While the rest of the news industry struggles to regain the market and status it once held, the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, online news organization, is seeing gains in staff, audience, and revenue. Full-time staff has grown from about 20 at start-up to more than 60 today. Monthly average users on the site have increased from about 200,000 to almost 2 million. And in total, the nonprofit has raised more than $56 million in less than 9 years. And this year, it’s received some of its largest single grants ever.
Since the Texas Tribune was launched in 2009, nonprofit news organizations have proliferated across the country, with about 200 pulling in a combined annual revenue of $350 million today, according to a report from the Institute for Nonprofit News. But among those, the Texas Tribune, one of the earliest nonprofit news organizations that continues to thrive, is considered a leader.
Last weekend, the Tribune hosted its eighth-annual Festival, moving it from the Capitol and surrounding venues on the UT-Austin campus to downtown Austin across 13 venues, including The Long Center and Paramount Theater. In total, the Festival featured 300 speakers with more than 7,000 registered attendees, up from 4,700 attendees the previous year. Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune, said, “The degree to which we are able to bring more and more people into these conversations is how we measure our success. So in that regard, it was successful.”
A month before the festival, the Tribune released its first-ever, formal strategic plan, what Smith calls a road map that it will follow toward 2025. “The process of putting a plan like this in place is about doing a self audit,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to be honest with yourself about what’s working and what’s not.”
A news organization aiming to serve the state must measure itself by audience size and reach, so growing that is among the Tribune’s primary goals. The Tribune has plans to increase its audience of younger, more ethnically diverse readers, but not because they’re not yet reaching them,says Smith. “What you’re seeing in our strategic plan is an acknowledgement that this is what the Texas population is going to grow to be,” he said.
“This being a statewide organization, the importance of the Hispanic community as an audience I don’t think can be overstated,” said Texas Tribune board member and CMO of LatinWorks, Alejandro Ruelas. “For the Tribune, ensuring that this audience is top of mind if a huge priority.” To reach this audience and other target audiences, the Tribune is taking a cue from technology.
“It’s push, not pull,” said Smith. “You cannot wait for people to come to you, you have to go to them, physically into their communities.” In addition to the Austin-based festival, the Tribune hosts about 50 events throughout the state. Though race and ethnicity of readers is hard to track, an uptick in readers from the more diverse Houston and San Antonio markets indicates it’s reaching more minorities, says Amanda Zamora, the Tribune’s chief audience officer.
Foundations and funders are taking note. Just this year, the Tribune received some of its largest grants ever with $1 million from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, $1 million from the Tobin Foundation, and $1 million matching grant from the Stillwater Foundation. About 25 percent of the Tribune’s funding comes from foundations.
“Foundations get that we’re the means of public education,” for the causes foundations support, said Smith. “We’re putting their social issues through the lens of journalism.”
NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 7, 2018