Articles about "Texas Tribune"

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How to build a news apps team (Hint: if you don’t have a lot of money, settle for scrappy)

It isn’t really a question of whether you need a news apps team or not. The question for most newsrooms is what kind of news apps team can you afford? And then, how can you keep them as long as possible, given your scarce resources?

Programmers and developers with journalistic inclinations are in high demand. They command good salaries and they tend to want to live in places where there is a vibrant tech industry.

That means big newsrooms with big budgets in big cities have a distinct advantage. So smaller newsrooms with smaller budgets must be realistic and strategic.

Emily Ramshaw, editor of the Texas Tribune, and Jonathan Keegan, director of interactive graphics at the Wall Street Journal, offered up tips and strategies this past weekend at ONA14 for building the best news apps team possible. (Concession: The WSJ is hardly a small newsroom, but Keegan argues he has a tiny apps team compared to the more than 350 developers working across all departments at the New York Times.)

Ramshaw will have four developers on her team at the Texas Tribune as soon as she makes a couple hires, up from two. Two people work on the front end, two on the back end and they get support from a four-person tech department. Keegan works on a different scale. His team has 16 people, 10 programmers, two designers, two tools developers, and two data developers.

Keegan and Ramshaw both argued for strategy and precision in finding the right mix skills and personalities.

  • Hire for skills: A news apps team member needs to be good at two of three skills: Coding, journalism and design. No one is good at all three, so stop looking for that unicorn. Instead look at the hole you need to fill and find that skill.
  • Look for a background or understanding in journalism: Programmers with no interest in journalism usually don’t get along in the newsroom.
  • Look for reporting skills: “We don’t hire anyone who can’t pick up the phone and ask a source for information. The temptation is to ask the reporter to do that,” Ramshaw said, adding that in her shop, developers are reporters.
  • Hire for chemistry and cultural fit: People who get along get more done. Skills will grow.
  • Once hired, match projects to personalities: Don’t put the guy who hates sports on a football project.
  • Vary projects to combat burnout: That way, team members don’t get stuck with the same kind of work over and over.
  • Be realistic: If you are a small newsroom, paying small salaries, take what you can get in terms of skills and knowledge and give them opportunities to grow.
  • Sell what you can about your newsroom: Ramshaw touts Austin’s culture, microbrews, great food and the fact that young developers will work on big stories and get bylines right away. Keegan talks about the WSJ’s global audience and offices all over the world.
  • Designate a team leader and project leaders to act as point people with the rest of the newsroom: That will facilitate good relationships.
  • Help them grow: Nurture young talent and interns by making them feel like family.
  • Hire your interns: “If someone is doing great work for you, don’t let them go,” Ramshaw said.
  • Scour area startups: Look for burned-out programmers and lure them away with the promise of making a difference in the world and having some fun.
  • Train: If you really don’t have a budget to hire someone new, train home page producers to learn programming skills.
  • Keep the walls up: Don’t let news apps team members get sucked into the product team. News apps should be strictly editorial.
  • Shop in house: When you don’t have enough resources, one strategy is to borrow a promising designer from the graphics team for a month for a special project. Many designers are eager to grow their programming knowledge.

You can find the slides for Ramshaw and Keegan’s session here. The hashtag was #appsteam. Read more


Texas Tribune’s biggest day was after Rick Perry announced presidential run

Texas Tribune
About 6.4 million people have visited the nonprofit news site — which focuses on public policy, politics and government — since it launched two years ago today. The day it attracted the most visitors (143,689 uniques) was the Monday after Texas Governor Rick Perry declared he was running for the GOP presidential nomination.

