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.)
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.)
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.