An Old-Fashioned Name and a Brand-New Concept

An online-only newspaper, the Texas Tribune, takes wing, focusing less on car crashes and more on the politics and policies of the Lone Star State.

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In today’s New York Times, David Carr reports on some news about the local news business, which is notoriously struggling. Late last month, the Texas Tribune launched as an online-only news outlet covering Texas politics, education, immigration and other bread-and-butter topics of civic concern. Describing itself as a “non-profit, nonpartisan public media organization,” the site also sponsors an “on-the-record” conversation series featuring elected officials and other “newsmakers.”

A visitor to today’s Houston Chronicle will see plenty of coverage of the Fort Hood tragedy. Suze Orman offers some financial advice. There have been a few murders and some traffic accidents and Demi Moore is starting a new beauty line. The Chronicle, like countless other newspapers across the country, has had to rely increasingly on wire stories and less on (expensive) beat reporters. Enter the Tribune, which today offers an in-depth report about the “invisible line” created along the Mexico-Texas border when checkpoints are placed too far north, and takes a look at how Texas schools can now use some textbook money to invest in computer hardware and software. Columnists weigh in on the Houston mayoral race (currently headed for a runoff) and telemedicine advancements within the Texas Medical Board. And in the “Library” section, there’s a trove of data about government expenditures, lobbying expenditures and officials’ salaries.

The Tribune, headed up by Evan Smith, the former editor of the Texas Monthly, has raised $3.7 million, some from an Austin venture capitalist, some from the Houston Endowment and some from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It also solicits readers (gently) for private donations, and says it will not accept advertising — though it will have “premium content.”

In their “About Us” section, the Tribune posts the following question: “Should I read you instead of my local paper?” Here’s their reply:

No, you should read us in addition to your local paper. We’ve always believed it’s both/and, not either/or. The reason we started the Trib is not because your local paper doesn’t believe in journalism in the public interest. It does, and it produces as much as it can. But in this severely depressed economy, human and financial resources are not as plentiful as they once were. So papers have had to make hard choices. In the end, most of them have eliminated people and pages, and as a result, coverage of policy and politics has been cut way back. This has created a substantive void. You can’t solve big problems if you don’t know about them, and you can’t know about them unless someone tees them up.

This is refreshing. The folks at the Tribune seem to be positioning their paper less as a competitor to Texas’s other media outlets and more as a proponent of the idea that any news is good news. Of course, journalists are naturally competitive — don’t think anyone at the Trib is going to be thrilled if a story gets scooped by the Dallas Morning News. Still, there is definitely, absolutely room for more coverage from the Tribune: Houston has just one daily newspaper and one alternative weekly — a media system astonishingly small for a city of Houston’s size. Furthermore, as John Thornton, the Austin venture capitalist who supports the paper, pointed out, “This is Texas, a place where people care a lot about their identity and their state. It’s a great place to try this.”

I’ve lived in Texas and worked in the media there, and I agree with this final sentiment. Also, since Next American City is a nonprofit and relies on a similar financing structure to the Tribune’s, we’re excited to see what comes of the Tribune — and get a more multifaceted look at Texas’s cities.

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Tags: houstonaustindallas

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