Metrics from the first two years:

On average, visitors view about five pages per visit. The site is in the midst of a fall fundraising drive, with about $10.3 million pledged so far. It’s “an awful lot of money to raise in the worst economy since the Depression,” writes CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith. || Previous: New Knight study identifies 3 surprising keys to nonprofit news business success Read more


NYT partnership ‘sort of a halo & a cloud’ for independent news sites

Michael Depp examines the close, complicated relationship between The New York Times and three nonprofit news operations that provide local coverage for certain editions: Texas Tribune, The Bay Citizen and Chicago News Cooperative. While the partnerships have kickstarted the nonprofits’ operations and boosted their credibility, it’s tough to balance the Times’ need for content (they’re responsible for two pages, twice a week) with their own missions and editorial voices. The partners spend a lot more time on journalism for the Times than they get in licensing revenue, and they don’t get a cut of the money that the Times makes selling ads next to their stories. Times assistant national editor Jill Agostino sometimes has to fend off requests from within the Times for help on developing stories. “We can’t treat these groups as though they’re our stringers in these areas because they’re not,” she says. She compares working with the Times to “being married to a famous spouse”; Jim O’Shea of the Chicago News Cooperative says it’s “sort of a halo and a cloud at the same time.” Subscriptions have increased in the partner markets, Agostino says. Anyone tracking content partnerships like this will find the post thought-provoking. || Related: Sometimes Times editors should remain behind the scenes (Gawker) Read more


New Knight study identifies 3 surprising keys to nonprofit news business success

The Knight Foundation has a new study out this morning examining the business models for seven locally-based nonprofit news sites in their drive to achieve sustainability.

Focusing on high-profile ventures such as Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego, the report, “Getting Local,” concludes that none of the sites are all the way to sustainability yet.  But they are well along and developing best practices that other geographically-based ventures can learn from.

The report identifies three “next-stage” opportunities, each with a flavor of paradox:

  • While the sites were founded in part as a reaction to declines in newspaper and other traditional media coverage, they do better if they set editorial goals beyond simply replacing what is gone. Engaging a specific audience and demonstrating social utility will be key to attracting continued and broader support.
  • While all relied on foundation grants and/or a few big-ticket donors to get started, the best are diversifying income streams to include membership campaigns, events, sponsorships and advertising.
  • Being online-only slashes production and distribution expense and allows the sites to put a majority of their budget into editorial (unlike newspapers which typically devote only 10 to 15 percent to news). But there is a strong case for “balancing resource allocation” by adding technologists, development professionals and engagement specialists — rather than just hiring more reporters and editors.

The report, written by consultant Michele McLellan and Knight’s Mayur Patel, examines Bay Citizen, Crosscut (of Seattle), MinnPost, New Haven Independent, St. Louis Beacon, Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego.  All are geographically based and have “modest sized professional staffs.”

The study was started by a management consulting firm in 2009. This published version updates financials through 2010 and traffic measures through the first quarter of 2011.

The target market among the sites varies greatly from 24.9 million for Texas Tribune to 220,000 in New Haven. Traffic varies too, but not quite as much — from a high of 450,000-plus uniques a month for the Texas Tribune to a little over 50,000 for the St. Louis Beacon.

Texas Tribune, with an extensive database as well as stories, also scored highest in average monthly time on site at about 4 minutes. Bay Citizen had the highest budget at more than $11 million.

The report highlights a variety of engagement-building initiatives — a “Politifest” community event in San Diego, MinnPost’s annual political roast and a “You Fix the Budget Deficit” interactive that drew 10,000 visitors. The Bay Citizen has a Bicycle Accident Tracker, and the St. Louis Beacon hosts regular discussions of neighborhood development issues and of race and class.

Such activities, Michael Maness, who directs Knight’s journalism and media innovation programs, told me in a phone interview, have a business payoff as well. Some contributors, he said, “are not among particularly active users but believe in what the site does.”

The New Haven Independent provided heavy coverage of education issues and Voice of San Diego took up the cause of Cambodian refugees who were being evicted from a community garden. The report cites both as examples of actionable reporting with high social impact.

