In 2009, Evan Smith left Texas Monthly to start a revolution.
Nineteen months later, he is still just getting started.
The award-winning journalist is editor-in-chief and CEO of Texas Tribune, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organisation that promotes civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern.”
But more than that, it is serving as one model for the future of sustainable, non-profit journalism.
The site launched on November 3, 2009 with backing from venture capitalist John Thornton. Another co-founder, Ross Ramsey, joined the editorial staff as managing editor. The group has raised more that $9 million, including scoring a $975,000 Knight Foundation grant in March that they are sharing with the Bay Citizen to develop an open-source publishing platform. The Trib has additional revenue streams that are helping it inch toward a sustainable future.
“Whether it’s membership, major philanthropy, corporate support, or earned income, whether it’s the events we put on, or the data we publish, or the polling that we do, the points of differentiation for this organisation to other organisations are real and I think we can make this work,” Smith told The Wire over the phone on Wednesday. “I’m ever more confident every single day.”
And then there is the content, which is as impressive if not more so than the monetary successes.
The Trib focuses on the core areas of public education, higher education, energy, criminal justice, health and human services, and horserace politics.
In its first year, the publication earned two national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and a General Excellence Award from the Online News Association. There is a content partnership with The New York Times that ends up in a twice-weekly “Texas” branded section of the paper, which gets Trib stories into the hands of people who might not be familiar with the fledgling publication.
Because of the success it has had raising money, the Trib has been able to staff up more quickly than anyone expected. Smith specifically cited the recent arrival of former AP reporter Jay Root.
“I’m extremely pleased that within the last month, we hired the foremost expert on Rick Perry from the Associated Press — who also happens to be one of the very best reporters that the state has seen over the last few years — at exactly the moment that Perry is getting back into the national and international conversation,” the editor said. “We’ve got our man on Perry out there swinging at the ball every day.”
From @TesasTribune: “Previous Trib record for daily uniques: just < 37k on Election Day 2010. Today, as of 4 pm: just < 60k. Thank you, groping fans/foes!”
While the Tribune is showing solid growth and a model that could scale, Smith and his team want to build the brand in state rather than expanding beyond the borders of Texas.
“The play is not to become a big national brand; the play is not to franchise,” he said. “We’re not Carl’s Jr. We don’t intend to have satellite outposts in other states; we’re not trying to create nationally The Vermont Tribune or The Idaho Tribune. We’re focused entirely on what we’re doing.”
(That said, they hope the journalism they produce makes an impact beyond Texas.)
So: Solid growth. Strong funding and revenue streams. High-quality journalism. A job well done?
“I don’t define what we’ve done so far as success,” Smith said. “I would define it as a number of stones in the path to that, but I don’t think that we can say we’ve succeeded because that would suggest that our work is done.”
“And it isn’t; it’s barely begun.”