Journalists Leave Full-time Jobs to Work for Texas Tribune, Embrace Uncertainty

Elise Hu, Matt Stiles and Emily Ramshaw are all award-winning journalists who had full-time jobs at some of Texas’ largest media outlets — KVUE-TV in Austin, the Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News, respectively.

But in August, they quit their jobs for new opportunities at the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news site that is set to launch Nov. 3 and has raised enough money to sustain itself for about three years.

Why would journalists leave a full-time job at an established news organization to work for a start-up? For Hu, Stiles and Ramshaw, a better question is, “Why not?”

Considering the news industry is in flux, these young journalists say now is the time to take professional risks, embrace new challenges and make career moves they believe will let them play a role in shaping the future of journalism. 

“I feel, and still feel, that the newspaper business is in serious crisis. I’m not content to cling to a deck chair and go down with a sinking ship,” Ramshaw said in a phone interview. “We’re trying to prepare for the next incarnation of journalism. If this venture is going to work, it’s going to work because serious, talented journalists were brave enough to take the risk.”

Texas Tribune’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Evan Smith, noted that of the 11-person reporting staff, nearly all left full-time jobs. He said the “vast majority” of the budget will go toward paying salaries and that there will be 15 to 16 staff members total by the time the site launches.

So far, nearly $3.5 million has been raised for the site, which is expected to operate on a $1.6 million budget during its first year. Of the money raised, $1 million came from venture capitalist and Texas Tribune Chairman John Thornton and his wife, Julie. More than $750,000 came from foundations, and the rest came primarily from individuals in Texas.

Ramshaw, 28, said having the chance to play a hand in making the Texas Tribune a viable operation appealed to her. She noted that although she loved her old job, she wanted to try something new. At the Texas Tribune, she will continue to write public policy stories but will also produce multimedia and help build the site’s social media presence.

“I was wondering if I was going to wake up and be 45 years old and in an industry that was dying, without the skill sets to be an interactive reporter,” Ramshaw said. “What’s cool is that … I’m a 28-year-old getting to be part of that decision about what we’re going to be, how we’re going to be viable and who our audience is.”

Stiles, 33, who covered politics and government for the Houston Chronicle‘s statehouse bureau in Austin, said signing on with the Texas Tribune meant he could remain in Austin (the Chronicle was going to send him back to Houston), do more Web-centric work and develop new skills. And he got a raise — which he said was unlikely at the Chronicle

Stiles, who has experience in computer-assisted reporting, will focus on building databases to help people sort out information about campaign finance, lobbying and more. “I’m spending a lot more time learning about data on the Web. At the Chronicle, it was more about acquiring databases to write traditional print stories,” he said. “Now there’s more support to display data online, especially using visualization (graphics, Flash, etc.), and less of a focus on the ‘weekender’ that’s needed in a print environment.”

Stiles said he was concerned about breaking ties to a newspaper that offered him many opportunities early in his career, but he thought staying there would be just as risky as working for a start-up.

Hu, 27, who left her job as a state political reporter for Austin’s ABC affiliate, KVUE-TV, expressed her confidence in the nonprofit news business model and said she thinks working for one will bring her new challenges.

“Generally my philosophy is, if it sounds exciting, just do it,” Hu said in a phone interview. “My only goal has always been just to keep growing, and I don’t necessarily think I was growing anymore. I jumped at an opportunity to develop new skills and get better.”

At the Texas Tribune, Hu will report and write text stories, shoot and edit videos, produce podcasts, design interactive graphics and help manage the site’s social media presence.

“Journalism is at a crossroads right now. We’re seeing not just survival of the fittest but a ‘mutation of the species,’ ” she said. “I think the nonprofit model has just as good a shot as anything else.”

What the Texas Tribune hopes to accomplish, how it plans to raise money

Smith, the Texas Tribune’s editor-in-chief and CEO, thinks it has a pretty good shot, too. He left his full-time job as president and editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly in August to assume his new leadership position.

“We have a nonprofit mission, a for-profit mentality.”

– Evan Smith, Texas Tribune editor-in-chief and CEOSince taking on this role, he has focused on raising money for the site. Recently, the Texas Tribune received more than $75,000 in gifts and a $150,000 pledge over three years from entrepreneur and financier T. Boone Pickens. It is seeking donations from “founding members,” who are being asked to pledge at least $50, and “founding investors,” who are being asked to pledge at least $5,000.

“We’re not looking for a return on their investments, but there’s no question that we mean to run this with the same attentiveness to lean budgeting and wise expenditure and aggressive generation of revenue through an earned income as a business might,” Smith said. “We have a nonprofit mission, a for-profit mentality.”

Smith said his goal is for the site to appeal to people who may not know much about politics and public policy but have reason to care, as well as political insiders. To help educate and reach out to these readers, the Texas Tribune plans to organize community-based conversation series, lectures and panel discussions with local policy makers.

Additionally, the site intends to give away its original content to any news organization that wants it. “We believe that ubiquity is the road to achieving our mission,” Smith said. “Our content needs to be in front of as many people as possible. We don’t care where you encounter it.”

The 11 people on the Texas Tribune’s reporting staff will produce the majority of the content, Smith said, and will receive competitive salaries to do so.

It doesn’t surprise Smith that people would leave full-time gigs to work for a start-up site.

“The reality is, we all love the places where we were and believed in the value of the work being done there,” Smith said. “But I think at the same time, we all realized that new models are going to spring up and be alongside the existing ones, and someone’s going to have to go off and build those things.

“It’s a real opportunity, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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