wendy davis

The biggest statehouse bureau in the United States doesn’t belong to The New York Times. Or The LA Times, or The Washington Post. It belongs to The Texas Tribune, a five-year-old not-for-profit website that funds itself through a mix of memberships, advertising, events and philanthropy. It’s two dozen reporters keep a forensic eye on Austin’s 300 elected state officials, and syndicate their content freely to all Texan newspapers, along with radio and TV stations.

The Tribune doesn’t fit the usual mould of most America not-for-profit media outlets. Unlike things like Pro Publica or the Centre for Investigative Reporting, it doesn’t focus on investigations, but on bread-and-butter daily reporting of the variety increasingly left to wire agencies. Investigative journalism is worthy and time-consuming, but a lack of focus on beat reporting can serve to lessen the usual scrutiny on public officials. “Having those eyeballs on elected officials is important,” Emily Ramshaw, the editor of the Tribune, told Crikey yesterday in Sydney. Beat reporting can foster accountability merely through its presence; the idea is the presence of journalists can prevent the type of abuses that can occur when public officials think no one is watching.

The Tribune was founded in 2009 by journalists Evan Smith and Ross Ramsey, and John Thornton, a venture capitalist with a philanthropic bent. Ramshaw was an early convert — a well-known health reporter, she joined the Tribune from the Dallas Morning News and became editor in 2011. Driving the team was the idea of high-quality accountability journalism as a public good — one subject to the free-rider problem that means the market will naturally under-provide it. The Tribune aimed to solve this problem in Texas by distributing its content for free as widely as it could, leading to a greater quality of understanding of civic life throughout the broader population.

The Tribune launched in 2009 with US$2.5 million from donors, along with US$1 million of Thornton’s own money donated as seed capital. But to fund itself on an ongoing basis, the Tribune relies on five “buckets”, as Ramshaw calls them. Traditional philanthropy by foundations and wealthy individuals is one of them, and donations from the public is another. These were the the Tribune‘s main sources of income initially, but the team were keen to diversify. Into the mix went events (today the Tribune hosts a series of well-attended public policy workshops), recurring voluntary membership fees from readers, and what the group calls “corporate underwriting”, which is in essence corporate advertising. Each of these activities raises about 20% of the Tribune‘s funding, which goes to employing 50 people, half on editorial and half on the business side.

With its rapid growth and high-trafficked website, the Tribune is a sexy product. It’s feted and raved about in media circles across America, and some of the hype has extended Down Under, evident in the Walkley Foundation inviting Ramshaw to its Storyology conference this week. In 2013, the Tribune streamed Texas Senator Wendy Davis’ 12-hour abortion filibuster. The broadcast cause the Tribune’s traffic to soar and launched the paper into national consciousness. But part of the Tribune’s success lies in the shape of Texas’ economy, which is dominated by the oil and gas industries. These industries have advertised heavily with the Tribune, leading some to question whether the Tribune should be reliant on their cash.Writing on the Huffington Post earlier this year, for example, author James Moore accuses the Tribune of being beholden to its corporate sponsors, approvingly quoting them while writing few critical stories about their interests:

“Reporters are expected to cast little lights into dark corners and illuminate the way government works and who has influenced its decisions. The Texas Tribune rarely lives up to that mandate and, instead, takes big cash from the people and institutions it is supposed to hold accountable. Money is coming in the door as fast as integrity and credibility are running out.”

But Ramshaw says that’s nonsense.

“I saw more pressure working in a traditional newsroom from advertisers than I’ve seen [at the Tribune]. Honestly, it’s exactly the same. Anybody who contributes to the Tribune understands they’re not getting any perks or access, or anything an advertiser to a newspaper would get. We have a wall — like any other independent newsroom in the world. Sponsors don’t interact with reporting staff.”

“And I would argue we’re frankly far more transparent than most news organisations. Everyone who donates to us, as a corporate undewriter, we put their name and the amount on our website in real time. We mention it explicitly in story when someone is a sponsor. We have a very, very strong ethics policy.”

Does she think the Tribune‘s model can be extended elsewhere? Ramshaw pauses before saying there’s a lot about Texas that makes it unique. A state of 26 million people, it holds an enduring fascination for Americans the country over. And it’s wealthy. In 2009, it was one of the few states to grow in the midst of the global financial crisis.

“There’s a bit of a perfect storm in Texas,” she said. “There’s a lot of industry and big business, and a lot of wealthy people. So our fundraising pool is large. And Texas has a large and complex legislature, which makes it interesting.

“Replicating our exact model would be difficult in places without the financial and journalistic conditions Texas has. But in the Tribune’s five years, we’ve shown the benefits of diversifying your funding, and of day-to-day not-for-profit reporting. I think that’s what’s scalable, and what others can take from it.”