Despite the efforts at diversification, the seven sites studied collectively  got 57 percent of their 2010 income from foundations and another 34 percent from donations.

Further, many of the sites rely on a a small circle of foundations and donors. At the St. Louis Beacon, 94 percent of the donations came from seven individuals with an average contribution of $174,000.

Several of the sites are making big progress on funding diversification, the report finds.  Texas Tribune showed 37 percent of its $1.8 million in revenue earned, as opposed to donated, in 2010; For MinnPost, it was 26 percent of $1.3 million.

Some of the 7 nonprofit news sites studied relied on diversified revenue sources; others depended more on foundation support. One factor could be how mature the nonprofits are.

The partnerships the Texas Tribune and Bay Citizen have formed to provide content to The New York Times regional pages produce good exposure but not much income. Each received less than half a percent of its revenue from the arrangement.

Besides building “organizational capacity” by adding non-journalists to the staffing mix, the study commends the sites for many experiments with content partnerships. It also praises the exploration of mobile apps and social media features like the Tribune’s “TweetWire,” which aggregates the Twitter postings of Texas politicians.

Since the report’s financial information ends at 2010, I wondered how the sites are weathering this year’s tough economy. Maness said that in this instance the reliance on large donations, some already in the bank as start-up funding, helps.

Paul Bass, founder of the New Haven Independent, e-mailed me that the site is fine for 2011 and already has financing locked in for 2012.

Similarly, Joel Kramer, editor and CEO of MinnPost, wrote that spending will be up 25 percent this year, advertising and sponsorships are on track to be up more than 30 percent, and that he is more than halfway to goal on a special $1 million capital campaign.

The study also tracked expenses for the 7 nonprofit news sites, showing where they spent their money.

I asked Maness if the robustness of the seven sites studied suggests that other big states like Florida and New York could have their version of Texas Tribune while cities like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh emulate the St. Louis Beacon and MinnPost.

That is beyond the scope of this study, he said, but a cookie-cutter approach probably would not work. The successful sites tend to have strong community roots and adapt to information gaps specific to the areas they cover.

By way of illustration, the study originally included the Chi-Town Daily News, which folded in 2009. The report finds that Chi-Town relied almost exclusively on foundation funding, was mostly staffed by out-of-towners and spent heavily on editorial and an attempt at citizen journalism — while neglecting business development.

This report continues Knight’s heavy involvement in exploring and supporting community information initiatives. Maness’s predecessor, Eric Newton, now special assistant to the president, announced at an international news conference in Vienna last week that the Knight Challenge grants are being renewed. There may be as many as three competitions a year rather than one, Newton said, to speed the pace of innovation.

Also, Knight released yesterday the eighth in a series of reports in collaboration with the Aspen Institute, this one on how communities can measure the vitality of their local information systems.

Five years ago, I thought Knight was being hasty in shifting funding focus so sharply away from experiments housed at newspapers and other traditional media.

Now I am more inclined to think that the for-profit sector needs to fend for itself. Despite a much smaller scale, what Knight and these sites have been building is valuable — and has plenty of room still to grow.

Joel Kramer from MinnPost and Melissa Bailey from the New Haven Independent talked about how nonprofit news sites can work toward sustainability in a live chat, which you can replay here:

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >How nonprofit news startups can work toward sustainability</a> Read more


Texas editor on Perry: ‘What you’re seeing now is effectively who we’ve seen all these years’

Huffington Post
“He’s not dropping more g’s for effect. This is not a cowboy shtick he’s putting on display for a point of contrast against Romney,” says Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith. Texas Observer executive editor Dave Mann adds:
“Even if the Bernanke line was a slip up, the Perry people won’t back down. They’re not going to apologize or show weakness. Of all the potentially controversial things [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry’s said and done over the years, I can remember only one real apology — when he said ‘Adios, Mofo’ to a Houston television reporter.” || Washington Post: Perry’s “facts” on climate change get a “Four Pinocchios” rating. || Earlier: Perry tries to stop reporters from following him on Twitter, and more stories from Romenesko’s archives. Read more


