Friday, July 24, 2009

Texas Trib, one man’s journalistic mitzvah

Looking at the news business from the hard-nosed perspective of a venture capitalist, John Thornton rapidly concluded that “serious journalism is never going to be a good business again.”

But that didn’t stop Thornton, a successful partner at the Austin Ventures investment fund, from putting $1 million of his own money into starting the Texas Tribune, a non-profit online news organization that has begun scooping up some of the cream of the state’s journalism talent.

Thornton (left) is under no illusion that the Texas Trib is going to be a juicy business, he said in a telephone interview.

Rather, he decided to fund the project to make up for what he perceives to be a growing lack of coverage of significant issues by the financially strapped dailies in the Lone Star State.

Thornton said he began to focus on the erosion of public-service journalism in the course of investigating investment opportunities a few years ago for the $3.9 billion venture fund where he works.

“In 2006, we looked at the challenges being faced by newspapers and how guys like us could make a profit,” he said. “The for-profit conclusion was to buy lead-generation businesses and that has worked out for us.”

But Thornton, who also pens the insightful Insomniactive blog, didn’t see how those investments were going to help produce quality journalism.

“I was reminded of something my pastor said when I was a kid growing up,” he explained. “If you mix politics and religion, the pastor said, you get politics. The same thing seems to be true in journalism. If you mix journalism and business, you get business. That’s when I realized serious journalism is never going to be a really good business again.”

Long active in Democratic politics and philanthropy, Thornton decided to abandon those extracurricular interests to develop a new model to produce quality journalism. “Fortunately,” said Thornton, “I am in a spot where I can indulge my greed gland in my day job and pursue my interest in journalism in my civic life.”

The path led Thornton to hiring Evan Smith, the esteemed former editor of Texas Monthly, to help found the Texas Tribune. The Texas Trib, in turn, immediately acquired Texas Weekly and the services of its estimable editor, Ross Ramsey, who will be managing editor of the Trib.

Thornton said he is more than half of the way toward raising the $4 million it will take to support the new venture to the point it can sustain itself through a combination of charitable contributions, NPR-style sponsorship fees, revenues from events and perhaps a few niche print publications.

He anticipates it will take “three to four years” to bring the Trib to the point it can generate $2 million in annual revenues to support a staff of 15 journalists without requiring further donations.

What kind of coverage can this buy? “That is a work in progress,” he said, but cited three major areas of concentration for the online publication scheduled to launch in the fall:

:: “One is the wholesale change in demographics and politics in the state and what that will mean to Texas and on the national scene.”

:: “Big story No. 2 is the Texas-Mexico border – things like immigration raids, public health, safety and trade.”

:: “The third unique Texas story is the energy industry. It probably is the biggest and most important issue under our nose and happens to be inhabited by people with enormous personalities. Nobody covers the energy industry the way the New York Observer covers the media business. We can.”

Thornton says he sees “no reason” why the Texas Trib can’t emerge as the leading voice covering statewide issues, especially since “the percentage of the newshole” devoted to major issues “has gone down as local dailies have focused on where they think their franchise is: local news.”

The Texas Trib intends to complement, not compete with, the local dailies, said Thornton. “Our message to commercial dailies is that we come in peace,” said Thornton. “We have told them we want very much to work in partnership with them. We’re not pretending to replace them.”

Although Thornton believes the Texas Trib can make an impact with an endowment of $4 million or $5 million, he sees no reason why up to $20 million a year in donations could not be available to support non-profit journalism in Texas.

“Most of my family’s philanthropy in the past has been to support dance, because my wife is a former dancer,” said Thornton. “There is $20 million a year going to dance philanthropy in Texas. Why couldn’t there be the same amount for journalism? If we could be as big as dance, you could barely spend that money responsibly. A $20 million electronic newsroom could support 150 reporters. You would kind of run out of places to put those people.”

Thornton said he believes the idea could be readily exported to other states but he is focused on proving the model in Texas first. “I grew up in the franchise-restaurant business and the clowns you took least seriously were those who talked about franchising their ideas before they opened their first store,” he said. “We want to open the first store.”

While he eventually would like to help other projects if he can, “I really want to demonstrate this can be done here,” he said. “If I can do that, then I think I will have done a big mitzvah.”

His pastor would be proud.


Anonymous bevo said...

I wish him the greatest luck in the world. Having lived in Texas for the last 5 years, his product is sorely needed. I was amazed how much the news hole at the Dallas Morning News had shrunk since I last lived there in the early 1990s. The vaunted Washington and Austin bureaus now produced superficial non-sense. The other major dailies have fared little better.

