Update: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s response to my recent post

My original post about The Texas Tribune is here.

UPDATE 2: Click HERE for an interesting white paper on non-profit/commercial news partnerships from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

UPDATE 1: Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune just returned my call. And he was angry. At the start of the call, he cited me as having factual errors in my reporting. (In reality, there was only one. Jay Root came to the Tribune directly from the AP, not the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he worked for many years, as I wrote.) As promised, I will give Smith his shot at a fair response right here:

Re: My accusation about a failure to disclose Texas A&M’s contributions to his organization in the recent New York Times piece, he said, “”I think we should have disclosed that A&M is an institutional donor to the Tribune.” He called the incident “a rare lapse.”

Smith then described a December 2010 story in the Times in which a Texas Tribune reporter, Emily Ramshaw, critiqued a Tribune donor, Christus Healthcare.

He said, “I wouldn’t be in the non-profit sector if I was in it for the money. I had a higher salary at Texas Monthly. The reason I raise the money has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the the mission of this organization.”

Smith said that $315,000 is his actual salary, even though it may seem higher on financial reports, because of deferred payments.

He critiqued my notion that I should be watching over a watchdog by saying, “You’re allowed to have a point of view, but it ought to be based on something. Be a watchdog on the watchdogs. If that’s your place, God Bless.” 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.

However, I feel that someone must examine non-profit news organizations with the same scrutiny that for-profit news organizations are critiqued. Smith replied, “You haven’t done the work required to rip as a new one.” Admittedly, I worked on this post for a few hours, and I was unpaid for my work. Smith also said,  “There are plenty of places that go into strong stances on issues. We give you the tools to think about things yourself.”

He insisted, referring to donations, that, “None of this ever influences the work that we do. I pointed this out to Howard Kurtz in 2009: The money we got from advertisers at the for-profit publications where I previously worked is greater then what we get at The Tribune.”

Other Smith quotes from our conversation:

1. “If you provide us with the resources to do the work we do, we will get our work in as many places as possible. We will allow the individual corporate and foundations to support us, so that we can make that content available for free.”

2. “We want to help educate as many Texans as possible about the things that happen in the world.”

3. “The goal here is to provide as many news organizations as possible with great content.”

4. “The reason that you know about my salary is because we publish it. We overdisclose. We are not obligated to publish any of this stuff.” I disagree. As a non-profit, they must disclose the salaries of their five highest paid employees.

5. “We ask transparency of others so we do it ourselves.”

6. “My salary gives me a disincentive to ruffle feathers. We have written negatively about our donors. There are countless examples where they will yell at us.

7. “”It is enormously hard work. We take it very seriously. Most of us worked for for-profit media companies, but we believe the mission of The Tribune is more important.”

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.