Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Will Content Equal Contributions?

The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune ( went “live” yesterday (Tuesday, November 3, 2009), the newest online, nonprofit, non-partisan journalism effort. There are different ways of thinking about this model.

Think of The Texas Tribune in the same way that you might think of Austin’s nonprofit, classical music radio station, KMFA-FM, 89.5. Both are superior products of the Austin community with great content (How can KMFA FM miss with Mozart?) Both have paid professional staff which can ensure continued quality. Both are supported by donations. True, The Texas Tribune is also backed by a big foundation, but they are actively soliciting sustaining members and corporate sponsors, much like KMFA. The KMFA model has been successful for more than 40 years. It is noteworthy that KMFA also has a streaming web presence ( and forward-thinking folks.

Similarly, you might think of The Texas Tribune in the same stream of consciousness with Austin Post ( Both are nonprofit. Both are backed by donations. (Austin Post is a product of the Trilogy Employee Foundation.) “Our pitch is simple: Like clean air and clean water—undeniable public goods—journalism in the public interest is too vital to a civilized society, to a functioning democracy, to be left to the vagaries of the free market. Philanthropy must and will become a bigger part of the equation,” says the Texas Tribune site.

Both sites see themselves as possible new models for how we get news in the future. That is where the similarities end. The Texas Tribune assembled an enviable professional staff led by former “Texas Monthly” editor Evan Smith. Austin Post, on the other hand, relies on basic bloggers. “Our contributors include hundreds of people that are living and breathing what’s happening in Austin. They are engaged in the action and part of the story, not watching from the sidelines. Citizen journalists or “bloggers”? We reject the derisive associations attached to each,” the site says.

That distinction, with all due respect, makes Texas Tribune compared to Austin Post like Nordstrom’s compared to Big Lots. Yes, I post to Austin Post, because I write about local Austin, Texas media, not politics and public policy, the fare found in The Texas Tribune, but the record will show that I don’t believe that the words “citizen” and “journalists” should be coupled together. Citizens can play a role in the Journalism process—their tips and feedback are important. I still submit that journalism is a profession which is practiced. It takes training and experience to be a journalist. Posting a blog does not make one a journalist.

The Texas Tribune has the look and feel of a news medium. Its layout is clean and orderly, giving readers a sample of the top stories. The Tribune debuted with a new political poll conducted with The University of Texas. The Tribune wants to share its content with other media, and most local television stations and the Austin American-Statesman picked up the poll. The second day’s Tribune coverage focused on the meaning of various elections across the state. It is a site for all of Texas.

On Austin Post, you may find some politics, but you’re just as likely to find the latest on Leslie Cochran or a new location for Christmas shopping. Austin Post does have some editorial oversight, and they boast of big plans. The layout right now is rather cluttered. A new feature introduced before the Austin City Limits festival, “Austin in Real Time”, takes up a chunk out of the middle of the “Home” page. While it may have potential, most of the time it contains dated comments from last week’s high school football games. Austin Post is evolving.

The Texas Tribune is rolling the dice hoping for a winner. The Tribune wants to prove up my theory that compelling content is king, and people will contribute cash for the content. Cynics say that people will not pay for content, but will they contribute? Will they see value in the product just as they might if they were contributing to KMFA FM or the local National Public Radio station, KUT-FM?

And a final question, can The Texas Tribune model sustain a high level of quality content? Austin Post can and will attract local writers. I’m one. Content is not a problem. The Texas Tribune on the other hand set the bar high at the beginning, even before the launch. Some days in the news business, the bar looks higher and higher when the strong stories are fewer and fewer.

Bookmark The Texas Tribute along with Austin Post. I hope the model works.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

Editor’s Note: Several readers were expecting my take on The Texas Tribune yesterday. I wanted to see what they did with their second day, and I wanted to take a little time to settle my thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Sheesh! Check out their salaries. Guess they are grabbing as much as they can before it fails.

I give it two years tops. It will be very much like the dot.coms of the late 90's that had great lofty ideas, attracted lots of cash in the early days but when they didn't show profit, the top dogs got to cash out and bail.

Two years tops.

Anonymous said...

A. H. Belo CEO Robert Decherd has a dim view of the Texas Tribune's future prospects. He said a nonprofit newspaper is a "swell idea...but it doesn't work" because it won't reach the same readership as the print-on-paper model. Decherd indicated that only a for-profit newspaper is capable of sticking with a mission over a long period of time...that a nonprofit depends on its donors, all of whom have different agendas and all of whose agendas change over time.

I think Decherd's point is well taken, although -- in all fairness -- A.H. Belo has had its own financial difficulties making money with the Dallas Morning News,which has both a printed newspaper and an online version. Earnings for both the printed paper and the Web site have declined significantly, resulting in a large number of layoffs at the Morning News.