Now What? Lessons from the Texas Tribune

Do we think the future of civic journalism is in non-profit, non-partisan, internet-based media enterprises?   There seems to be a fair amount of money going in this direction from foundations and other big donors.  Texas Tribune has been a much-touted beneficiary.

Monday, on the eve of voting day, the Nieman Lab eNewsletter emanating from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, ran a subject line: “The Texas Tribune is 5 years old and sustainable. Now what?”   This same day David Carr opined in the New York Times that The Texas Tribune “serves as proof that a local site can combine news, data and events into a three-legged stool that stands on its own.” (The Texas Tribune part is buried below a rant about a Verizon subterfuge called SugarString).   The “self-sustaining” story-line that the Tribune is pushing in their fifth anniversary PR campaign is finding friendly coverage.

Non-profit models of journalism are already highly developed in broadcast media.  Public Radio and TV had over $2.7 billion in revenue in FY 2010 according to the 2013 appropriation request of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (p28).  Fully 40.6% of that revenue was tax based; 26.6% subscriber based.  News and civic information is a major part of public broadcast content.

The 2013 numbers in the Nieman report don’t tie to the Texas Tribune’s 2013 Audit Report but the Nieman report, based on author Justin Ellis’s discussions with Tribune people, cites member revenue of $668,642 or 13% of the Tribune’s $5.1 million in revenue coming from 2,720 members.  That member support however, covers little more than founder Evan Smith’s and Director of Business Development April Hinkle’s $300,000 salaries.  Sponsorship provided another 23% and events (presumably mostly sponsorship) provided 22%.  So, the “sustainable” model is not a self-funding program but a model similar to public broadcasting, not totally dependent on philanthropy or tax dollars.

The Tribune’s membership and audience is centered in the Texas capital, Austin.  For reference, KLRU, the Austin Public TV station best known nationally for their syndicated program, Austin City Limits, had 14,192 active members and $ 11,746,535 in revenue in 2012.  KLRU lumps membership and major donor revenue in their annual report but it amounted to 34% of revenue in 2012.

Tribune style non-profit, non-partisan internet media enterprises clearly have a role especially in big states, like Texas, with significant audiences for detailed political and policy information.  The most logical umbrella for such enterprises might be existing public broadcasting organizations.  Tribune-style enterprises could become part of a “public media” mix, as respected and significant as public broadcasting is today.

Media is in the business of moving minds and public media has never gained a dominant share of the business.  The stakes are high and we can be sure that there are yet-to-be-developed or currently unheralded models that will better move minds for profit and power, competing effectively with public media.  The lessons of the Texas Tribune that are likely to reappear outside the public media segment include:

  • Strong entrepreneurial leadership
  • Internet-based delivery technologies
  • Venture capital-style enterprise formation around “game changing” civic media concepts, but not necessarily motivated by any expectation of venture capital style financial returns
  • Membership as a  funding source, related to levels of access
  • Focus on activist, data literate, high value consumers
  • Transparency and disclosure of interests as a way to maintain credibility
  • Positioning as a source for less detailed coverage by other outlets
  • Platform pragmatism, merging online text and video with electronic push, events, print, broadcast, and other media

Now, what we are likely to see in civic media is for-profit and/or partisan models that readily scale up and reach out to masses of citizens, leaving Texas Tribune-style enterprises as a modest factor or a passing stage in the evolution of civic media.

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