It has been a rough couple of years for the newspaper industry with the recession taking its toll on the financial stability of many organisations. In the past year alone at least ten publications have filed for bankruptcy and many have been forced to close their doors. With newspapers treading fast to try to keep their heads above water many have cut back funding for more costly types of news. One of the first things to go has been investigative journalism, considered by many publications to be a luxury. The time and investment of multiple resources in a single issue is something that many publications simply can no longer afford.
These cuts have raised alarm bells. The potential loss of 'the fourth estate' and 'government watchdog' have united many in the cause to protect the practice of journalism, even if the business and profitability of it is doomed to fail.
One method suggested to preserve this type of journalism is to run as a non-profit organisation. Seeking the status under the claim that journalism is a 'public good' publications are free from commerical pressures and the disappointment of dwindling circulation figures, relying only on donations from those who feel the cause worthy enough.
It is at this point that the Texas Tribune enters the scene. The online-only news site launched early last week as a non-profit venture in an attempt to fill a gap in quality local journalism in Texas. The Editors Weblog spoke with editor-in-chief, Evan Smith to look at Tribune's website and non-profit ambitions in closer detail.
The big name in non-profit news is ProPublica. Led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, the organisation began publishing in June 2008 and has consistently drawn in large sums of donations, with key sponsor the Sandler Foundation contributing annually. ProPublica, which will write an article then offer it to a newspaper to publish, has carried out some impressive investigative feats to date, most notably its collaboration with the New York Times, published in August. The 13,000 word article which cost an estimated $400,000 to produce examined the events that took place at the Memorial Medical Centre following Hurricane Katrina. The piece highlighted the importance of such investigative journalism and made the need to save it even more apparent.
The Texas Tribune aims to achieve something similar on a smaller and more political scale, offering Texans a news source designed to compliment local newspapers that already exist: "We've made a point of not presenting this as a binary choice: A or B. We believe it's additive: A and B. Read your local paper and read us. In fact read as much stuff as there is out there" says Smith.
"We're simply presenting ourselves as one in a series of things that you need to read and listen to and view and access if you want to be a thoughtful and engaged Texan."
In his first posting on the website Smith talked about what the Tribune was attempting to achieve: "What we mean to do on an ongoing basis is right there in our stated mission: to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern."
In ProPublica fashion, the Tribune has said that all the information published on its website is up for grabs for other media organisations as part of a content-sharing plan designed to aide other reporters who might not have the time to look into an issue in depth. Matt Stiles, one of the Tribune's staff reporters writers told Poynter Online in an interview: "Ultimately, we'd like to tell every paper in the state, 'If you like this data set, just take it'."
"I hope reporters will come see the information, download it, remix it and be creative with it."
The build up:
In July this year Smith announced he was leaving his position as editor-in-chief of established Texas Monthly magazine to take up the post as CEO and editor of the Tribune. A few months later, the Tribune added Elise Hu, Emily Ramshaw and Matt Stiles to its list of experienced journalists.
In an interview with Poynter in September, Ramshaw talked of her decision to join the project: "I feel, and still feel, that the newspaper business is in serious crisis. I'm not content to cling to a deck chair and go down with a sinking ship."
Ramshaw worked for The Dallas Morning News for six years, the last three of which she was state investigative reporter. "We're trying to prepare for the next incarnation of journalism. If this venture is going to work, it's going to work because serious, talented journalists were brave enough to take the risk," she said.
The Tribune has built up a selection of notable reporters willing to do this and Chairman and co-founder John Thorton had been quoted as saying: "We didn't hire journalists out of work. We hired reporters who their editors were pissed off that they lost them."
Smith and Thornton worked hard on securing donations, with Thornton himself donating $1 million to the Tribune. In early October the founders confirmed they had received a further $750, 000 in grants from the Houston Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Tribune is now only slighty short of the $4 million target it needs to continue running for two years, with a current total of $3.7 million.
The sum is considerable for a start up website, as paidContent's Staci Kramer has noted: "Unlike some of the new crop of local and regional news startups, the Tribune is launching with enough money for a well-paid staff of 16, including 11 reporters," referring to salaries of $315K for the editor in chief, and up to $90K for seasoned reporters.
As for promotion of the site itself, Smith told the Editors Weblog just how useful social networking sites have been. Regular updates for the public on the status of the site via Facebook, Twitter and the site's own newsletter built up a sense of curiosity over what exactly they had in store for last Tuesday's launch.
"We've been very aggressive on Facebook and Twitter both to promote the content and also to connect with our community of followers" said Smith. "We've also used both to aggressively push for funding. We've generated quite a lot of memberships in the Tribune which are much like memberships in public radio by pushing over Facebook and over Twitter messages that relate to our fundraising campaign, and they've been very successful," he says, citing the 1400 founding members who have given between $50 and $5000 to the Tribune out of their own pockets.
What does the site look like?
The website debuted with top stories on the mistreatment of disabled children in public schools, the Democratic lean of El Paso in an otherwise Republican state, and the results of a poll carried out by the Tribune and the University of Texas.
The site itself is divided into ten pages, the organisation of which differ from your average news website. Offering 11 databases under a section titled 'Library' for further reading, the databases contain information ranging from federal campaign donations, gubernatorial appointees and lawmaker spending. In addition to this there is a complete electoral directory of every Texan senator and governor- the site essentially offers a single space for complete personal and political data on the '242 occupants of the state's highest offices'.
