Does the Texas Tribune’s nonprofit journalism hurt journalists?

Stephen Robert Morse doesn’t like the Texas Tribune’s nonprofit business model for two reasons: Journalists at for-profit publications, he argues, now compete with bigger name Tribune journalists whose work newspapers can run for free; and also he thinks it’s unlikely that the Tribune will do anything that might cheese off its sponsors. By way of example of the former, he offers that the Texas Tribune recently announced it had hired Aman Batheja, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram state and local politics reporter. (The Star-Telegram, which does run Texas Tribune content, gave notice earlier this month that it would close its Austin bureau.)

By way of example of the latter, he points to a column by Tribune executive editor Ross Ramsey about Texas A&M University System chancellor John Sharp, which does not disclose that A&M is a Texas Tribune sponsor.

In a follow-up phone call to Morse, Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief Evan Smith called the nondisclosure a “rare lapse” and gave him an example of a Tribune reporter who wrote a negative piece about a donor.

In a follow-up call to me that arrived one minute after I emailed him inquiring about this piece, Smith says Morse’s assertion that the Tribune was bad for Texas newspapers is “just nuts. The fact is, the Star-Telegram was going to do whatever it was going to do.”

“To suggest somehow that the play we’re running is to provide a means for the newspapers of Texas to lay their people off,” Smith says, “is a fundamental misunderstanding of our mission.”

When Batheja joins the staff, Smith says, he’ll be the 17th reporter there. “From our perspective, it’s a great thing for Fort Worth,” Smith says. The Texas Tribune’s open-republishing policy gives the nonprofit “the luxury of being magnanimous,” he says.

As for Morse’s thoughts on the Texas Tribune’s independence from its sponsors, Smith says “I cited an example to him but I could cite 50.”

“Anyone who exerts pressure on the Tribune will have their check personally returned by me,” says Smith.

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