Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Future?

Free News

Skeptics scoffed at the notion that online Austin-based news sites could succeed without ads. So far, the skeptics are being proven wrong as two sites are still going strong. Perhaps this is indeed the model for news in the future. and are very different organs in structure, but their models are similar. Austin Post celebrated its one-year anniversary. The Post has one full-time paid staffer, its editor-in-chief, Karie Meltzer. Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune has a highly paid staff headed by former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith. Both sites are supported by foundations. The Texas Tribune actively seeks contributions. Remember that “highly paid staff”.

On the other hand, the Austin Post’s content comes from unpaid contributors, many of whom are bloggers like me. Most of the content is original, and some stories are contributed by “local celebrities”, according to Meltzer.

“We’re trying to become more newsier. The topics are much more current and edgy now,” says Meltzer. A year ago, there was more opinion than there is now. “And, we’re following the stories, not just writing stories and forgetting them.”

Meltzer oversaw a remake of the look of the site within the past few months, cleaning up some of the clutter. “Traffic is up 100-percent month-to-month,” Meltzer says. More and more people are discovering the site.
The Austin Post will never be the source of day-to-day current events coverage. Meltzer says readers will come to the site looking for something else—a different take on a topic. The 2011 legislative session will be the Post’s first, and Meltzer is working on plans for coverage. The Post will also have a special section for the November election with bios of the candidates.

Of course, politics is much of what makes the Texas Tribune tick. The ticking has been loud enough to catch the attention of the respected Columbia Journalism Review. “Lone Star Trailblazer/Will the Texas Tribune Transform Texas Journalism?”, is the headline of a CJR study of the project published in the July/August edition.

“Eight months into a deep-pocketed, high-profile experiment in online journalism, the Tribune is still searching for its journalistic identity—even as it has emerged as a buzzworthy brand on the Texas political scene. The startup ambitiously aims to cover what one internal document calls ‘the ever-hollowing middle between local and national/international topics,’ a void created in part by Texas newspapers’ shuttering of bureaus statewide. The Tribune is amplifying its traditional journalism with innovative, audience-focused twists—equipping readers with searchable data platforms, hosting events, and promoting itself as a brainy digital club of civic-minded Texans.”—Jake Batsell, CJR.

Batsell studied the Texas Tribune for nine months and gave them a thumbs-up. CEO and editor-in-chief Smith was pleased. “Suffice is to say we're gratified to read Jake's kind words. We hope you agree with them, as you've been likewise watching our progress these last nine months,” Smith said in a news release this week. He used the occasion to ask for continued contributions to their journalistic cause.

Smith solicits support for the Trib in “off-the-record events”. “Most nonprofit news organizations host occasional member events, but few have been as aggressive from the outset as the Tribune, which sees events as a key part of its mission ‘to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.’ At most Tribune events, Smith is the emcee, ringmaster, and salesman,” the CJR article said. (

So, are the Texas Tribune and the Austin Post journalism models for the future? The Tribune urges readers to read their traditional newspapers in addition to Tribune, and the Trib often teams up with newspapers. At the Austin Post, editor Metzler often contributes to the Huffington Post, the online national news site for the most part fueled free by bloggers. Contributors to Austin Post have been cited in stories in the Austin American Statesman.

As a journalism critic, I advocate exposure to as many news sources as possible. It is the only way to arrive at “the truth”. If someone watches only one national news cast, that person is captive to only one interpretation of the truth. If that person watches several local stations and several national newscasts along with several newspapers, “the truth” starts coming into focus. It is not that all media are biased; it is that media see stories through a difference lens. Okay, some of them may be biased too, but readers and viewers can see that bias more clearly in the reflection of other news media.

So, check out both the Post and the Trib, if you haven’t already. You might also check out The Austin Bulldog, another nonprofit/foundation backed investigative reporting site. The model is evolving, and we, the readers, viewers, consumers, and users of media are the witnesses.

© Jim McNabb, 2010

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