Comment: Nonprofit news sites show hope for local journalism

Among the pioneers, Texas Tribune has grown and is producing influential reporting.

By Margaret Sullivan / By The Washington Post

When Evan Smith co-founded the Texas Tribune back in 2009, digital-first nonprofit newsrooms were something of a rarity. There was ProPublica, only two years old at the time, MinnPost in Minneapolis, the Voice of San Diego, and a few others.

So his move from top editor of the award-winning Texas Monthly magazine, at the urging of venture capitalist John Thornton, was considered slightly bizarre.

“The tone of the coverage was almost mocking,” Smith recalled, soon after he announced he would step down as the Tribune’s CEO at the end of this year. “It was ‘what does this joker think he’s doing?’”

As it turns out, Smith and company — he and Thornton recruited Texas Weekly editor Ross Ramsey to join the endeavor — had a good idea of what they were doing, or figured it out along the way.

The Austin-based Tribune has grown from 17 employees to around 80 (more than 50 are journalists), raising $100 million through philanthropy, membership and events, including its annual Texas Tribune Festival that has attracted speakers from Nancy Pelosi to Willie Nelson. Most important, it has done a huge amount of statewide news coverage with a focus on holding powerful people and institutions accountable.

These days, such newsrooms are springing up everywhere; there are now hundreds of them. They are easily the most promising development in the troubled world of local journalism, where newspapers are going out of business or vastly shrinking their staffs as print revenue plummets and ownership increasingly falls to large chains, sometimes owned by hedge funds.

In Baltimore, the Banner — funded by Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum — is hiring staff and expects to start publishing soon. In Chicago, the Sun-Times is converting from a traditional newspaper to a nonprofit as it merges operations with public radio station WBEZ. And in Houston, three local philanthropies working with the American Journalism Project (also co-founded by Thornton) announced a $20 million venture that will create one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country.

“These newsrooms are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm,” Smith, 55, told me.

He’s right about the growth of nonprofit news; and he’s also one of the reasons it’s thriving. “A true pioneer,” wrote Peter Lattman, managing director of media at the Emerson Collective, the philanthropic corporation funded by Laurene Powell Jobs.

As a speaker at Trib Fest myself, I’ve seen Smith in action; a promotional force of nature, energetic organizer, prodigious fundraiser, and lively onstage interviewer.

Emily Ramshaw, who started at the Trib as a reporter and was named its top editor in 2016, called him “an innovator, a ringleader and a fearlessly ambitious local news entrepreneur.” What’s more, she told me, Smith has brought along “a whole series of news leaders who have grown up in his image.”

Ramshaw counts herself among them; she left the Trib in 2020 to found a new nonprofit news organization, The 19th, which covers the intersection of gender, politics and society.

The Trib’s new editor is Sewell Chan, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he was the top opinion-side editor, and previously at the New York Times and The Washington Post. Smith counts it as a triumph for nonprofit newsrooms that it’s no longer unusual for them to attract the likes of Chan, or of Kimi Yoshino, who was managing editor of the L.A. Times before being named editor in chief of the Baltimore Banner.

“Now when people like Sewell Chan or Kimi Yoshino come to a nonprofit newsroom, no one is mocking their decisions,” Smith said. (He has no immediate plans for what he’ll do after stepping down as CEO, saying that it simply was the right time to make the move; he’ll remain as an adviser for another year.)

The Trib’s journalism is influential well beyond its own free website. More than 400 Texas Tribune stories appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the state last year, provided free of charge. The site has done investigative projects on the effect of sex trafficking on young girls, the influence of religious belief on the lawmaking of Texas legislators, and an investigation, part of its voting rights coverage, into the state’s review of voting rolls. In 2019, it announced it was joining forces with ProPublica to form a new investigative unit based in Austin.

“No state is more in need of watchdog reporting than Texas,” Smith said when that effort was launched. “It’s a target-rich environment if you’re in the business of holding people in power and institutions accountable.”

But far from the only one. With local news outlets withering in many communities — statehouse coverage, in particular, has dwindled despite its importance — and democratic norms under attack in many states, the need for that kind of watchdog reporting is acute everywhere.

If local journalism proves itself up to these challenges — and I fervently hope it will — Evan Smith will deserve a share of the credit, no matter what he decides to do next.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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