Texas Observer: We have ‘the first non-puff piece’ about Texas Tribune

Texas Observer

Many stories have been written about the nonprofit Texas Tribune — launched by venture capitalist John Thornton and edited by award-winning former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith — but Texas Observer editor Bob Moser tells me his press critic has written “the first non-puff piece written so far, I believe, about the well-funded, well-staffed” site. He continues in his email:

The Tribune has garnered considerable publicity nationally as a “new model” for nonprofit journalism. But the journalism itself has been mighty disappointing.

So you’ll know, we aren’t direct competitors — except, in some cases, for donors and grants. Very different styles of journalism, different missions, different target audiences. I’d love to see them produce high-impact reporting and memorable stories. God knows the Sovereign Republic of Texas desperately needs more of that. But alas: So far, not so good.

Read more

Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen to split $975,000 Knight grant

The nonprofits will use the money to build a free, open source publishing platform that helps other online news sites manage their content, encourage community engagement and raise revenue. “Organizations will no longer be faced with the cost and expense of developing their own publishing platforms from the ground up, or tied to using systems that were not meant for online news,” says Bay Citizen chief technology officer Brian Kelley. || Read the release. Read more


Texas Tribune databases drive majority of site’s traffic, help citizens make sense of government data

When The Texas Tribune launched, Matt Stiles said the site was the .10 version of what it would be six months out. Sixteen months later, the site’s traffic and audience have grown tremendously, in large part because of its work with data.

The Tribune has created more than 50 data-driven projects that readers are using to locate their lawmakers in the Capitol, access information about prison inmatesand see how minorities have driven population growth in Texas.

Stiles said by phone that in addition to driving about two-thirds of The Texas Tribune’s traffic, the databases have attracted new audiences and provided readers with an interactive way to access information that’s public but not always easy to find.

“We’re sort of like an OpenSecrets slash online news organization,” said Stiles, reporter and data applications editor. “We’re not nearly as good as OpenSecrets, because they’ve been around longer, but I hope that we can be that resource for people. We’re getting there.”

The Texas Tribune’s database of annual salaries for more than 550,000 public employees has generated a lot of attention among taxpayers. The database is designed so that users can search for salaries by entering a public figure’s name, job title or the agency for which the public figure works.

Some public figures requested that the information be removed after finding out that their salary information was the first result that appeared when they Googled themselves. In response, Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith wrote a piece explaining that the Tribune creates such databases because it values transparency, open government, and greater access to information — and because it believes people have a right to know where their tax dollars are being spent.

The Tribune is working on a new data project involving Texas Senate and Texas House floor proceedings. With a $150,000 grant from the Open Society Institute, The Texas Tribune hired a legal transcription company to produce same-day transcripts of the proceedings.

Later this month, the Tribune plans to provide live video streams of the proceedings, which will make it easier for people who are researching a bill to hear lawmakers’ arguments for or against it. Stiles is optimistic that, eventually, the site will be able to marry the transcript to the video.

“I’ve never not been able to do any project because we didn’t have the software or the technical ability,” he said. “It seems like everything we think of, we can do.”

Databases as public service journalism

Smith said the databases fulfill the Tribune’s mission of giving Texans greater access to government information; he even nominated them for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service.

“We understand that access to information is what makes people more thoughtful and productive and engaged citizens,” Smith told me by phone. “Without access to information you have disengagement from the political process and the policy process.”

Part of the databases’ value also lies in their timeliness and relevance. Responding to news late last month about whether public schools are spending too much on administration, Stiles helped create a database showing the salaries of superintendents — some of whom make more than $200,000. Users can sort the records in the database by district enrollment, salary and pay per student, and they can see how each superintendent ranks.

The database generated a flood of responses from readers who used it, said Smith, who followed the buzz on Twitter.

