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.