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.
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.