As The Texas Tribune creeps up on its fifth anniversary, the nonprofit political news organization doesn’t have any signs of slowing down.
The organization recently announced a D.C. bureau expansion that will allow it to cover policy that impacts the state and follow the 38 House and Senate leaders who represent Texas. The D.C. expansion was made possible by a $350,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation. Evan Smith, editor-in-chief, expects that getting just one dedicated contributor on the ground there will open up a "fire hose of material." When asked if one contributor will be enough, he said he believes it will be, but he will have to wait and see.
The D.C. bureau will be the second location expansion for the organization. Due to its in-depth coverage of border control and security, the Austin-based publication also staffs a dedicated reporter in El Paso, thanks in part to the Ford Foundation, who provided a grant.
Expanding geographically is only one part of "The Trib’s" growth story. Smith says that data-driven journalism has always been a big piece of its content strategy. In fact, he says that its data team is bigger than ever.
"It allows us to expand the ways we tell stories," he says. "The people we reach are very sophisticated about the world we live in and they want to know more. If you give them shallowness they run from us."
But looking ahead, Smith indicates a big initiative will be looking at internal data. "We are engaged in a massive project. We are deploying all of our available talent to grow the audience we want and engage the audience we have."
Currently, its donor members account for about $750,000 of its overall revenue, which tops out at just under $7 million. Smith says that membership tiers range from $10 to thousands of dollars. But he makes it very clear that The Trib’s model is not like public radio or other nonprofit media. "We don’t do tote bags or Three Tenor DVDs because we aren’t in the fulfillment business," he quips. "We aren’t in any other business other than journalism. If you know what you are everything is a lot easier."
Events are big for the organization, and getting bigger. Averaged out, The Trib hosts an event almost every week, which are all free to attend, save for its three-day festival. "Our events are wonderful for content and engagement and this year will be about $1.4 million in revenue for us," Smith says. "All but about $150,000 [festival ticket sales] is coming in from sponsorships."
Corporate sponsors are the real bread and butter for the organization and Smith insists they are the reason his team is able to focus on journalism. Still, it’s reasonable to question when looking at some of its donors if there are outside influences pushing down on the organization. When asked, Smith says it’s valid to question what a sponsor like Exxon or WalMart gets out of donating, but he makes it clear that all they get is a tax letter and thank you note. "If they tried to influence us we would give them their money back," he says. "The only people we are beholden to are the people of Texas. In no way do they pollute or corrupt our content. It’s not in their best interest because people will see right through it."
Transparency is a critical attribute for The Trib. So much so that anyone can access donor information-in real time. Smith believes it is critical to lay it out there because, all things considered, the organization’s integrity is its best asset.