‘Texas Trib’ Ropes In Funds and Readers

Surpasses Evan Smith's expectations

When The Texas Tribune launched in November 2009 as a nonprofit online news organization, it had one mission: to provide comprehensive reporting on politics, public policy and state government—increasingly critical coverage as local papers closed and the Austin capital city press corps waned.

The Tribune’s founders hoped that by 2013 it could raise at least $9 million from corporations, philanthropic foundations, individual donors and more, and perhaps break even on $3 million in revenue.

One year shy of that target, the Tribune has more than exceeded those goals. It’s raised almost $11 million, is approaching profitability, has a rapidly expanding national reputation, and has a content client in The New York Times. “We couldn’t have imagined it would be this good,” said Evan Smith, the Tribune’s fast-talking CEO, co-founder and editor in chief.

Smith, who had been the longtime editor of the prestigious Texas Monthly, is certainly one reason for the good news. But the Tribune also hasn’t been afraid to experiment. Events like last year’s “Festival of Ideas,” a two-day confab netting more than $400,000, have drawn corporate sponsorships, while public databases of everything from government salaries to campaign donations have generated as much as two-thirds of the site’s traffic.

“The data stuff has been a total surprise,” said Smith. “We all look so goddamn smart now, but the fact is, I don’t think we had any idea at the beginning.”

In the meantime, the site’s reporting has become more relevant nationally, helped by events like Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. On Aug. 15, the Monday after Perry announced his run, the Tribune website (www.texastribune.org) saw its highest number of uniques (143,689) for a single day.

Since then, the site has been a go-to source for Perry coverage, which also factored into its relationship with the Times. It began in 2009, when the Times’ associate managing editor Jim Schachter was tasked with hiring a regional news content partner for the paper’s Texas edition. They’ve even collaborated on some stories that appeared on A1 of the Times. “The Texas Tribune, even in its early days, was far and away the most formidable ‘other’ news organization there,” said Schachter.

The national spotlight notwithstanding, Smith said the Tribune plans to stick to its vertical niche: “I think the reason our traffic has grown is because . . . we’re so mission-centric.”

The Tribune projects taking in about $4.5 million in revenue and hitting profitability this year. Moving forward, Smith hopes to secure $1 million per year each in philanthropy, membership, events and corporate funds, and $500,000 to $1 million annually in restricted foundation grants.

“It’s a sustainable model,” Smith said. “But can we sustain it? That remains to be seen.” 

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