HuffPo on Insomniactive on TechCrunch

July 31, 2009

Of course I couldn’t keep my paws off of Michael Arrington’s re-imagining of a new NYT.  And via our crack team at Giant Noise, HuffPo picked up my tracks.  And naturally, the most important bit is at the end:

In Texas, a group of us is about to try a very similar play with a statewide, online, nonprofit organization we’re calling Texas Tribune. We will launch with a small staff focusing on politics, government, and public policy issues of statewide interest. As a 501c3, we will try very hard to remember that we serve nobody but the people of Texas, although we’ll attempt to be as profitable as we can so we can grow to match our outsized ambitions.

Along with pioneering colleagues in places like San Diego and Minneapolis, our team has learned a lot about non-profit journalism down here in the Lone Star State during the last year. We’d love it if somebody with the ambition for a non-profit version of the NNYT would give us a jingle.Help us launch the Tribune, then let’s tackle Gotham together.


Mike Arrington on the New NYT

July 30, 2009

Via Evan Smith and the Washington Post:

The New New York Times

The New New York Times, or NNYT, would have a writing staff of say 50 people. These are among the best journalists in the world, and lets say they wanted to pay themselves $200,000/year, a top salary for a reporter of that stature. That’s just $10 million a year in payroll expenses. Call it $12 million with benefits. Plus, they all have stock options in the new comapny

If TechCrunch is any indication, the amount of support staff (developers, office staff, sales people, admin) needed to run the company is at most 20%, or another ten people, particularly if they outsource a lot of that. Put everyone in the cheapest office possible, and you’re looking at additional payroll, benefits and office expenses of another $3-4 million per year.

Now lets just add another 50% on top of that for other expenses and a safety net, and round it up to $25 million per year in total expenses.

That’s $25 million/year to have a well paid staff of the best journalists on the planet. How long before they outstrip those 16 million monthly visitors and 124 million page views? 5 years? Less?

How many private equity funds would kill to put $100 million behind the NNYT to make sure the company had plenty of money until it reached profitability?

My guess is plenty. And Marc Andreeseen, who has already backed two blogs, may be the first in line to invest. And I know a couple of hedge funds that would be right there, too. I know this because they’ve pitched me on a vision not much different than this one.

Of course, none of this is going to happen. Those 50 top journalists aren’t going to be able to self select and organize themselves even if they had the inclination to do something like this. But the interesting thing is that I think something like this would work, really work, if anyone tried it. And the guys at Politico and AOL seem to be doing just that. Lean journalism, for the win.

I think Mike is probably right, in the abstract.  And I think that if some of the ancillary revenue streams of the Texas Tribune work, we could actually be profitable.  I still like our approach better, because of the lack of confusion between profitability and public service missions.  But Mike’s suggestion should and will happen.


Twenty Years of Shrinking Capitol Coverage

July 28, 2009

This from Texas Weekly honcho and newly minted Texas Tribune Managing Editor Ross Ramsey:

The answer on the then/now thing I was talking about, which is worse than I remembered:  

Houston and San Antonio had 19 full-time (Chronicle, 7; Post, 5; Express-News, 2; Light, 2; KTRH-AM, 1; KPRC-TV, 2) and three session-only journos (KTRK-TV, 2; WOAI-AM, 1) covering the capitol in 1989 and now have three, all in the Hearst bureau.

Vivian Schiller in Newsweek

July 28, 2009

Although I don’t find it particularly revolutionary, I do like the format of the newly launched  I was also quite intrigued when my friend Jeff Jarvis pointed me to Newsweek’s interview with former honcho and relatively new NPR CEO Vivian Schiller.  In it she talks about about the benefits of being a non-profit, as well as the fact that 501c3 isn’t a panacea for anything.  And she addresses (without so naming it) the “monstrous hybrid” concept of the NYT (or any for-profit daily) accepting foundation money.  It is in my mind absolutely indistinguishable from the McDonald’s asking the gates foundation for $1b, and promising to spend it only on lettuce and tomatoes.

Tebow SI Cover Article

July 28, 2009

Friends of Insomniactive know that we here at World Headquarters have limited affinity for evangelists of any stripe–or for SEC quarterbacks.  Tim Tebow has therefore never been at the top of our list. 

I must say, though, that Austin Murphy’s profile in Sports Illustrated is more than solidly  written, thought provoking, and obviously at least a little cathartic for the author.  Here’s a sportswriter whom I respect a lot, laying it out long for the the sincerity of Tebow’s outreach.  Nobody needs to vouch for the boy’s game–can you name another player around whom an NFL owner would be better suited to build a franchise? 

But the kid appears not to be making this up.  As his dad says in the piece, he asked for a preacher and got a QB.  About the latter, there’s no question.  Murphy’s profile gives you a lot that indicates that to the degree this young man is the former, he’s doing good things–even for those of us who would rather not be preached to.

