November 12, 2019; Poynter
On the occasion of the Texas Tribune’s recent tenth birthday, Evan Smith, CEO and cofounder, took time to clarify that this celebratory moment is a shared accomplishment for the nonprofit. In particular, he congratulated the “amazing team, present and past” and also drew his readers into the winners’ circle: “If you’re seeing this, you’re probably one of those decent souls who reads, gives, attends, amplifies.”
He added, “We would not and could not have done it without you, and going forward, we won’t and can’t do it without you. No amount of thanks is adequate.”
In addition to Smith’s sincerity here, what is also clear is that from the start, Smith and his colleagues knew exactly what kind of news site they wanted to create, and they have managed to stay true to this vision for a decade.
In his blog post, Smith describes in very relatable terms the long but blissful early days before the launch of the site when people were exhausted but giddy with the sense of possibility. He recalls one evening when “our ragtag band of 17 caravanned to OfficeMax to buy pens and paper clips and take shopping cart rides in the parking lot.”
Even with this strong sense of idealism, Smith is clear about the fact that he and his colleagues were intentional from the start about what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. “Basically the idea was, in baseball terms, hit ’em where they ain’t,” Smith told Poynter. Clarifying this analogy for non-sports people, Smith explained, “Don’t do what everybody else is doing. Focus on what nobody else is doing”—by which he meant other news sources. This strategy translated into politics, policy, and state government with a nonpartisan emphasis.
Smith and his partners also spent considerable time pondering what their personal staff dream team would look like. An early and key hire was Emily Ramshaw, who had been a statehouse reporter at the Dallas Morning News and today serves as editor-in-chief. Ross Ramsey, executive editor and cofounder, told Poynter, “We designed the rocketship we wanted, and then we figured out how to pay for it.”
Poynter shares some of the Tribune’s keys to success from the past 10 years that are applicable even to non-newsroom nonprofits. They include:
- “Have a diverse revenue model.”
- “Build a good culture.”
- “Find your niche.”
- “When stuff goes bad, be cool.”
- “Fail fast and then move on to the next thing.”
- “Design your rocketship first.”
- “Be smart about money.”
- “Pay attention to your audience.”
- “Be patient around technology.”
Over the past decade, the Texas Tribune has grown in many directions. The founding staff of 11 is now 80, and the annual budget is about $9 million. Just as the audience has grown steadily, the Tribune has also broadened its media offerings, which now include a robust podcast series and an annual festival that draws speakers and guests from all over the country. According to their 2018 Annual Report, the Tribune has expanded its investigative reporting and data-intensive projects, with series focusing on challenges for families at the US-Mexico border and systemic segregation in Texas public schools along with many other topics. The Tribune’s financial breakdown in 2018 was: 25 percent from foundations, 24 percent from individuals, 19 percent from website sponsorship, 18 percent from events, 10 percent from membership, and five percent earned.
The Texas Tribune’s Strategic Vision 2018–2025 offers a snapshot of what the Tribune’s teenage years might look like. The organization has prioritized developing specific strategies to reflect Texas’s fastest-growing populations: young and ethnically diverse Texans, which is important since the state will be majority Latinx within the next ten years.
Because membership programs have become an important way that nonprofit news sites are engaging with individuals, it is also notable that the Tribune has included a redefinition of membership to this plan. The Tribune’s 2018 Annual Report highlights the important point that “member support was stronger than ever in 2018, with a 66 percent increase in member households and a 32 percent increase in member revenue over last year.” The publication also lists a heightened emphasis on strategic partnerships for the future and specifically cites its 2017 partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine, which ran its sex-trafficking project. Similarly, its recent partnership with ProPublica will boost its staff and reach.
In the meantime, the Tribune’s editors are talking to a lot of people—both inside and outside of the media world—about how they got to where they are today. Emily Ramshaw, editor-in-chief, told Barbara Allen at Poynter that she spends “a quarter to a third of her time ‘evangelizing for the business model’” nationally. Her work and the work of her colleagues is undoubtedly having a direct effect on news sources—nonprofit and for-profit—we all rely on regularly.—Anne Eigeman