HOW TO BUILD
The Texas Tribune founder shares his advice
The Texas Tribune is an online publication based in Austin, Texas. Founded by investor John Thornton and journalists Evan Smith and Ross Ramsey in the wake of the economic crisis in 2009, The Texas Tribune quickly became a favorite publication among the local business elite and decision-makers for its original reporting and explanatory journalism. Now the media outlet gets thousands unique visitors monthly, with an audience that grew by 40% just in the past year.
Accent talked to The Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith to learn more about proven strategies that help to build a sustainable and profitable local media outlet.
No matter how important you think your content is, the reality is you need someone to understand and focus on the business or it’s not going work. How is this going to be paid for? This stuff does not pay for itself. There are going to be costs for doing this work, and somebody has to be responsible for that.
You also have to be realistic and understand that you can do some things now and some things later. People are very ambitious, and they want to solve all the problems of the world on the first day—but you just can’t do it. This is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s much better to do fewer things and do them very well than to try and tackle everything and be mediocre.
People are very ambitious, and they want to solve all the problems of the world on the first day
Another way of thinking about it is through the saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” When you set up an organization, everyone’s watching, there’s a lot of pressure on you, and you can’t fuck it up. You don’t get another chance!
It’s also important that anybody today who starts a digital publication act like a tech company as much as a media company. You have to think of technology not as the means to an end but as an end itself. And that means the engineers and product people have to have a seat at the table during the planning and execution of everything that you do—this partnership will help you build a successful organization.
Our content has been successful because there’s value to what we do. People have embraced the idea that more informed citizens make up a better state. Our job is educating or informing the public. And by doing so, we make people more civically engaged, and therefore help make the state better.
That doesn’t mean that we advocate for certain bills or push people to vote for certain candidates. We’re not about the outcome, we’re about the impact, and that comes from more people and more communities taking part in this democracy. I don’t care what they do once they take their part in the democracy. I do care that they don’t sit on the sidelines.
There are too many people in Texas who for too many years have said, “This is not important, I don’t need to get involved.” And the state that we’re in is the result of that mindset. So we’re trying to turn it around. We say to people that there’s value in making the state a better place—we sell the idea of a better Texas.
We’re going to raise about $7.8 million this year. The largest percentage of that this year is foundations grants—a little more than $2 million. Corporate underwriting is going to be about $1.7 million. Events revenue is going be another $1.6 million. Major giving, which is to say people give $5,000 or more, is going to be about $1.25 million. Membership and small dollar giving will total around $850,000. It’s a pretty diverse set of revenue streams.
When we started as a nonprofit, I assumed anybody who had given money to any nonprofit was a target audience for us. I discovered pretty quickly that was not the case. Just because somebody gives to a museum or the American Cancer Society doesn’t mean that they’re going to give to The Texas Tribune. About six months in, we learned that someone who donates to a political candidate is actually more likely to give money to the Tribune than someone who gives to nonprofits—the motivation is just more aligned.
We also have a few other sources of income. We have traditional advertising and marketing thanks to the educated, wealthy, and connected audience we’ve built. Our audience is demographically better than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair and Vogue—they’re top executives at companies, and they travel, and they shop. We can appeal to corporate supporters simply on the grounds of them wanting to be in front of this audience.
Our audience is demographically better than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair and Vogue
We’re also able to get money from government relations and lobby organizations. Studies have shown that elected officials in Texas read The Texas Tribune first. So, trade associations, industries that want legislation passed, and the like reach out to us to get their message across to elected officials.
We do a little bit of crowdsourcing, too. We primarily just ask people to become members, much like public radio or public television. And they will give small amounts—I think that the average gift is a little more than $100. When they donate, there’s a field they can fill out telling us who or what encouraged them to give. For a long time, this field was almost never populated. But in the last year, I think because of Trump being in office, this field is often populated with thanks for the work we do. These people give because they believe that this work is important.
We ask the people we write about to be transparent, so we try to be as transparent as we can ourselves, especially about our money. People assume that the organizations that financially support us are controlling the work that we do. Of course, we would never do that.
So, we disclose. We disclose every single dollar that comes into The Tribune—big or small, individual or corporate—in real time on our site. When the gift comes in, it’s entered into the system. When we write a story that mentions anybody who has contributed in the past, we indicate it at the bottom.
When it comes to working with sponsors, we also try to be transparent. We work with many global corporations like IBM, AT&T, and JPMorgan. I am generally uncomfortable with branded content, but I accept and acknowledge that this is the direction that the world has gone. It’s just important to stick to your principles and not sacrifice your integrity. I worked in the magazine business for many years, and I was a member of The American Society of Magazine Editors. At the time, there were a lot of advertorials in the press, and we had specific guidelines about how they had to be labelled. So, any sponsored content we have today is carefully differentiated through the design.
When I moved to Texas 26 years ago, there were still two daily newspapers in Houston, in Dallas, in San Antonio, and in El Paso and the number of reporters at the capital was three times what it is now. Now we have fewer papers and fewer reporters. So we started The Tribune as a response to that.
When we started it post-recession, many said it was the worst time to do it. I would argue that was the best time to do it, because there was the greatest need and the most opportunity. We were able to innovate and make mistakes and learn from them and start over.
The organization we built eight years ago is a different organization than it is now. Everything is moving pretty quickly and you really can’t prepare for what world is going be like in five years. When we started The Tribune in a fall of 2009, there were no tablets, no Instagram, no Snapchat, and no Slack. We built an organization that was right for the time. But we’re constantly strategic planning to figure out how the organization can pivot to stay viable for this day and the next day.