Lone star: The startling success of the Texas Tribune’s non-profit investigative journalism

Can the Texas Tribune’s successes be a model for other investigative news sites? Ean Higgins ventured deep in the heart of Texas to find out.

Austin cab driver Mike Smith is one of those only-in-Texas sort of guys.

This reporter sat up front, because the back was full of electronic equipment, music loud-speakers and a mobile light show – the trappings for Smith’s mobile disco/karaoke bar, the Land Yacht (“Austin’s Only Rock & Roll Party Cab”). It works for Austin, a state capital, university town and cultural mecca, whose denizens sport T-shirts saying “Keep Austin Weird.”

When Smith found out our destination, the headquarters of the startup investigative news site the Texas Tribune, he unexpectedly offered an endorsement with a distinctly Texan flavor.

A recent screenshot of texastribune.org.

A recent screenshot of texastribune.org.

“It’s a return,” he said, “to honest-to-God journalism.”

Texans have gone for the Trib in a big way. As as result it is a very rare type of modern media outlet: an independent, financially sustainable, online-only investigative news site that is now mostly self-funded through commercial activities – and is growing.

It is a beacon for other regional investigative news sites, a subspecies that has proliferated in the U.S. since about 2009, and potentially for legacy media as well.

Nothing quite like the Texas Tribune exists in Australia. Sites like the Guardian and The Daily Mail are digital offshoots of major established newspapers. Those like The Conversation, notwithstanding some excellent articles by veteran journalists, are mostly sophisticated comment websites largely written by academics.

The Tribune is written by full-time professional journalists who do top-level, award-winning investigative reporting, funded by a clever business model which, whether it could succeed elsewhere or not, has been proven to work in the distinct political, demographic and commercial environment that is Texas.

It’s true the Tribune started out with what many media analysts now regard as the essential prerequisite for a startup news site: a philanthropic sugar-daddy.

In the Tribune’s case, it was John Thornton, a Texan venture capitalist and influential figure in Democratic Party circles, who decided Texas needed a platform for first-class state political and public affairs journalism that would inform the citizens, but also keep the bastards honest.

“We believe that civic discourse is in danger of becoming less informed and more reflexively partisan,” Thornton said when he started the venture. “That’s bad for democracy and bad for Texas.”

In 2009, Thornton put in $US1 million, and teamed up with two of the state’s most established journalists: the long-serving editor of the highly successful magazine Texas Monthly, Evan Smith, and the editor and publisher of the political newsletter Texas Weekly, Ross Ramsay.

From there, Thornton and Smith set about attracting some of the most talented journalists, designers, computer geeks and advertising and marketing gurus from Texas and elsewhere.

“Most are people who wanted to get out of a legacy news organisation,” said Tim Griggs, the publisher and chief operating officer, who came from a job at the New York Times working out how to make more money out of the digital side.

Emily Ramshaw, one of the Tribune’s first reporters and now its editor, represents the publication’s gung-ho style.

Her record from the Dallas Morning News included breaking stories about sexual abuse in Texas’s youth lock-ups, reporting from inside a polygamist compound, and investigating rabies-tainted organ implants, her Trib bio says.

The Texas Tribune aims at a niche: Texas state politics, public affairs, and policy and administration, along with social, educational, law-and-order, environmental and health issues in a rapidly expanding state.

But its real talent is getting under the skin of those in power, according to Ramshaw.

In its aggressive investigative reporting, the publication often takes up the plight of those hard done by in the process of the largely unbridled growth in the Lone Star State.

One of Ramshaw’s favourite examples is a series entitled Hurting for Work, which the Tribune website bills as revealing “how disdain for government regulation sparked a ‘Texas Miracle’ economy — while tearing down protections for the workers who built it”.

One story within that series told the harrowing story of Crystal Davis, a mother of two young children, whose husband, a travelling salesman for Burger King, was killed in a car accident driving a company vehicle on business.

Davis faced a prolonged battle when the insurance company with whom Burger King had a workers’ compensation policy refused to pay her claim.

Even after Davis beat the insurance company at three administrative levels and it was ordered to pay, the insurers sued her and her two children to recoup funds paid and avoid making further payments into the future.

After the Tribune told Davis’ story in compelling detail, through print and moving photographs, the insurance company backed down, dropped the lawsuit, and stopped disputing the order to pay compensation.

The Texas Department of Insurance imposed what the Tribune said was the largest fine ever against an insurance company for workers’ compensation violations, of $US250,000.

“The Hurting for Work series in particular,” Ramshaw said, “had a direct effect on people’s lives.”

