News Website Texas Tribune Thrives, But How?

One of the most intriguing news start-ups in the past few years is the Texas Tribune, an Austin-based website that emphasizes explanatory and investigative reporting. Wealthy venture capitalist John Thornton decided the decline of newspapers in his state meant there was room for a new, not-for-profit player to cover the state's political and power scene. It's won a lot of praise for its work, leaving just one question: How the heck can he pay the bills? NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

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Austin, Texas, has been home to a lot of innovation - in the computer industry, in the world of independent music and film. Now, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the Texas Tribune is seeking to reshape journalism for the Lone Star State.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: John Thornton is, above all, a pragmatic guy. He should be; he's one of the most prominent venture capitalists in Texas. A few years back, Thornton considered investing in a few distressed news outlets.

Mr. JOHN THORNTON: As we'd look at the commercial news business at the firm from a for-profit standpoint, I came to the conclusion that public service journalism is not a very good business and, in fact, it's a public good.

FOLKENFLIK: As an investor, Thornton recoiled. As a citizen, he put up some of his own money, rounded up some other big-dollar donors too, and launched the Texas Tribune as a not-for-profit online news outlet last fall.

Mr. THORNTON: We're not all the way there yet - certainly improving it. But we think there's a model that combines premium content, membership and corporate sponsorship that will allow us to run this shop without having to go continually to foundations and wealthy individuals. And so that's the road we're on.

FOLKENFLIK: Thornton picked a celebrity in Texas journalism circles to be his CEO and editor-in-chief: Evan Smith, the acclaimed former editor and publisher of Texas Monthly magazine. Together, they've stocked their small newsroom, just a few blocks from the state Capitol building, with talented reporters from several major Texas newspapers and TV stations; a key editor who helped lead the New Orleans Times-Picayune to two Pulitzer Prizes; and an environmental reporter from the New York Times.

Evan Smith says the Tribune news team intends to hold politicians accountable.

Mr. EVAN SMITH (Editor, Publisher, Texas Monthly Magazine): So every two years or four years or six years, we're treated to the spectacle of people coming to our communities, asking us to rehire them. And we have no basis for making that decision. We know so little about what they do and don't do in the capitals - in Austin and Washington - what laws they do and don't vote for, what policies they support, what shenanigans they have or have not been involved with.

FOLKENFLIK: The site is rich with video interviews with political figures and plenty of original audio stories, too. But Smith says the Tribune defines what's newsworthy in unconventional ways. So during those Fort Hood shootings, when the state and national media descended, the Texas Tribune stayed away.

Mr. SMITH: Mostly, in baseball terms, we hit them where they ain't. We didn't go following their reporters down the same rabbit holes and do the same stories. Inevitably, in a year of a governor's race, we're all going to be in there swinging at it. But primarily, the stuff that we've been doing - on healthcare and on education, on immigration - was stuff that they were not doing.

FOLKENFLIK: The Tribune is also seeking new ways to provide readers with context, like the campaign feature called Stump Interrupted, inspired by VH1's pop-up videos - in this case, showing Governor Rick Perry on the hustings.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): Men and women who campaign as Republicans went to Washington, D.C., and started voting like Democrats.

(Soundbite of popping)

Mr. PERRY: They spent too much money.

FOLKENFLIK: That ding kept a running count on how often Perry disdainfully invoked Washington. And that (popping sound) signaled a pop-up caption with additional information.

Another hallmark is serving up reams of raw data: Who did K. Bailey Hutchinson's major donors support after she lost in the Republican primary for governor? Check the Tribune's database. The text of the state attorney general's lawsuit against BP is there, too.

Eric Wright lobbies in Austin on energy and health care issues.

Mr. ERIC WRIGHT (Lobbyist): Information and insight is the currency of politics, right? They seem to provide a wealth of that.

FOLKENFLIK: Some critics suggest Tribune only attracts political insiders. But Smith and Thornton say only a quarter of its visitors come from Austin and that web traffic is exceeding expectations. In the meantime, the Tribune is expanding its reach by collaborating with anyone who's willing - even some would-be competitors, like Christopher Lopez, executive editor of the El Paso Times.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ (Executive Editor, El Paso Times): We are picking up their stories and publishing them in the print newspaper because it gives us another well of political content.

FOLKENFLIK: Some collaborations have had an impact. With the Houston Chronicle, the Tribune revealed staffers at a state-funded center had forced disabled girls to fight one another. So the journalism appears to be moving ahead briskly. The finances are more of an open question.

Mr. JIM BARNETT (Newspaper Reporter): Nobody knows exactly how this is all going to turn out.

FOLKENFLIK: Jim Barnett is a longtime newspaper reporter who now blogs about not-for-profit news outlets for the Neiman Center at Harvard University. He's a fan of the Texas Tribune and Thornton, in particular.

Mr. BARNETT: What I think he saw there was an opportunity to transform the news source into what is really a cultural asset that people will value, and they will do more than what is necessarily required of them just to get that service.

FOLKENFLIK: The Tribune now has 2,000 members, much as people become members of public radio stations. Thornton's target is 10,000 over three years. But I still had one nagging thought:

Why is this your fight?

Mr. THORNTON: I ask myself that about 4 o'clock every morning - that exact question. I really did become passionate about this idea that an informed society, a functioning democracy, requires public service journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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