to realize that.

  7. Mr Morse, If I may add some thoughts, I take issue with a couple more of your comments on donors and the position of nonprofit journalism.

    On donors, Mr. Morse says:

    “A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues. ”

    He says this like this is a new challenge for the press. Established news orgs constantly face questions about the connections between their financial interests and their reporting. Example, NewsCorp owned entities and the Murdoch scandal (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/fox-news-program-avoids-talk-of-murdochs-news-international-hacking-scandal/2011/07/15/gIQA1rV6FI_blog.html).

    What IS novel about the Texas Tribune is that the financial connections between donors and TT are TRANSPARENT. Funders and board members of nonprofits are considered public information and easily found on IRS 990 forms or gathered from the agencies themselves (they must report to maintain nonprofit status). This is not so for private news organizations that do not have to be so clear with their relationships between advertisers, owners, and their stories. Is nonprofit journalism the answer to this issue? I don’t know. What I do know is that since Mr. Morse was able to find this information freely, and never had to file a request for info or anything that arduous, that nonprofit news orgs can be held to higher level of accountability, and thus trust. I encourage Mr. Morse to continue asking tough questions to any nonprofit entity, especially news orgs. However, don’t pretend this is an issue specific to nonprofit news orgs.

    Further, on the issue of nonprofit news orgs “taking away” from the private market. Mr. Morse says:

    “I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas.”

    He goes on to talk about how the Tribune is using their well-funded organization to hire away star talent from other news orgs, give away free content, and innovate using data journalism.

    However, I counter to Mr. Morse, who is he taking away from then? Who was doing this before the Tribune encroached on this market? The answer is no one. No other news organization in Texas is innovating on the level of the Trib. No one else is leading in data journalism like them. No one else is giving away expensive long-form and well-researched content like the Trib (save for a few, like the Texas Observer, another nonprofit news org).

    What nonprofits organizations, of all types and issue areas, do best is provide a service where no one else can or will. For example, there are no for-profit food banks, homeless shelters, or animal shelters. Nonprofits leverage the power of the community to fill and unmet need.

    The Trib did this by rising to meet a need in the Texas journalism community for data, for high quality journalism, and to support traditional news organizations. The Trib HAS to be nonprofit because, honestly, if there was a private news orgs could make money off this type of journalism, they would be doing it already. Look at the New York Times, the leader in data journalism. They are struggling with staying solvent and are desperately trying to find ways to fund their high quality work (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/20/new-york-times-pay-wall-non-subscribers-10-articles-free_n_1366669.html). So, no, the TT is not taking away from the private news orgs. They are tackling an issue no one else is and are empowered to do so through the nonprofit model.

    I’m glad Mr. Morse is questioning news sources, as we all should do, however making accusations like he did shows that he really misinformed and possibly a curmudgeon.

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