Newsosaur Notices Texas Tribune

July 25, 2009

It was nice of Alan Mutter to interview me and write a piece about TT.  Although I probably got a little ahead of myself as to when we really will have the resources to do heavy coverage of energy and border issues, Alan still cared enough about the topic of our coming out to get it quite write.  We’re grateful.

Texas Trib, one man’s journalistic mitzvah

Looking at the news business from the hard-nosed perspective of a venture capitalist, John Thornton rapidly concluded that “serious journalism is never going to be a good business again.”

But that didn’t stop Thornton, a successful partner at the Austin Ventures investment fund, from putting $1 million of his own money into starting the Texas Tribune, a non-profit online news organization that has begun scooping up some of the cream of the state’s journalism talent.

Thornton (left) is under no illusion that the Texas Trib is going to be a juicy business, he said in a telephone interview.

Rather, he decided to fund the project to make up for what he perceives to be a growing lack of coverage of significant issues by the financially strapped dailies in the Lone Star State.

Thornton said he began to focus on the erosion of public-service journalism in the course of investigating investment opportunities a few years ago for the $3.9 billion venture fund where he works.

“In 2006, we looked at the challenges being faced by newspapers and how guys like us could make a profit,” he said. “The for-profit conclusion was to buy lead-generation businesses and that has worked out for us.”

But Thornton, who also pens the insightful Insomniactive blog, didn’t see how those investments were going to help produce quality journalism.

“I was reminded of something my pastor said when I was a kid growing up,” he explained. “If you mix politics and religion, the pastor said, you get politics. The same thing seems to be true in journalism. If you mix journalism and business, you get business. That’s when I realized serious journalism is never going to be a really good business again.”

Long active in Democratic politics and philanthropy, Thornton decided to abandon those extracurricular interests to develop a new model to produce quality journalism. “Fortunately,” said Thornton, “I am in a spot where I can indulge my greed gland in my day job and pursue my interest in journalism in my civic life.”

The path led Thornton to hiring Evan Smith, the esteemed former editor of Texas Monthly, to help found the Texas Tribune. The Texas Trib, in turn, immediately acquired Texas Weekly and the services of its estimable editor, Ross Ramsey, who will be managing editor of the Trib.

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.

What kind of coverage can this buy? “That is a work in progress,” he said, but cited three major areas of concentration for the online publication scheduled to launch in the fall:

:: “One is the wholesale change in demographics and politics in the state and what that will mean to Texas and on the national scene.”

:: “Big story No. 2 is the Texas-Mexico border – things like immigration raids, public health, safety and trade.”

:: “The third unique Texas story is the energy industry. It probably is the biggest and most important issue under our nose and happens to be inhabited by people with enormous personalities. Nobody covers the energy industry the way the New York Observer covers the media business. We can.”

Thornton says he sees “no reason” why the Texas Trib can’t emerge as the leading voice covering statewide issues, especially since “the percentage of the newshole” devoted to major issues “has gone down as local dailies have focused on where they think their franchise is: local news.”

The Texas Trib intends to complement, not compete with, the local dailies, said Thornton. “Our message to commercial dailies is that we come in peace,” said Thornton. “We have told them we want very much to work in partnership with them. We’re not pretending to replace them.”

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.”

Thornton said he believes the idea could be readily exported to other states but he is focused on proving the model in Texas first. “I grew up in the franchise-restaurant business and the clowns you took least seriously were those who talked about franchising their ideas before they opened their first store,” he said. “We want to open the first store.”

While he eventually would like to help other projects if he can, “I really want to demonstrate this can be done here,” he said. “If I can do that, then I think I will have done a big mitzvah.”

His pastor would be proud.

And Now, a Word from Evan About Wiccans

July 24, 2009

Although Peggy Fikac did a fine job interviewing  our partner Evan Smith for the Express News–and it is absolutely true that I have retired from partisan politics–I feel compelled to mention that the TT explicitly does not have a Wiccan fundraising quota.  Or at least I don’t:

The venture has been viewed cautiously by some on the right because the $2 million-plus backing it has so far includes about $1 million from venture capitalist John Thornton, who is founding chairman of the Tribune and has been a big donor to Democrats.

 That’s all ending, Smith said.

“John has pledged not to give any money to candidates any longer, and I take him at his word,” Smith said. “John in his private life was obviously entitled to support candidates or issues as he chose to. Journalists have a different standard … I want to assure you that by the time we launch, we will have money supporting this venture from Democrats, Republicans, independents, Wiccans.

The followers of Wicca aside, this much I have learned to be true:  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 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.   But who knows–they could very well be Wiccans.