A Guy Accuses The Texas Tribune of “Destroying Journalism,” I Disagree

A couple of days ago the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, featured a blogger named Stephen Robert Morse’s post in which he claims that a.) The Texas Tribune is destroying journalism and b.) Reporters are soft on donors. Some excerpts:

“It never dawned on me until I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas … A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues.”

I left Morse a comment yesterday afternoon but it’s nearly 11am the next morning and it still awaits approval, so I’ll just share it here.
Hi Robert,

I’m one of the Texas Tribune’s original reporters, but left the organization more than a year ago. With the benefit of distance and perspective, I would happily engage in a conversation with you about its shortcomings. But the points you make in this post are nonsensical. To blame a single nonprofit news organization for print media’s ongoing decline is prima facie absurd.

The Texas Tribune was launched in 2009 precisely because market based models of journalism were already clearly in decline; the continuing of this trend is something that founder and chairman John Thornton, a venture capitalist, forecasted well:

“I can say with even greater confidence that the world is a better place because investment capital tends to flow where it garners the highest risk-adjusted returns. This just in: the business of serious journalism news ain’t in the top 100, probably never was, and certainly won’t be again. Commercial efforts will persist because they just will.”

So you confuse the existence of one entity as necessarily an opposing force of the other; this is like saying we should blame umbrella salesman for a storm just because he happens to make money when it’s raining.

I can see how when one organization adds bodies and another subtracts them, the easy thing to do is to assume a causation, but you and I both know gigantic market forces are gigantic market forces.

And while McClatchy (which owns the Star-Telegram and other papers) struggles and it takes advantage of the reporting that the Tribune gamely provides, I’d argue that journalism in Austin, at least in some pockets, became more robust and competitive with the addition of new blood. I point you to the Dallas Morning News, which after the launch of the Tribune expanded its Austin bureau by hiring longtime AP Bureau Chief Kelly Shannon and former Morning News reporter Karen Brooks to return to legislative coverage, as part of an effort to ensure they were not out-gunned by new competitors.

In the 2010 gubernatorial race, the Morning News’ investigations team scooped the Tribune with important stories and lengthy explorations into Gov. Rick Perry that went on to trip him up during his presidential run. The local Austin paper, the Statesman, ran ads boasting its numerous capitol reporters (which included editors) in the first session the Tribune was in play.

We Tribune staffers constantly heard from sources we shared with competing reporters that the sources were hearing from reporters more often and being worked harder than before for story ideas and tips, after we started to play in the field. That’s precisely the kind of influence we wanted to have.

On your other assertion, about bias in favor of donors, I point to your own words: “By my own admission, I have not done a full review of all of The Tribune’s articles to gauge whether or not they treat their donors preferentially. I simply found one recent incident and wrote about it.” The reporters and editors I worked with at the Tribune are among the most aggressive independent journalists I know, and if you did do a full review, you’d find a mountain of evidence showing the consistent production of hard-hitting, investigative, explanatory news that has led to important policy change or public attention in Texas. (TT CEO Evan Smith responded on this point as well.)

Finally, I love pageviews as much as the next guy, but do we need the sensationalism? I caught that URL, and I’m sure your readers did, too: “The Texas Tribune is Destroying Journalism…” Really? No, seriously. Really? What a powerful feat to credit a single non-profit journalism outfit with! I think you and I both know that is credit the Tribune seriously doesn’t deserve.

You seem like a smart guy. I’m not out to do blog battle. But you admit your exploration was surface-level, so we agree on that point. If the recent This American Life debacle reminds us of anything, it’s that if your own mother says she loves you, verify it. And if you have “a chance conversation” with a reporter at South by Southwest “who accused ‘The Trib’ of creating an unfair playing field for journalists,” do some serious reporting before you assert so confidently that it’s traditional media’s grim reaper.


2 thoughts on “A Guy Accuses The Texas Tribune of “Destroying Journalism,” I Disagree

  1. Hi Elise, good observations. If I may add some thoughts, I take issue with a couple more of his comments on donors and the position of nonprofit journalism.

    On donors, Mr. Morse says:

    “A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues. ”

    He says this like this is a new challenge for the press. Established news orgs constantly face questions about the connections between their financial interests and their reporting. Example, NewsCorp owned entities and the Murdoch scandal (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/fox-news-program-avoids-talk-of-murdochs-news-international-hacking-scandal/2011/07/15/gIQA1rV6FI_blog.html).

    What IS novel about the Texas Tribune is that the financial connections between donors and TT are TRANSPARENT. Funders and board members of nonprofits are considered public information and easily found on IRS 990 forms or gathered from the agencies themselves (they must report to maintain nonprofit status). This is not so for private news organizations that do not have to be so clear with their relationships between advertisers, owners, and their stories. Is nonprofit journalism the answer to this issue? I don’t know. What I do know is that since Mr. Morse was able to find this information freely, and never had to file a request for info or anything that arduous, that nonprofit news orgs can be held to higher level of accountability, and thus trust. I encourage Mr. Morse to continue asking tough questions to any nonprofit entity, especially news orgs. However, don’t pretend this is an issue specific to nonprofit news orgs.

    Further, on the issue of nonprofit news orgs “taking away” from the private market. Mr. Morse says:

    “I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas.”

    He goes on to talk about how the Tribune is using their well-funded organization to hire away star talent from other news orgs, give away free content, and innovate using data journalism.

    However, I counter to Mr. Morse, who is he taking away from then? Who was doing this before the Tribune encroached on this market? The answer is no one. No other news organization in Texas is innovating on the level of the Trib. No one else is leading in data journalism like them. No one else is giving away expensive long-form and well-researched content like the Trib (save for a few, like the Texas Observer, another nonprofit news org).

    What nonprofits organizations, of all types and issue areas, do best is provide a service where no one else can or will. For example, there are no for-profit food banks, homeless shelters, or animal shelters. Nonprofits leverage the power of the community to fill and unmet need.

    The Trib did this by rising to meet a need in the Texas journalism community for data, for high quality journalism, and to support traditional news organizations. The Trib HAS to be nonprofit because, honestly, if there was a private news orgs could make money off this type of journalism, they would be doing it already. Look at the New York Times, the leader in data journalism. They are struggling with staying solvent and are desperately trying to find ways to fund their high quality work (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/20/new-york-times-pay-wall-non-subscribers-10-articles-free_n_1366669.html). So, no, the TT is not taking away from the private news orgs. They are tackling an issue no one else is and are empowered to do so through the nonprofit model.

    I’m glad Mr. Morse is questioning news sources, as we all should do, however making accusations like he did shows that he really misinformed and possibly a curmudgeon.

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