Texas Tribune: A nonprofit model for political journalism


When Evan Smith announced in July that he was stepping down as president and editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly after more than 17 years at the magazine to take a job at a nonprofit, local e-media startup called the Texas Tribune, it was something of a head-scratcher. After all, Texas Monthly had just won a coveted National Magazine Award for general excellence, and Smith had a coveted publishing job.

But Smith says he was simply tired of editing a magazine – and is reenergized by the Tribune’s mission to fill the gaps in public policy coverage that have been created by the slashing and burning newspapers’ editorial budgets. “We want to hit ‘em where they ain’t,” Smith says.

In an interview on the eve of Texas Tribune’s launch this week, eMediaVitals spoke with Smith about the nonprofit opportunity, the state of hyperlocal media and his plans for sharing content for free “with anyone who wants it.”

Why did you leave Texas Monthly?

I had been at Texas Monthly for a long time. I have very deep love for the people there; I hired many of them. But the last few years I worried that my productivity could start to slip from not being 100 percent committed, and it would diminish what we were doing there. I was hyperaware of it.

In parallel to this, my friend, John Thornton, told me that he had been studying the newspaper industry – because that’s what venture capitalists live for, to profit from the misery of others – and he concluded newspapers were not a good business to be in, and foresaw that they would all start losing money and newsrooms would be forced to cut people and pages. And that the least sexy, least commercial stuff – the public interest journalism, policy journalism – would be the first to go.

So the idea for Texas Tribune is going to be to “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” We’re going to cover all the public policy stuff that newspapers don’t cover – or can’t afford to. Thornton saw this nonprofit model, and said, “Will you help me with this?” I helped him refine the concept.

I wanted to see if this model could work. As you know, what was once stable is not stable now. I wasn’t worried that the Texas Monthly model wasn’t stable. But I wanted to see if this thing was.

What’s the cost of this launch?

Since July 17 we’ve raised $3.6 million, including $1.1 million from foundations and $1.5 million in corporate and individual donations. Houston Endowment gave us $500,000 and the Knight Foundation gave us $250,000. We have more than 50 founding investors [T. Boone Pickens is one], plus corporate sponsorships that are $2,500 each. And then we have 1,500 individual donors. It’s the underwriting/public broadcasting model.

All of that tells me people have faith in the idea. Which is, if we take journalists and free them from the fears about the economy and their job, and just let them do what they do, magic can happen.

So we made a fantasy baseball style list of all the journalists we wanted to get, and we got every last one of them. There are 11 reporters and content people including me. Much larger than any paper’s bureau covering the capital.

How do you plan to market your e-media content?

We’re going to create this content and give it away to anyone that wants to run it, in print, online. Because at the end of the day, we want people to be informed, and the way you do that is paved with ubiquity. The more people that can access this content, the better. So newspapers, local web sites, TV, anyone.

The money we would’ve gotten from [licensing] this content to newspapers is inconsequential. It’s sort of like a free wire service. At a time when budgets are being slashed, we know it’s a price people will like. And these publications already know who is going to be creating the content, because they either competed against them or tried to hire them.

Why not turn Texas Monthly into Texas Daily, and stay there and do something like this?

Texas Monthly has been around for 37 years. It is built on long-form narrative journalism. And it is great at what it does. My feeling is, be what you are, don’t fundamentally change what you do. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t evolve. But don’t change for the sake of changing. The Texas Monthly still turns a profit. The other thing is, it is going to be hard to do something like this if you’re for-profit. The money just simply isn’t there.

What is your budget?

Our budget is $1.6 million in the first year, $2.3 million the second year – and we expect to be cashflow positive by the third year. It’s amazing what you can do when you streamline.

[Editor’s note: PaidContent.org reports that the Tribune isn’t relying solely on donations. It offers a weekly newsletter, the Texas Weekly, which it acquired earlier this year and has approximately 1,200 subscribers paying $250 a year. The goal, Smith told PaidContent, “is to grow the circulation base for more ‘earned income.’”]

What’s the staff size?

We have a staff of 15 or 16. Eleven content people. One GM. Two developers, who are on contract. One lead developer. One CTO. One admin. We just hired a director of events from the New Yorker, who is going to help us launch an ideas festival, where we’ll be the third leg alongside the Aspen Institute and New Yorker Festival.

Who do you see as your competition?

Well, if you asked big city newspapers, they would say them. They say, “How dare you launch something like this.” We’re an affront to them. They scoff at the idea there are gaps in their coverage. The thing is, they think it’s a binary choice: us or them. When it’s really us and them. It’s additive.

So you don’t anticipate the big papers taking your offer to run Tribune content for free. 

In Dallas and Houston, they probably won’t run our content. I would welcome them to, but I’d be surprised if they did. But in local towns, people are telling me, “We can run it for free? On top of what we already do? Great!”

Will Texas Monthly be in print in five years? Houston Chronicle? Dallas Morning News?

Oh, absolutely.

I like to say 9/11, the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the day Gourmet folded were the three tragic events in my life.

Gourmet was sad, I hate that it closed, but it’s not emblematic for the industry – it’s not the magazine version of Swine Flu. Newspapers, though, are in a much scarier place. That’s because what they’re doing is giving you what’s happening [in real time], then asking you to pay to receive it late the next morning.

Then, of course, they had advertising fell off a cliff. It may come back, but what’s not going to come back is classified advertising. Craigslist ate its lunch.

That said, I do not think newspapers are going to go away. It may be like the half-life of uranium, where it gets smaller and smaller every year, and some local markets may get to a point where they won’t have a daily newspaper in print, but bigger places, Houston, Dallas, Austin, they will all be around for awhile.

But there has to be the resetting of expectations. Resetting of the way newspapers are operated, run, and consumed. The change is already here, and it’s not temporary.

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