Friday, July 24, 2009

The future of real journalism?

The Texas Tribune has made a series of splashes the past week and hasn't yet published (digitally) an edition yet.

First, there was the announcement that the nonprofit Texas Tribune was created, which made fairly big news since the editor of Texas Monthly, Evan Smith, was leaving the magazine to run the ship.

After that, there was series of announcements of staff hirings that included a pack of newshounds who made names for themselves in the dreaded mainstream Texas media, including Matt Stiles of the Houston daily and Ross Ramsey, who worked for the Houston Chronicle from '86 to '91, and four others -- all award winners in one way or another.

Today, Alan Mutter weighed in with the first substantive interview we've seen with John D. Thornton, the TT's founding chairman.

Mutter writes in his blog Reflections of a Newsosaur that Thornton doesn't seen why eventually up to $20 million per year in philanthropic donations can't be gathered from people who want to read quality journalism about important issues.

Thornton said he is more than half of the way toward raising the $4 million it will take to support the new venture to the point it can sustain itself through a combination of charitable contributions, NPR-style sponsorship fees, revenues from events and perhaps a few niche print publications.

He anticipates it will take “three to four years” to bring the Trib to the point it can generate $2 million in annual revenues to support a staff of 15 journalists without requiring further donations.


Although Thornton believes the Texas Trib can make an impact with an endowment of $4 million or $5 million, he sees no reason why up to $20 million a year in donations could not be available to support non-profit journalism in Texas.

“Most of my family’s philanthropy in the past has been to support dance, because my wife is a former dancer,” said Thornton. “There is $20 million a year going to dance philanthropy in Texas. Why couldn’t there be the same amount for journalism? If we could be as big as dance, you could barely spend that money responsibly. A $20 million electronic newsroom could support 150 reporters. You would kind of run out of places to put those people.”

Will wealthy people who give lots of money to ballet (or whatever) because they love ballet (or whatever) give like amounts of money to muckracking news sites? (FYI: We don't consider "muckracking" a pejorative term.)

Not sure.

Wealthy people give money to ballet (or whatever) because of their spouse's love of same, which is the case with Mr. Thornton, as he says in the Newsosaur post, and I suppose some give because it gives them a certain standing on society circles, and some give cause they can afford to do so and they like the tax advantages (which may be greatly reduced soon.)

Will that happen with muckracking news sites that sometimes must step on the toes of the wealthy and powerful, which may not necessarily be something they "love" to do or enhance their social standing or be all that great a tax write-off?

Guess we'll see, but, hell, why not give it a shot.

A little more on Mr. Thornton.

He's been a contributor to Democratic Party candidates but is ending those partisan donations with the launch of TT.

In his blog he says the staff that's being gathered isn't partisan either, explaining it this way:

the members of the Journalism Tribe–particularly the young ones–tend to ostracize the partisans in their midsts, to make them eat lunch at Burger King rather than the place all the cool kids go. And I have to tell you: the team Evan and Ross have hired can smell a partisan from 50 paces. (A classic page out of the Wiccan book is to do a remote deadening of your olfactory nerve, so they’re more like a 10-pace deal.).

But, seriously. If we–I, I guess–would have wanted to build just another partisan echo chamber, we would have built a very different team. And attracting a Smith or a Ramsey would have been impossible. My money will go in up front, and sort of like KBH’s (ed. note: Kay Bailey Hutchison) campaign funds having been moved to a state-race account–once the coin is there, it’s there.

These troops are not partisans. They’re journalists, and I coudn’t influence them if I wanted to.


JD Allen said...

Banjo, how many partisans actually think they are partisan? And if they do, how many come out and admit it?

The first step is to admit your problem, know what I mean?


Anonymous said...

A newspaper basing its future on charitable donations? That's pathetic. Competition is the badge of America. These guys want the public to pay their way? Salvation Army Journalism is ridiculous. I vote "NO!"

Banjo Jones said...

The largest paper in Florida, the St. Petersburg Times, is owned and operated by a nonprofit organization, the Poynter Institute.

Moreover, "the public" pays for for-profit newspapers. So I don't know what you're talking about, Anonymous.

Slampo said...

I was gonna invest till I read this: "A classic page out of the Wiccan book is to do a remote deadening of your olfactory nerve, so they’re more like a 10-pace deal." Which I think kinda points up the narrow, perhaps elitist, tailoring of the enterprise. The fact is that historically, outside of people who work in government or play politics or have some direct monetary stake in what happens in Austin, there isn't a whole lot of interest in or market for outside of Austin in what happens in the Capital's governmental political whatsis, except when it comes to taxes and tuition and, maybe, public schooling. That's the way it's always been, probably since 1845. And your skepticism on the subsidized-by-charity angle is too kind, although maybe it's something the Chronicle should investigate: Shelby Hodge could write about the charity ball staged to keep the paper with a reporter at City Hall. (BTW, have you noticed how thin that paper is lately when it comes to display ads--the whole downsizing is just gonna get worse.)
On the bright side, I assume the Texas Tribune will be free and hidden behind no wall, for however long it lasts.