It is clear that a lot of time has gone into collaborating this research, and according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, the Waco Tribune-Herald has already taken advantage of the new resource and published some Tribune content.
Aside from the databases, the site boasts eight of its own blogs and links to some 25 others; has a 'topics' section where stories can be found based on theme; a calender, where information about local events can be found or submitted; and a 'Tweetwire', a Twitter feed from all Texan politicians on the website's front page.
Compared to the recent launch of another local non-profit news website, Oakland Local, the Tribune's website is much more sophisticated. The Texan team have embraced the capacities of the internet and technology to their full, utilizing social media, widgets, videos, blogs and mobile applications- something Smith believes to be key to the way in which the use of media is changing.
"In consumption of media people are paying more attention to online media today then ever before," say Smith. "I look at my almost 13 year old daughter and how she consumes media and it's not at all in print it's almost entirely online and I think that's the trend line."
Smith suggests that publishers need to adapt to measure up to this changed method of consuming news: "You cannot simply go out and record the news, present that to people and believe that that's going to be enough. You need to give them the tools to better understand their world, to better know their state, to better know the people they elected, to better hold them accountable and that often is all not simply conventional reporting but the amassing and presenting of data that allows people to access the world in which they live from a more detailed level."
Why will the Tribune succeed where others have failed?
Whilst successful local non-profit news publications do exists, the Voice of San Diego and the MinnPost to name a few- there are also notable failures such as the Rocky Mountain Independent and InDenver Times, two online start-ups founded by Steve Foster earlier this year. How will the Tribune ensure that it doesn't suffer the same fate?
Smith says that the Tribune essentially has a better business plan, arguing that the RMI and InDenver Times failed because they were run by journalists, not business people and "didn't really have a plan for how to make the model sustainable."
Part of the reason the Tribune is choosing to remain online-only is because "the cost of printing a print publication for postage and paper and print facilities is so expensive that you reduce your overhead dramatically and therefore make it much more likely that your business model will sustain."
Of course the Tribune's has also managed to raise a healthy budget, further insulating itself against some of the problems faced by other publications. "Money is, as in all things, the mother's milk of your operation," Smith says, continuing on to mention that the having the financial capacity to buy the latest technology and hire top journalists will "go a very long way to allowing us to do our best work."
Smith's views bear resemblance to industry commentator Alan Mutter, who recently critized many online non-profit publications for not being business-minded enough. Mutter accuses these publications of "a suicidally stubborn determination on the part of the organizers to be in the business they want to be in, instead of attending to the business they need to attend to," and he argued early last month that, "A business, especially a start-up, requires far more than passion for the work. It requires close attention to the nuts and bolts of raising money, making sales and controlling expenses."
How will the Tribune navigate ethical issues?
A nagging question over the non-profit model is how publications will be able to resist influence from major donors. Smith argues that the seperation between donors and the editorial team is no different to the situation between advertisers and editorial: "I edited a magazine for nine years in which we had big advertisers who also happened to often be the subject of stories and the transactional economy that supports the operations of a for profit publication has no relationship what-so-ever to the journalism inside, or it shouldn't anyway, not at a good magazine and not at a good newspaper."
"Just because someone advertises doesn't mean you go easy on them or you go hard on their competitors."
Nevetherless, the non-profit news model is still in early stages and very dependent on the income from donors. Even for-profit news publications have not been immune to advertsing clients flexing their muscles in tough financial times, with a Detroit paper recently being accused of reporting on private health care following a request from client Humana (who subsequently purchased an ad next to the story).
What would Smith do if he was approached by a donor to cover a particular story?
"Donors don't expect that were going to write about their issues or about their enemy's issues in a negative way, they're not looking for us to take sides- they're supporting the principle that hovers above all this activity: that journalism in the public interest has value."
"Any donor who is unhappy with the coverage we provide because of such an expectation is welcome to his or her money back," he says, adding: "I'd rather lose my funding then lose my integrity."
So are non-profits the next incarnation of journalism?
The wider debate on whether or not non-profits are the future of journalism has been raging for a while. Online magazine, Slate's Jack Shafer has weighed in for the negative: "In the current arrangement, we're substituting one flawed business model for another. For-profit newspapers lose money accidentally. Nonprofit news operations lose money deliberately."
Thornton, the Tribune's chairman, hit back at the remarks: "I call it the Stockholm Syndrome. They are sympathizing with their advertiser-captors."
So who is right? Is the non-profit model the future of journalism?
Yes and no. It is unlikely to become a general solution for newspapers simply because of the huge sums of money involved, but for nieche reporting and more time/fund consuming journalism such as investigative reporting, it could definiatley be a viable option.
The idea compares favourably at least to the suggestion of government bailouts. As Thorton wrote of the "obvious fox-in-the-henhouse issues that arise--to mix animal metaphors--from government watchdogs funded out of government coffers."
As the first serious, state-focused news site with a decent enough amount of money behind it and what seems to be the right attitude toward embracing the capacities of the digital age and the changing face of journalism- whether or not the Texas Tribune succeeds will be key to the way in which the non-profit model is viewed.
As Tribune reporter Christe Hu suggests: "Journalism is at a crossroads right now. We're seeing not just survival of the fittest but a 'mutation of the species.' "
"I think the non-profit model has just as good a shot as anything else."