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.

Part 1: The law that could save sustainable journalism will be destroyed unless the US Senate acts now!

I recently argued that upstarts like Matter that have made successful pitches on Kickstarter are not the solution to solving journalism’s long-term problems. Why? Because crowdfunding, in its current form, does not permit people to make investments. Rather, crowdfunders make donations, or in some cases loans. The outcomes are variable and generally unsustainable

When David Cohn started the crowdsourced journalism non-profit Spot.us four years ago, it worked on a similar premise to Kiva, whereby donors received part or all of their money back if and when a crowd-funded story sold to a legacy media outlet. Cohn prevented  any one person from influencing which stories were funded by limiting each donor to funding 20% of the total amount raised for each pitch. (Of course this system is potentially flawed in that one donor can spread his/her money out to friends etc, but at least Cohn tried to implement a system of checks and balances.) But Spot.us was designed to assist existing organizations, not create entirely new media outlets.

We’re on the brink of a revolution that could lead to saving sustainable journalism and create many jobs

But we may be on the brink of a journalism revolution. Currently, only accredited investors are able to invest in newly formed companies, which prevents Kickstarter, Spot.us, and any other crowdfunding site from raising capital for startup companies and entrepreneurial journalism ventures.

Forbes reports:

Under current federal and state securities laws, startups are prohibited from selling stock or other securities via crowdfunding sites or social networking sites.  Such laws include:

  • A prohibition against “general solicitation” – which means that a company may not offer or sell securities unless there is a substantive, pre-existing relationship between the company (or a person acting on its behalf) and the prospective investor (see “Can I Raise Money For My Startup Via Twitter?” );
  • Disclosure and state law compliance requirements if the investors are not “accredited investors” — which usually makes the offering of securities too costly and onerous for a startup (see “Ask the Attorney – Securities Laws”);
  • A requirement that any intermediaries (including websites) must be registered with the SEC and applicable state securities commissions as a “broker-dealer” in order to legally accept any transaction-based compensation in connection with the sale of securities (see “Ask the Attorney – Beware of Finders”); and
  • A requirement that any company that has 500 or more shareholders and total assets exceeding $10 million must register with the SEC and file periodic reports.

These laws were designed with good intentions: Nobody wants to see Mom and Pop lose their hard-earned money to a snake oil salesman! But in today’s crowdfunded world, they no longer make sense. And when tech-savvy Americans realized this, they sought action.

In the United States Congress, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) (who made some excellent contributions to 2010 Census oversight, which I know from my time spent running MyTwoCensus.com), introduced crowdfunding legislation that was one of the most popular bipartisan initiatives in recent history, garnering support from Democrats all the way up to President Obama himself. McHenry’s bill, the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act,  H.R. 2930 (full version here), passed 407 to 17.

This makes total sense. Republicans generally don’t believe that the government should be able to tell people how to spend their money (anyone can gamble or booze away all of their savings, can’t they?), and Democrats don’t see why accredited investors who are members of the “top 1%” should be the only folks permitted to invest in startups, thus preventing the upward mobility of the masses.

Specifically, the highlights of H.R. 2930 are as follows:

- Create a crowdfunding exemption from SEC regulations for firms raising up to $2 million, with individual investments limited to $10,000 or 10 percent of an investor’s annual income.

- Excludes crowdfunding investors from counting as shareholders for purposes of calculating the 499-shareholder cap under 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act

- Preempt state law and exempts the ban on general solicitation for the new crowdfunding exemption.

But now, as always seems to be the case as of late with the American government,  just when we’re on the brink of something great, the millionaire’s club also known as the United States Senate has failed to move forward with this legislation, thus preventing it from making its way to President Obama’s desk to become a law.

Despite Senate Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts championing similar legislation to the resolution that the House of Representatives passed, lobbying groups like the NASAA (North American Securities Administrators Association, “the oldest international organization devoted to investor protection”) have wielded their influence over the 100 people who control the fates of the other 300+ million.

What needs to happen now is simple: An online campaign of the magnitude of the SOPA/PIPA variety must be enacted to create swift and effective action to boost America’s economy by causing the US Senate to pass comprehensive crowdfunding legislation.  Sites like crowdfundinglaw.com and startupexemption.com have already been set up to explain this law and advocate its passage. And using a Wefunder.com petition, more than $6 million has already been pledged to support investment in new ventures if this legislation is passed.

But will Google, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and all of the other organizations that led the charge against SOPA and PIPA step in to assist with this one?

As someone who is not interested in the “rewards” that Kickstarter campaigns promise their donors, but rather direct return on investment in monetary form, I and other like-minded people would be happy to invest in startups despite our lack of accredited investor status. I don’t gamble in casinos, but I’d be happy to gamble on good ideas and innovation.

Coming soon: Direct effects of crowdfunding legislation on new journalism business models…

Microsoft is quietly stepping into the citizen journalism business…

Citizen journalism has faced one major obstacle that has prevented it from going totally mainstream: Source verification. This is an issue that I have discuss frequently with my friend and former classmate Torsten Mueller, of MundusMedia in Germany, who is  hoping to find solutions to this problem. As a Poynter blog noted, breaking news often hits Twitter first and then spreads to the mainstream media.

But now, teams of researchers are creating methods to help verify sources:

Late last year, a team of researches at Duke University (alongside a researcher from Microsoft) announced the creation of YouProve. This is an Android based system that I fear may not gain traction simply because it may lead to privacy issues.

Poynter also points to the work of Rutgers researchers.

*Again there is a team member who is a Microsoftian. I have manually verified that she was formerly a Rutgers Post Doc. And if I didn’t fear New Jersey so much, I’d try to meet with this team on their home turf, but perhaps I can coerce them to join me in New York for a bit.*

I suspect that verification has been a problem for citizen journalism sites like London-based photojournalism agency Demotix (that took an undisclosed investment last year from Corbis, which is privately owned by one Bill Gates) and Citizenside (that took an investment from AFP in 2007).

However, questions of privacy still remain, as verification also means that one’s personal information could/should be compromised for the sake of authenticity. This could lead to problems for anyone who hopes to be an anonymous source, especially sources based in America or in countries with oppressive regimes.

Future of crowdsourced fundraising? Dispersed!

Like everyone else, I have been amazed by how Kickstarter has been able to fund business, arts, and journalism projects. But I don’t give. Yes, new projects are cool. But what I’m looking for is return on investment.

In general, the rule of thumb on Kickstarter is that unless you are funding a cool new tech product that will later retail for a higher price (so the creators’ claim), you will only be rewarded with a measly little cupcake. Do I really want a $5 cupcake mailed to me at some random point next year? No, I don’t. And many other people who are mindful of their money don’t want such gimmicks either.

But I am interested in using crowdfunding for other media purposes. However, I want funders to have equity stakes in the projects they fund (which is possibly in Germany as evidence by my friend Lars’ project…check out the 2000 Euro+ levels here).

(As crowdfunding sites proliferate, the costs of building and developing them will go down rapidly, which is demonstrated by the fact that you can now find cloned Kickstarter source code free on the Internet or pay some guys — probably in India — less than $1,000 to build, modify, and maintain a clone site for you.)

But what stands in the way of equity investments in crowdsourced products? The US government’s accredited investor law. More on that soon…