“My goal at the Tribune is to arm as many Texans as possible with the tools they need to make educated decisions and to become more deeply engaged in policy and politics,” she said.

Other series of which Ramshaw says she is particularly proud include Ethics Explorer, which shows the financial interests of elected Texas officials and their spouses, and compares the publicly available data against their voting records.

A random click on the list of officials reveals Texas Republican state Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s family has stakes in petrol stations, convenience stores and a petroleum company (although “she says she has no day-to-day contact with the business,” the Tribune records) – and she has voted against incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Click to read stories from the Texas Tribune project.

Click to read stories from the Texas Tribune project.

Another Tribune series, The Shale Life, examined the effects of a huge new surge in oil and gas exploration and production. Traffic accidents with commercial vehicles on inadequate roads increased. Local economies were distorted as floods of workers drove up housing costs in drilling towns.

The Tribune has won six national Edward R. Murrow Awards, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and a general excellence award from the Online News Association.

The Texas Tribune staff, with Emily Ramshaw in the centre with an orange jacket. Photo: Ean Higgins

The Texas Tribune staff, with Emily Ramshaw in the centre with an orange jacket. Photo: Texas Tribune

Meanwhile the staff of the Tribune has grown to 51 now from 36 two years ago. Of those, 23 cover Texas politics and public affairs.

That, says publisher Tim Griggs, is by far the largest number of state reporters in the US employed by one publication.

And according to Griggs, the salaries the Tribune pays its staff are at least as good as comparable print publications.

It’s a rare story – and size – for an online-only news outlet, according to Iris Chyi, an associate professor in the journalism school at the University of Texas, who has researched the economics of online news publishers.

“Users’ response to most general-interest local digital news sites has been underwhelming,” she said.

It helps that everything is, in fact, bigger in Texas. At 27 million people and growing, the state boasts more people than Australia.

But Griggs argues the key to the Texas Tribune’s financial success is not only the quality of the product but also its structure: It was set up as a not-for-profit organisation under US corporate and tax laws, but it employs private sector commercial nous to make money.

The Texas Tribune is the rare news organisation that has grown in recent years. Graphic from a recent five-year report.

The Texas Tribune is the rare news organisation that has grown in recent years. Graphic from a recent five-year report.

Apart from one specialist product, a subscription-only newsletter with insider news about Texas politics, the content is free for all. But after a few views, a pop-up asks readers if they would like to donate $US10 or more.

Such donations are tax-deductible for Americans. Readers who commit to making regular donations have the soul-warming option of becoming a “member” of the Texas Tribune, which comes with benefits like happy hour invitations.

What Griggs calls “consumer revenue” of this type constitutes one of five roughly equal major income streams for the Tribune. The others are corporate sponsorship, philanthropy from foundations, large donations from individuals, and events like the three-day Texas Tribune Festival, a massive jamboree where thousands of people pay to hear powerful or influential people talk.

The hodgepodge is working. While much of the rest of the industry has declined, the Trib’s revenue grew to $6.5 million this year from $4 million in 2011.

It is also what differentiates the Tribune from many of its peers in the growing world of nonprofit news sites, many of which are reliant upon philanthropy from large foundations. The Tribune was born from that philanthropy, too, but it has managed to get past it. Now, what Griggs calls the site’s “earned income” category – consumer revenue, sponsorships and events – has surpassed the philanthropic stream.

The key from here, Griggs says, will be to expand the Tribune’s readership base.

He measures it in various ways: the total number of people who come to the site each month, described as monthly unique hits, is running at 815,000, a 30 per cent rise on 2014.

The number of hard-core serious readers, who generate five or more page views, is only a fraction of that, at perhaps 100,000.

Some observers, while praising the Texas Tribune’s progress as an achievement, note that the core readership, according to its own surveys, is a relatively narrow, if advertiser-attractive, segment of Texas society. A lot of public servants, regular voters.

“The Tribune might be staring at a ceiling of its own making,” wrote Justin Ellis in NiemanLab, a Harvard journalism publication.

Griggs says he’s on the case. Research suggests up to 4 million Texans fit the outside borders of the Tribune’s potential audience.

“Two million of them never heard of us,” Griggs said.

The Tribune is trying to reach them — people like Land Yacht driver Mike Smith, who describes himself as “taxi driver by trade … political junkie by inclination” — any which way it can.

At six years, it’s still a young publication, but has survived and prospered long enough to suggest it must be doing something right.

“It’s the journey that we are on,” Griggs said.

Ean Higgins is a senior writer on The Australian.