There was this guy. He used to race bikes. Everybody claimed he was a freak and faster than anyone else in history. He worked harder and had better genetics. And then everyone found out about the drugs that charged his cardiovascular engine.
There was this news publishing company. They used to write news stories. Everyone said they had the goods and were connected at the capitol in Texas. And had honest journalism. And then they found out they were taking donations from the corporations and lobbyists they were supposed to be holding accountable, and they weren’t disclosing the money.
The Lance Armstrong analogy for the Texas Tribune is damning, and, tragically, accurate. The serum that has driven the success of the neo-news operation is corporate and lobby money in undisclosed amounts. The signal difference is that the Trib didn’t fly away to secret islands to have it injected into the arms of its reporters. They simply put out their hands.
I won’t continue to pick at the sore that is the Trib and its misrepresentations of what it actually does and is, but there are certain matters that need attending before I exit the topic. If the Texas Tribune wants to be legitimate or even survive, it must have full transparency. Name donors and amounts, individuals, corporations, and list small subscribers. Put it all out there publicly and stop doing a half-assed job of sharing that information.
To do less prompts doubt about credibility, which is the worst possibility for a news business. Long time reporter and journalism ethicist R. G. Ratcliffe summed up the Trib’s conflict on Facebook with a simple example, which I paraphrase here:
“Reporter: Don’t you think, Mr. Politician, that all those donations will have an effect on how you vote on various issues?
“Mr. Politician: Don’t you think all of those donors at your news business will have an impact on what you write?”
No more clarity than that is required.
In a genuine effort to be helpful and not simply critical, I’ll offer here some ideas that might save the Tribune before even lobbyists and corporations run away from the operation in fear of being compromised.
First, (or firstly, which is what the Brits say and sounds so cool), they need to hire an ombudsman. This individual must have carte blanche to sit in on any and every editorial or business meeting conducted by Evan Smith, reporters, and editors, and offer opinions and recommendations without fear. The individual ought to be replaced every year or two to avoid any risk of becoming complicit in the success of the Tribune. Producing a story a year on conflicts confronted and resolved at the outlet would also be a good practice for the ombudsman.
Second, bring in someone from the outside to look at hiring practices. CEO Evan Smith markets the youth and energy of the Tribune to various donors and sponsors and there is only one employee over the age of 50 in the office. Youth must be served but wisdom accrues with time. If there is ageism being practiced, it needs to be struck out. Prove that anyone of any age with the right qualifications can get hired. I know of at least one 50-something with a great resume that applied there and never even got the courtesy of a response. (Yes, I’m sure you are overwhelmed, Mr. Smith. And, hell no, it wasn’t me.)
The emphasis on youth goes to credibility. How is a 30-ish reporter going to know when they are being had by a 50-ish lobbyist, or even understand the context of what is transpiring? Plus, youth allows training in a belief that what is presently taking place at the Texas Tribune is okay. And it’s not.
In his science fiction classic “Dune,” Frank Herbert had a concept called the “weirding way.” (Dune was a fine series of books but a dreadful movie, which ought to be called, “Ride the Wild Worm.” The film was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, whose greatest contribution to western culture was to be the maternal grandfather of Giada de Laurentiis.) Anyway, the weirding way is too arcane a concept to be explained in this space but what if the Tribune got only young reporters that Smith and his execs trained to believe that there is nothing wrong with taking a $100,000 check from the chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and then go report on his voting and policies. Where the hell does that lead? Teach them the weirding way.
Third, get an outside and independent audit to prove the Texas Tribune deserves to have non-profit status and a tax deduction. The very notion that I, or the Tribune’s competitors are writing checks to the IRS to subsidize this operation is beyond galling. The corporate sponsors and donors to the Tribune likely are capitalists that believe in the free market. If so, they ought to see that the “invisible hand” is slapping around the news business. Isn’t it time the Trib listened to the market? If there is a demand for government and political news, compete with others to provide it. If not, why should my tax dollars underwrite your endeavors and disadvantage the political newsletters that are paying their taxes while competing with your group of reporters?
Fourth, the names of donors and sponsors need to be published, at a minimum, once a month, and include their specific monetary contribution. Break sponsors into various categories to show whether they were advertisers or event sponsors, (and specify the event.)
Fifth, separate the news business from the event and promotional operations. How about the Texas Tribune Policy Foundation and the Texas Tribune News Foundation for beginning ideas? The policy foundation hosts the policy talks and Tribune festivals with any web content from those events going only on the policy foundation’s site. Maybe, biannually, the policy foundation transfers a sum of money from its revenue generating events into the news foundation to help coverage. Each organization would have a separate board of directors, the news foundation ought to retain at least a couple of seats for journalists unaffiliated with the Texas Tribune. No public relations professionals or lobbyists trying to influence state government should be allowed on the board or any vendors providing products or services to the news foundation.
Sixth, advertising sold for the Tribune News web site cannot be specifically linked to coverage of a topic in which the advertiser has a policy interest. CEO Smith presently supports a sales and donation package that tells sponsors that their ads can appear next to stories that are of topical interest to their companies. This is ludicrous. Non-profit news outlet Pro-Publica makes it clear there will no advertising on story pages. Consequently, any and all content that is paid for by a sponsor and appears on the Tribune’s web site must be clearly marked as an advertisement.
Seventh, allow Trib reporters and editors to participate in the Tribune Policy Foundation events along with reporters from any interested news organization. But Trib reporters cannot moderate or appear on panels sponsored by any individual, group, or non-profit that also provides the Tribune with money for the reporter’s salary or budget.
Eighth, put all bios of editors and reporters on the Tribune News web site with appropriate disclosures of whether their salary or reporting budget is paid by funds from a specific donor or sponsor.
Ninth, relieve Evan Smith of his command. Smith has created a kind of carnival barker approach to news and sidling up to power brokers and the wealthy. Everyone in Austin knows it and almost all of them are afraid to articulate his interest in being close to people with money and delicately avoiding offending them or their interests. The Texas Tribune he built is cancerous and must be euthanized. If a new version is born, it must have new leadership.
Tenth, hire Giada de Laurentiis for something, anything.