Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune
Emily Ramshaw is Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune. She was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News before leaving in 2010 for the Tribune, where she was one of the founding reporters.
In some news organizations, the subscription model has been most effective. It’s more transactional. You’re paying for access to this product. For us, we believe... journalism is a public service that you shouldn’t necessarily have to pay in order to access. We want the public to be deeply informed and educated and able to make decisions regardless of whether they can pay for a news product. So, for us, the membership model makes more sense. It’s paying what you can, whether that’s $5 or $500 or nothing at all, and hoping that the generosity of those who can afford more will subsidize the work for those who can’t.
I think our industry really is having a reckoning in looking at what business models are working and where. I’m grateful to be in the nonprofit space, particularly grateful to work someplace with an engaged community of folks who are devoted to us and will support us with their hard-earned cash.
I think one of the things that has made the Tribune very successful is its niche focus. We are not trying to be all things to all people. We are trying to make the biggest audience possible in Texas care deeply about politics and policy here. We don’t cover crime. We don’t cover cops. We don’t cover entertainment. We don’t cover sports. Those things tend to be sort of cash cows for regional news organizations. For us, it would require a really expensive extension of staff, a really expensive extension of reach. I think you’re seeing more and more news organizations sort of narrowing their approach, honing in on the thing they are going to own, and to me, that’s something that the Texas Tribune learned very early on, that I think could be extrapolated a lot of places.
For us, from a revenue standpoint, diversity (of revenue) is really, really important. We don’t want to be beholden to a particular single revenue stream or a couple of revenue streams. We are very cautious about not putting our eggs in one basket here.
For one thing, we don’t think about audience just as the people who come to our website. We think about our audience as the people we reach through a whole variety of means. The Texas Tribune has a free syndication model, meaning we give all of our journalism away for free. Newspapers all across the far reaches of this state, including publications that are in communities of color, run our work, and we have aggressively worked to ensure that those folks are publishing more and more of the Tribune’s work. Our stories and our reporters appear on TV stations and radio airwaves all around the state, in all the different markets we’re interested in, from the border to East Texas, almost Louisiana. We are aggressively working not just with our journalism but with the distribution of our journalism, to reach those audiences.
It’s like Lollapalooza for politics and policy nerds, and (there’s) a small fee to attend but 300 panels, 10,000 attendees, over the course of a long weekend, once a year. Our events, all except for the festival, are free to attend. We also livestream them, by the way, so thousands of additional people can tune in and watch them. Those events are sponsored either by corporate underwriters or by foundations. Sometimes they’re part of a bigger package. A sponsor may have advertising on our site, and also an event sponsorship, and also run advertising on our podcast. We sort of build out these packages both for, again, foundations and for individual sponsors. The Tribune Festival, the three-day festival, is a ticketed event, but we make more than a million dollars in that single weekend, and that revenue is largely sponsorship underwriting.
I would say, on average, once a year, we have some kind of crowdfunding campaign that comes up around something big we’re doing. The family separation crisis on the border meant that we were just plowing through, basically, all of our travel budget for reporting for the year. It was a huge, huge expense for us. We hosted a crowdfunding campaign where we quickly raised $75,000 to keep our reporters on the ground and subsidized over the course of that ongoing controversy.
I think we have a responsibility to constantly be thinking about the next platform that we’re going to be on, the next way that we’re going to present our content to our public, the next way we’re going to engage with our audience, I think. But, for me, innovating isn’t just chasing flashy, shiny objects. It’s not being on the latest platform or social media tool for the sake of being on that platform or using that tool. We don’t have to be the first at the Texas Tribune. We have to be the smartest.
We don’t have the staff, or the resources, or, candidly, the stomach acid, to be the first ones out of the gate on every new trick of the trade.
To me, local means you’re serving a community. A community of people with a shared identity. And in that regard, the Texas Tribune absolutely qualifies. I mean, maybe we’re more like a regional news organization than we are a hyperlocal news organization, but it works in Texas because Texans have really this sort of shared, deep identity. They have an obsession with Texas. And that’s not something that every state has, obviously. So, to me, it’s about a shared community.
I think it has suddenly become cool again to support the news.