The Texas Tribune: audience strategy and business model

The Texas Tribune came into business to solve a problem: the insufficient coverage of public policy and politics in Texas. In a meeting with the GEN Study Tour group in Austin, Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune, and Rodney Gibbs, chief product officer, shared some insights about the publisher’s many revenue streams, their decision to go non-partisan, and the importance of meeting the audience where they are.

The Texas Tribune was founded in 2009 by Evan Smith, Ross Ramsey, and venture capitalist John Thornton under the idea that statewide politics and policy had been abandoned by newspaper and radio. They were convinced that Texans wanted to stay on top of what’s happening in the State Capitol and believed that they could build a sustainable business model to provide political news. Spoiler: It worked. How?

Multiple bucket revenue approach

The Tribune is a non-profit that came into being with a million dollar investment by Thornton. The business has been profitable since the third year and it remains so as a result of its ‘promiscuous approach’ to revenue.

‘We haven’t had a single revenue source that we’ve really depended on. Some of our peers in the nonprofit world really depend on foundations or or philanthropists who write big checks’, said Rodney.

How The Texas Tribune is funded

The Tribune boasts several buckets:

  • Donations from foundations, members who give small amounts of money (around $50 per year), and big donors (around $1,000 per year);
  • Corporate underwriting: Tribune sells ads on the site and has about 60 sponsored events a year;
  • Rentals: Studio 919 at The Texas Tribune is a 1,000 square foot meeting place in Austin that the publication rents out for events;
  • Earned income: Whenever Smith and Ramsey get paid to do speaking engagements, the money goes back to the company.
  • Agreements with different groups that take Tribune content and re-publish it. Pearson, an education publisher, takes Tribune content and puts it into digital textbooks about politics and history;
  • Partnerships with other newsrooms, such as ProPublica. They collaborated on a big project about Hurricane impact on the Gulf coast;
  • Being a partner to everybody: from bloggers to the Washington Post. Letting them take their content and republishing it.

‘It’s been really nice having these multiple buckets. If any one bucket goes lower or goes away, it may sting, but it’s not fatal’, said Gibbs.

The Texas Tribune has raised around 57 million dollars in total.

‘I believe in this work. It’s easy to sell something you believe in’, said Smith.

Singular focus on content

The Tribune is a single subject newsroom: Policy and politics.

Full time staff growth at The Texas Tribune

Gibbs said that in the past they’ve been tempted to dabble in sports, films, culture, or food, but they quickly recognised that there are already other bodies who do that well enough. The Tribune does one thing and does it well and this has been reflected in the growth of the company: The organisation started off with 6 people and has grown to 75 (including part-time staff). Most reporters are based in Austin, but there is one in Washington DC, one in El Paso, and another in Dallas.

Events

The Tribune makes around $2.5 million a year on sponsorship so events are a big part of its business. 75 percent of the events take place in Austin, they usually happen before work at around 8am, and they are completely free of charge.

‘There’s coffee and tacos. There’s conversation usually with one of our editors Evan who interviews a policy maker, and then there’s a Q&A from our audience’, said Gibbs.

Sponsors have no editorial input on the programming, but they are credited through signage and acknowledged at the beginning.

Their annual three day festival TribFest (which is the only event that is not free of charge) generates about $1.8 million per year. It is an ONA-style conference that invites around 300 speakers, including national figures such as John Kerry, and US representatives Nancy Pelosi and Will Hurd.

Non-partisan

The Tribune’s non-partisan events match the Tribune’s non-partisan editorial line.

Texas has a population of 28.3 million people and the worst voter turnout of all fifty states over the last four elections. ‘We’re in definition of insanity territory. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. So let’s get in there and try to solve this problem with journalism’, said Smith.

According to Smith, confirmation bias is a big problem. People curate their Twitter feeds, they choose their preferred cable channel or their satellite radio channel, they put their headphones in their ears and keep the rest of the world out.

‘You basically self exile’, he said. ‘You can go a day or a week or a lifetime in this country without hearing a point of view other than the one you already have. And that’s what’s killing our democracy.

‘Non-partisan journalism does not wear a uniform of either team, but simply reports the facts and tells people what’s going on and then steps back and lets them decide what they want to do about it. This may ultimately be nothing, but at least we can give them good inputs in the hope that good inputs produce good outputs’, said Smith. ‘I want to be very clear nonpartisan is not non-thinking, when bullshit needs to be called, we call bullshit. We are biased in favour of the truth’.

Evolving audience

The success of the company is also reflected in the growth and evolution of the audience.

Increase in monthly average users

‘When I came here six and a half years ago, about 80 percent of the audience was in Texas and now only less than 50 percent of our audience is Texas’, said Gibbs. Surprisingly, three percent of its audience is international. This could be attributed to homesick Texans living abroad or simply because Texan issues, such as Hurricane Harvey and immigration events on the border, strike a chord worldwide. There’s also some ‘crazier stuff’ that happens in Texas that gets picked up elsewhere. ‘We had a story a couple of years ago that went really wild. There was a conspiracy theory that the army was preparing old Walmarts to become concentration camps and the governor retweeted it. We covered that and it resonated around the world as it speaks to that stereotype of crazy Texans’.

Audience strategy: push not pull

In the strategic plan, the Tribune calls out a need to get better at reaching a number of different audience segments: high school and college students, suburban women, and dual language consumers of media.

‘We live in woke nation. Everybody is woke. Everybody in this country is vibrating about politics’, said Smith. While young people care about politics, Smith isn’t sure that they care about the media. Have Gen Z chosen where they’re getting their information from yet?

Should content be written in Spanish in order to reach Texas’ growing Hispanic population? According to Smith, when the San Antonio Express News published a Spanish language supplement called Connexion around twenty years ago, the publication discovered that they were making assumptions about their audience that may not square with reality. Hispanic Texans, whose first language was Spanish and who speak Spanish at home, tend to have media consumption habits in English. They found that it was ‘Spanish in the kitchen, English in the classroom’, said Smith.

Smith said that the way to reach the dual language Texan, even if it is a generalisation, is to go via broadcast. The Tribune therefore wants to hire more Spanish speaking journalists who can go onto Spanish speaking radio and television.

The Tribune’s audience development strategy is therefore to push and not pull. ‘You go to them. you don’t sit around and wait for them to come to you’, he said.

Pushing means understanding where people are and how they consume media and what they want. Smith likened this process to the discussions people were having about social media strategies. Seven or eight years ago content was platform agnostic: you created your content and then made it accessible via all channels. Now content is platform devout: you have to have a different strategy for Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook etc.

‘In some ways the audience model is the same. You have to be audience devout’, said Smith.

Lessons from tech

According to Smith, legacy media has traditionally been risk averse: the stakes of failure are too great and the price of failing is too great. At the Tribune, the culture is more along the lines of fail fast, which is characteristic of the technology industry.

‘Anything we want to try in service to making this place better or more innovative or more disruptive or more successful is worth trying. And if it doesn’t work, there is no finger pointing, there’s no recriminations. You brush yourself off and you learn from what you do and you move on. I don’t think people and a lot of traditional news organisations have that luxury. And we do’, said Smith. ‘And so maybe one thing I would say about change culturally in an ecosystem is less about quality or magnitude of reporting, but it’s more more about innovate or die.

‘The only way forward is forward. Doing the same thing over and over if it’s working and especially if it’s not, is not a strategy.

‘So, I think culturally what you may see as the effect of the Tribune on the rest of the press is that we’re giving giving people permission to screw up’.