Several student-run publications at colleges and universities in Texas have featured the Tribune’s data work on their sites. Stiles has also heard from local bloggers and journalists who use the information to find ideas and advance their reporting.

“Everything we do is under a Creative Commons license, so we encourage people to use the databases as a reporting tool,” Stiles said. “Sometimes instead of directly using the database, people will e-mail me with questions. I’ll send them back a spreadsheet with the data they want and then they run it on their site and attribute it to us.”

Stiles often creates explanatory blog posts or videos to show people how to use the databases. The more familiar they are with how the databases work, he said, the more likely they are to stay on the site and use them. He explained that the site’s bounce rate has decreased from 70 percent to 50 percent since the site launched, in part because of the databases.

Eventually, Stiles said, he’d like to make more of the databases embeddable and create APIs so that people can access the data directly.

Working with other news organizations

As part of its efforts to share data, the Texas Tribune has worked with other news organizations that don’t have the resources to place as great an emphasis on data-driven projects. Recently, he helped the Austin American-Statesman advance a series it produced on the Texas Lottery. The Statesman had built a database to go along with the series, but the data wasn’t downloadable.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s frustrating if you wanted to take that data and play with it,” Stiles said. “When you can make the data available in an interactive way, it empowers readers to make their own conclusions about data, assuming you navigate them through it so they understand what’s happening.”

Stiles asked online projects editor Christian McDonald, who made the database, if he could have the data and map it. He ended up creating interactive maps that broke down lottery sales by ZIP code and per-capita income levels. Both the Statesman and the Tribune linked to the maps on their sites.

McDonald, one of two Statesman staffers who regularly build databases using Caspio, said a developer on staff had built an app for a reporter to use internally while writing the lottery series. The developer left the paper before the series was finished, though, and has not been replaced.

Other news organizations have also lost key developers in recent months, prompting the question: How much are traditional outlets willing to invest in development work, if at all?

“I wish I had a mentor who I could work with on stuff like this, but we don’t have any developers in the newsroom right now,” McDonald said by phone. “I know that it’s an area that this paper really believes in, and that’s one of the reasons why they want me to do this more and learn more about it so we can build skills from within.”

Staffing for database development

The Tribune has just two newsroom employees who work on databases — Stiles and Data Assistant Ryan Murphy. It also has three developers and is hiring a few more who can help build news apps and improve the Tribune’s content management system.

Ideally, Smith would like to find a donor to underwrite the cost of adding a full-time developer.

“It would be great if there’s a foundation or somebody out there who has $50,000 burning a hole in his pocket,” Smith said. “I think it would be valuable for us to add a developer whose entire focus could be churning out news applications.”

The Tribune has already received some funding for its database work — including $50,000 in grant money from the Ethics and Ethics in Journalism Foundation and $100,000 from the Hobby Family Foundation. And overall, it’s doing well financially. The site ended 2009 with nearly $4 million pledged and has raised a total of $8.2 million to date.

“After 16 months, it’s working to the point where I can say we have exceeded our expectations and done extremely well in pulling in a steady stream,” Smith said. “We’re on a path to sustainability. Between years two and three — the end of 2010 and the end of 2011 — we will be cash-flow positive.”

Moving forward, The Texas Tribune will continue to place a heavy emphasis on data-driven work.

“Any journalistic organization is theoretically in a position to do journalism,” Smith pointed out. “But the most forward thinking ones are the ones who say ‘How do we apply the tools of technology to solve the problems of disengagement and low voter-turnout?’ ”

There’s enormous value, he said, in answering that question. Read more


‘This thing is working,’ says Texas Tribune editor-in-chief

Texas Tribune
Evan Smith shares some website stats from 2010, including the percentage of traffic (70%) that comes from Texas. “Which is to say, 30 percent of our traffic is from out of state. I’m very happy that we’ve established ourselves in short order as a go-to source for the rest of the country.” Read more