I would add a fourth item to the list: education. Because of Texas' size, it wields a great amount of power for what is and what is not included in primary and secondary textbooks. Further, Texas Tech has had trouble with the First Amendment (see the free speech zones on campus) and the Lubbock ISD's inability to read federal law (see the ban on an after school club for GLBT students). Throw in the state school board's desire to add a teaching certificate in Intelligent Design nonsense.

You have a witches' brew that cries out for a lot of journalistic light.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Janet S. said...

Why no mention of the Texas Observer (, the voice of progressive journalism in Texas for 50+ years?

10:53 AM  
Blogger Banjo Jones said...

they're putting together a talented staff of reporters, who don't seem the least bit shy about abandoning traditonal print outlets, and in one case, a TV station. who can blame them for jumping ship the way things have gone.

onward thru the fog!

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another liberal media voice among the other liberal media voices.

I think I'll stick to blogs.

3:07 PM  
Blogger J. Garland Pollard IV said...

If this shows the least bit of promise, which it should, it could open up an opportunity for public radio stations around the country. Many NPR and PBS stations already have embryonic news staffs doing local NPR-affiliate stuff and newsbreaks. Some even produce terribly boring print magazines that go out to members. They could take this to the next level, and hire some laid-off journalists.

For a time, the PBS affiliate in Richmond had a local news magazine and it "produced" the local city council meetings as a weekly Monday night "show," which had a great following. The city subsidized the broadcast.

These affiliates have excellent relationships with local businesses and good development staffs, plus steady streams of funding for their educational daytime broadcasts, yet their websites are mostly static, and provide no new news. If we could get these stations to at least cover some aspects of local government, and write a few reported stories, we'd have at least someone taping and making note of the local shennanigans at public meetings.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Leanne said...

Anonymous you are the problem we journalists face. Many Blogs are not written by journalists. Facts are not researched. Do you even know what liberal means? It means favoring individual rights and liberties. Protecting them. The "liberal" media does investigative reporting, checks their sources, has multiple facts to back up a statement. Long live those who search for truth and not just spin. These are experienced journalists who can do in-depth reporting for Texas.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

"The "liberal" media does investigative reporting, checks their sources, has multiple facts to back up a statement. Long live those who search for truth and not just spin."

That statement is itself classic spin. A more humble attitude and confession that yes, there are major flaws with media bias and accuracy, would make you more believable.

6:45 PM  
Anonymous perryg said...

I'm having a hard time understanding the "liberal" media pie fight going on in the comments. Seriously, can somebody explain it? Other than knee-jerk conservative trolling? This seems to me like a straight-up business model story.

Another question I had is that Thornton quotes a potential build-out of 150 journalists at $20 million per year which equates to $133,000 per seat. This seems high, and is only slightly less than a $150,000 figure quoted in the early stages of trying to move the former Rocky Mountain News staff into an online variant. A deal which fell apart. My question for Thornton would be how he came up with his numbers. I'm not saying they're inaccurate; just wondering how they were penciled out.

For what it's worth, my personal opinion is that a non-profit model based on philanthropy is not the best for the long-term future of journalism. At least in the context of funding day-to-day operations. Instead, I think a wiser choice is to go with projects such as Every Block in which Knight did a two-year grant to fund development of specific open source tools.

Nor do the tools need to be restricted to news side; the impact of a currently broken advertising model could be mitigated by developing tools to provide marketing services. This could also dovetail with emerging L3C business structures and provide more solid sustainability.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Mr. Thornton -- this is truly a noble cause and I wish him well.
Still, I can't imagine how Evan Smith, the former editor of Texas Monthly, will bring a new, independent, voice to Texas journalism. He's had more than 20 years to investigate and report on the abuses of government, and decided instead to look the other way. He is as deep an insider as you can get with state government -- so deep that he couldn't be bothered to report the real stories -- the ones that take courage and conviction. (Just as Karl Rove who Evan's Daddy is?)

If non-profit journalism is the way to go, then why do we have so many struggling public television stations? Why is it that public television and radio have to beg for donations? I don't think non-profit is the answer. I think someone has to figure out a way to make money doing the news and doing it well. Journalists who can support themselves are the ones who can truly be independent.

Good luck to all!

8:39 PM  
Blogger The Hypervigilant Observer said...

I was shocked to read that Smith was leaving Texas Monthly to head-up this new online venture.

But considering recent TM issues, I guess I'm not surprized.

TM is hardly worth more than a quick skim.

I hope Smith's Texas Tribune is meatier than his Texas Monthly.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Sydney Rubin said...

As a Texan, I look forward to reading coverage by experienced journalists who offer information and not just more commentary. And while I hope this effort is a huge success, non-profit journalism is not the answer to the current media collapse. David Simon makes a very compelling case for a different blueprint to save quality content:

9:33 PM  

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