Texas Tribune’s Fast Start Seconds Regional News Start-Up Model
Originally published by Outsell on Aug 31, 2010
Advancing the business of information. Information on Outsell's reports
Originally published at Outsell, July 29, 2010
The Austin-based news site, along with California Watch, are creating models indicative of the future of journalism.
Important Details: In the fall of 2009, Texas Tribune was a promising idea. Nine months after its launch, it’s a fledgling success. To date, the $4 million privately funded non-profit start-up has:
- Built a substantial audience: The site reached the level of 240,000 unique visitors this month, with more than three million page views, well ahead of its 2010 goals already.
- Set up partnerships with major media throughout the state: The Tribune’s work has been published in the state’s major publishers, including the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio News-Express. KUT, Austin’s NPR affiliate, decided on a partnership with the Tribune before the site launched. It has now “embedded” a reporter with the Tribune. That reporter reports both for KUT on air and writes for the Tribune; the Tribune then pays KUT for time taken away from radio duties, which the station uses to pay for other political reporting. “They shared our values. We know the principles,” KUT General Manager Stewart Vanderbilt told Outsell. That embedding may have wider significance as KUT plans its own local news push in early 2011, following the lead of numerous public radio stations across the country.
- Persuaded about 1700 people to become members of the site: at a price point averaging about $100
- Signed up more than 100 corporate sponsors: each pays at least $2500 annually
- Produced solid journalism in key areas of public policy: this includes such current hot-button topics as health care, transportation, education, immigration, energy and the environment. The site employs 24 people, half of them journalists.
Evan Smith, who serves as CEO and editor-in-chief, makes the case that a focus on statewide news coverage is one of the major areas impacted by the cutback in the daily journalism workforce — and he makes the connection between under-reporting and low civic engagement of the populace. On a macro level, he points to the roll-up budgets of the 50 US states ($1.4 trillion) and compares it to Congress’ “discretionary spending” ($1.04 trillion). He then points to Texas’ own budget of $72.8 billion and the fact that Texas ranks 43rd in voter turnout.
Against that backdrop, he says that Texas state government press corps, based in Austin, is half the size it was 20 years ago.
Funding is about building a wide base, Smith tells Outsell. “We’ve gotten AT&T, JP Morgan and a lawyer who puts out a shingle on Congress Avenue” to join up. Smith says his aim is a funding model built on thirds, a third each from membership, corporate sponsorships and earned income. The latter category incudes advertising and event programming. Already, the Tribune has broken out of the box with community-reaching programs including “Texas Tribune Conversations,” “The Texas Tribune College Tour,” “the Texas Tribune Ideas Festival,” and “Texas Tribune Sponsored Events.” In so doing, the Tribune has made a relatively big splash in a big ocean.
Implications: Outsell believes the regional news start-up model has numerous lessons for the trade. It’s clear there’s an appetite and a market for aggressive regional reporting. Texas Tribune joins California Watch, a project of the Berkeley (Ca.)-based Center for Investigative Reporting, in taking a new approach to statewide issues, and tackling them with a small, but strong and passionate, staff of experienced reporters.
Clearly, this model works best, and most easily, in big states like Texas and California. We’d have to believe though that the principles, if not the scale, are widely applicable across the US and in other nations as well.
It’s important for traditional publishers to see what these sites have and haven’t done. They haven’t reinvented the wheel, but they’ve rounded it differently. Statewide and regional issues reporting has long been a mainstay of strong, metro papers. Most of them are still doing that reporting, but less of it while the public policy issues of the states and the wider society multiply. One “secret” of the Texas Tribunes and the California Watches is the singular focus they bring to their reporting. As start-ups with newer foundation funding giving them the belief they are at the beginning of something, they’re taking a spirited approach to the issues before them.
The Tribune’s numerous outreach programs bear study as well; it is boldly and publicly taking its news mission to the public.
Outsell believes that dailies — and TV stations as well as the ethnic press — have been smart to partner with these regional news operations. On a simple economic basis, they are now able to buy “outsourced” high-quality journalism at way-below-market prices, with the Tribune in fact making its stories freely available, while California Watch charges a nominal sum. That’s a no-brainer.
Beyond that simple economic transaction, dailies can also learn the new, digitally enhanced value of statewide news sharing, and of an emerging syndication market for any good journalism created that transcends city limits. This innovation also poses a challenge and an opportunity for the Associated Press. With its long presence in statewide reporting, it’s got to assess these start-ups as to how they affect its operations and business models, and that reassessment could help both AP and its member dailies.