Online Insiders

by Published on

The Texas Tribune is wrapping up its first rodeo of legislative coverage. It now has alliances with The New York Times and several Texas publications. But is it any good? A multimillion-dollar startup instantly heralded in national outlets (including its future ally, the Times) should be the subject of a 4,000-word analysis, not a 750-word column. What political figures does it write about more often? Who does it routinely not write about? Who funds it, and are those people written about? What issues does it tackle regularly? Which does it regularly ignore?

Until someone writes that analysis, here’s what I like about it:

It provides jobs for excellent journalists. If you don’t think that is a good thing, then join the far edge of the Tea Party, denounce Thomas Paine and redact the Constitution.

It provides a look into Texas politics and state agencies, with pure numbers, statistics and intensive databases done by Matt Stiles. Emily Ramshaw takes a hard look at health care coverage. Ross Ramsey dissects the state budget.

It fills the aching gap left by wounded news outlets that can’t afford to cover state politics. It has kept everyone—The Texas Observer and the daily newspapers’ remaining political reporters—on their toes. News competition is back in play. That is a good thing for democracy.

Here’s what’s not to like:

The Times reported early on that the Tribune was going to offer “the good-for-you, Brussels sprouts journalism—education financing, lobbying, bureaucratic priorities, civics and state government … a niche site with a very narrow focus.” It has delivered on that, and it’s also been constrained by it. There are drawbacks to the demands of providing instant online journalism aimed at insiders.

What the Tribune needs is consistent, long-ball narrative and multipart investigative projects. It needs the 5,000-word drill-downs like Sy Hersh does for The New Yorker. It needs the huge packages that win Pulitzer Prizes for ProPublica, for investigative work and public service.

Sam Freedman, a New York Times writer and journalism professor, says the best stories exist on a temporal and eternal axis. You invest your stories with a legacy value—with huge context and sweep—so the stories have a longer shelf life, so the echo chamber resounds until the plutocrats really pay attention and maybe even go to prison for a long, long time. Associated Press correspondent and former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson calls those the “WTF” stories, the ones that make readers go “What the fuck!” So far, it’s hard to point to a jaw-dropping WTF in the Tribune.

I took a very unscientific poll and called several editors, consultants, reporters and educators across the state. What startled me, and I have no precise explanation for it, was how many folks instantly went off the record when they wanted to criticize the Tribune.

They lauded the TT extensively, for sure, but their voices dipped down when they said they thought it was boring, too much inside-baseball, too busy-looking, or producing too few investigative stories. They wished the good reporters were unleashed to play to their talents. The reticence, I suspect, is partly based on jealousy and fear—that the Tribune has money, foot soldiers, and those connections to the Times. The number one criticism was that it is too insular, too focused on details and not enough on the Big Context.

Tribune co-founder Ramsey (who once hired me almost 25 years ago to write a book) defends his publication and essentially says the sum is greater than the parts: “It’s a constant balance between detail and context, for us and for everyone else who covers something that’s complex and/or insular. You can get lost in detail, but if you don’t pay attention to it, you can’t properly describe the big picture.”

The Tribune is coming of age during a particularly draconian legislative session that needs a special kind of numbers-crunching scrutiny. The question is, after the session is over and the oily agents of politics go home, will the Tribune chase them to the ends they deserve?