The award-winning Texas Tribune, an online, member-supported news site, laid off newsroom staff in 2023, after experiencing difficulties keeping costs in line with revenue.
In 2009, venture capitalist John Thornton, along with journalists Evan Smith and Ross Ramsey, troubled by the decline in statehouse reporters, founded The Texas Tribune. They raised nearly $5 million and brought onboard some of the state’s top political reporters, quickly making a name for the Tribune with its political reporting and explanatory journalism. By 2012, it broke even financially. Since then, the Tribune consistently made a surplus. In 2022, the Tribune reported $11.9 million in revenues, and $10.3 million in expenses. The Tribune’s 2021 annual report also shows revenues exceeding expenses; however, its Form 990 filing with the IRS that year revealed a $1.5 million net loss.
A leader in the age of local nonprofit journalism, the *Tribune,” despite recent layoffs, still retains one of the largest local newsrooms in the U.S. Its website draws an average of more than 5 million visitors per month. The site freely shares its content with print, radio, and television news outlets. That part of its mission, The Tribune says, democratizes news content and increases civic participation.
The Tribune “played this outsized, positive role in practically inventing a whole new type of local news,” said Steven Waldman, of the nonprofit Rebuild Local News. “It pioneered and created the local nonprofit model.” The Tribune, Waldman states, is funded “largely by contributions from some 10,000 members, from major donors, and corporate sponsorships.”
The Tribune, covering Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Lufkin, Odessa, and San Antonio, enjoyed the largest staff for state legislative news as well as national news from its Washington D.C. bureau. In the U.S., according to Washington Post’s Laura Wagner, it largely opened the way for experimentation in journalism. “While layoffs in the moribund local news sector are routine at this point,” wrote Wagner, “the Tribune’s business model has largely insulated it from cutbacks that have whittled local and regional journalism in recent decades.”
Other journalism startups studied their novel non-profit model with interest. Among major newspapers that have developed the nonprofit business structure are the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Chicago Sun-Times. At present, according to Shah, a mixture of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship will see the Tribune through this difficult phase, which has adversely affected print and digital newsrooms across the nation.
The Tribune largely opened the way for experimentation in its non-profit revenue model, Wagner reported. Yet, the Tribune surprised journalists across the country upon announcing their first-ever newsroom layoffs. The Tribune’s Chief Executive, Sonal Shah, made the layoff announcement the week of August 24, 2023. The layoffs included 11 members of its digital staff, about 10 percent of the writers, editors, the entire copy desk and members of the multimedia team. Among those laid off were longtime editor David Pasztor and well-known reporters Jolie McCullough (specializing in criminal justice) and Alexa Ura (writing on Texas’s changing demographics) journalists. Some had been employed from the beginning.
br> Their non-profit status grabbed attention as a novel business structure that other journalism startups studied with interest. Among major newspapers that have developed the nonprofit business model are the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Chicago Sun-Times. At present, according to Shah, a mixture of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship will see the Tribune through this difficult phase, which has adversely affected print and digital newsrooms across the nation.
Global investment firm, Challenger, Grey and Christmas, estimates some 17,436 newsroom layoffs took place during the first five months of 2023 in the media landscape, a record high. Poynter Institute writer Angela Fu reports. “At a time when newsrooms across the country are shrinking, The Tribune has maintained a largely upward movement, increasing both its staff and budget as it expanded coverage of the state.” “There is no media company,” Fu write, “commercial, nonprofit, or public, that isn’t experiencing some version of this.”
During the layoffs, Shah wrote “Our newsroom, engineering, design, and operations teams were affected by this news. These are people who’ve been essential to the success of the Tribune. We’ve never had layoffs and this was a very difficult decision. We recognize the magnitude of this news for our supporters, our staff, and our readers. It was hard, but we saw no other choice.”
The Texas Tribune has won a variety of national awards, including its reporting on Uvalde school shootings. Numerous other awards and honors received in its nine-year history are listed here.
Two podcasts, the daily Audio Brief and the weekly Tribcast were also taken offline. Despite the Tribune’s hard times, Shah believes the business model is sound and the news site will keep publishing. She said newspapers and news websites of many types have been hit hard in recent decades and the Tribune, despite its novel revenue structure and the respect it has earned in the journalism world, is no exception.
Factors behind the layoffs, according to Shah, include an unreliable economy, evolutionary trends in news media, and digital technology developments. Other challenges include the rise of artificial intelligence and “uneven news readership and engagement, changing audience behaviors and the growing phenomenon of news avoidance.” Wagner wrote in the Washington Post’s coverage of the downsizing. “While layoffs in the moribund local news sector are routine at this point,” Wagner added,” “the Tribune’s business model has largely insulated it from cutbacks that have whittled local and regional journalism in recent decades.”
Advertising revenues that kept print newspapers in business shrank with the advent of digital advertising on sites like Google and Facebook. Since then, news businesses have struggled to find sustainable market solutions: According to a 2022 Gallup Survey, while subscription revenue supports a handful of national publications, only wealthier Americans are likely to pay for news — meaning huge sections of the public are left in “news deserts” and “semi-arid” news states without crucial information about their communities.
The layoffs came at a time of widespread turmoil in the news industry with many news outlets shrinking their newsrooms. Newspapers and news sites were not the only victims of changes in the journalism profession: National Public Radio (NPR) laid off around 100 employees in March 2023.
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