Last year, the American Journalism review conducted its fifth census of newspaper reporters who cover state government. Their survey found only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at work in the nation’s state capitols, a decrease of 32 percent from 2003. In the year since this report, the industry has continued to suffer, and local papers across the country have announced more buyouts and early retirements.
But a group of entrepreneurs at the Texas Tribune is engaged in an experiment with the hopes of creating a model that allows local political reporting to survive and even thrive online:
Led by Evan Smith, the former editor of the highly respected Texas Monthly, The Tribune is a nonprofit attempt to use a mix of donations, sponsorships, premium content and revenue from conferences to come up with a sustainable model for journalism that neither depends on nor requires a print product.
At this point, The Tribune has raised $3.7 million, including $1 million from John Thornton, an Austin venture capitalist, $1.6 million from other individuals, $500,000 from the Houston Endowment and $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Part of the reason the Tribune method holds so much promise is the degree to which it keeps its mission tightly focused. As the New York Times reports in their profile of the organization, the organization faced a serious decision last week, when the shootings at Fort Hood occurred only 90 minutes from their office in Austin, Texas:
“We were all sitting around talking excitedly about what we were going to do with it,” said Elise Hu, who came to The Tribune from KVUE-TV. “And then you could see Matt,” she said, indicating her colleague Matt Stiles next to her at lunch, “was about to blow his stack.”
“It wasn’t our story. Should we have just been one more news organization rushing to Fort Hood? I don’t think so,” said Mr. Stiles, who joined the Web site from The Houston Chronicle.
The Tribune has very specific beat. It covers politics, policy, and state government. Those are the areas in which its reporters have developed expertise, and when those reporters didn’t see a way they could add value to a story about Fort Hood, they didn’t devote resources to writing it. That’s an excellent example which highlights an important point — on the Internet, journalists really can’t afford be be redundant. When every other news outlet in the world is covering a story, it’s best to focus on what you can offer that is unique.
If The Tribune knows this already, there’s a lot of reason to hope they might have some serious lessons to teach the rest of us in the future.