Lessons From Launching The Texas Tribune and NPR StateImpact

PHILADELPHIA — I’m in Philly today and tomorrow to spend time with public radio news directors and the web staff at WHYY (which you may know as the station home of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air). We’re talking about digital strategy, how to improve their existing news site, Newsworks, and where public media is going.

Organizers were interested in how I spent the last three years of my life: launching a pair of digital news brands. Granted, this is not my trained area of expertise. My journalism experience is largely in broadcast television news, i.e. “Take a look at this downed tree in the driveway.” But because of great luck or horrible misfortune (depending on how you look at it), I was somehow involved with two launches of digital news brands between 2009 and 2011.

First, it was the startup news organization The Texas Tribune, and then in 2011, I was drafted by NPR to work as the digital editorial coordinator of its new state government reporting network, StateImpact. This called for hiring, training and editing 17 reporters as well as building out eight sites on a WordPress-powered multisite platform for stations around the country.

I boiled down some of the key things I learned for the presentation. The slides are below:

 

Links from the Presentation

News Erupts, and So Does a Web Debut The New York Times, David Carr

For The Texas Tribune, “Events Are Journalism” Nieman Journalism Lab, Andrew Phelps

Texas Tribune Databases Drive Majority of Site’s Traffic Poynter, Mallory Tenore

StateImpact Blog, NPR, Elise Hu, Matt Stiles, Danny DeBelius, Becky Lettenberger

A Guy Accuses The Texas Tribune of “Destroying Journalism,” I Disagree

A couple of days ago the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, featured a blogger named Stephen Robert Morse’s post in which he claims that a.) The Texas Tribune is destroying journalism and b.) Reporters are soft on donors. Some excerpts:

“It never dawned on me until I had a chance conversation with a reporter from The Austin Chronicle at South by Southwest who accused “The Trib,” as he called it, of creating an unfair playing field for journalists who work at for-profit news organizations in Texas … A TT insider, whose anonymity I will protect here, told me that because it is important for The Trib to maintain positive relations with donors, the organization rarely takes strong stances on issues.”

I left Morse a comment yesterday afternoon but it’s nearly 11am the next morning and it still awaits approval, so I’ll just share it here.
Continue reading “A Guy Accuses The Texas Tribune of “Destroying Journalism,” I Disagree”

The Texas Tribune Is

Sneak peek! Here’s my promo vid for the Texas Tribune, inspired by the latest iPad commercials on TV:

Tribunaversary

I just passed my one-year mark at the nonprofit news outfit The Texas Tribune, an experiment born from a simple idea: there’s no lack of good material to cover in Texas government, but fewer reporters keeping an eye on the action. A small team of us journalists from various news outlets jumped ship around the same time last fall, leaping into a newsroom environment we had to design and create from scratch. As I wrote last year, what sold me was that we would dedicate ourselves to civic engagement, explanatory and enterprise reporting, and using the tools of the social web to allow our users to be active in the ongoing political conversation in Texas.

We have survived – nay, thrived – and I couldn’t be more proud. My generous and indefatigable boss Evan knows much more about the metrics of our success. All I know is this year has felt like the longest of my life, but also the most journalistically rewarding.

I left my comfortable spot in a traditional television newsroom because I didn’t feel like I was growing to enter a place where I must constantly learn and re-learn and teach and stretch and reconfigure my previous paradigms and expectations. It hasn’t always been easy; there was the matter of having to run off in the middle of all of this to wed one of my formidable coworkers, and I’ve felt painfully lonely on occasion. No one else in the newsroom comes from a television background, and the melding of the species has felt quite extreme to me sometimes. But since we aren’t a newspaper, the old print models my ink-stained colleagues know well don’t exist here, either. I think we’ve managed to find that weird spot at the nexus of print and technology and broadcast to exist as we do today.

Since it’s an anniversary, it’s worth revisiting our mission to be “a non-profit, nonpartisan public media organization” that aims to “promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern.” This is why I believed in journalism in the first place. Since launching, I’ve been afforded the time and resources to innovate by creating entirely new story forms to engage audiences, but also to do the traditional kind of shoe leather journalism that prompted legislative hearings and sparked state audits and inquiries.  And even better, we’re now getting a lot of Texas voices to emerge from middle-management or the bowels of state agencies to tell their stories; they want to help expose inefficiencies or injustices to make Texas work better.

I don’t downplay the importance of what I was doing in TV or the work I continue to do for the Tribune’s 11 television station partners. But I realize that getting weighty, complicated stories that matter on the airwaves is a tough task, as resources continue getting cut back and allegiance to ratings mean we often play to the lowest common denominator.

Which brings me back to the non-profit part. The Tribune, unlike the places I used to work, is supported by readers and viewers like you. We’re non-profit by choice; we don’t want our stock value to influence the size of our staff or the kind of journalism we do. Non-profit news is not the only model in our ever fragmenting news ecosystem. But it is one path, and if you, like me, believe in journalism in its oldest tradition –  as a important function of democracy – and in its newest tradition – ever-changing with the way people communicate – please consider renewing your membership in the Tribune, or joining as a member for the first time. For students, it’s just $10 (and comes with a free t-shirt!). For you grownups, will you do it in the name of the greater good?

Support the Tribune

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

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Emerging from the Hole

Behind the Lens



Originally uploaded by thetexastribune

Spent birthday morning at a TribLive event. It was the third in our conversation series that features various political or policy movers and shakers in Texas. Because my job is now far more multi-faceted than before, I run the production end of TribLive instead of doing the interviewing.

After the events are over, we process them and put them up as full 40 minute videos and put them on our site, later we’ll put them on iTunes as podcasts.

It’s actually a fun change of pace, since I didn’t sit behind the camera before in TV, but love to shoot photos and video when I get the chance. Our intern, Caleb, caught a pic of me gesturing to Justin, who was on the second camera, to check with Todd, who was at the sound booth, on our levels.

Which brings me to the team. I said it yesterday at the fourth annual Hu-Moritz-Castro three-way birthday party and all say it again. Without the work of our all-around multimedia ninjas Todd and Justin, the Tribune’s multi-platform presence would be a shell of what it is. Many thanks, boys. Pleasure to haul around equipment, troubleshoot uploads and wildly gesture during TribLive events with you.

Breakfast Summits

We’re doing TT partnerships with TV stations all over the state and Wednesday is Waco liveshot day. After we’re done, photog Justin and I, plus our friend Reeve, meet for breakfast on the UT campus. It’s always a good time.

Emerging from the Hole

I’m not a parent, but I feel like a team of us at The Texas Tribune just birthed a baby. We launched early Tuesday morning, and to follow the metaphor, we know the hard work is just beginning.

Together, we worked 12 to 18 hour days for something like two and a half weeks straight. The developers were given 90 wireframes of designs and features to code, and only three to four weeks to code it. We didn’t outsource the work to Bangalore, and we are a site run on all custom systems – from our content management system, down to the widget all staffers have on their laptops in order to link stories to “TribWire”.

By the wee small hours of launch, my eyes looked like roadmaps, it was Tuesday but I thought it was Thursday, my emotional bandwith ran so low that I would start crying spontaneously, and all of us survived on food being brought in to us so we wouldn’t have to leave the building in order to eat.

I realized how removed from the world I became when someone told me there was a Michael Jackson documentary coming out, and I’d never heard of it before.

The site is now live, and the incredible response we collectively received from the national press and tech geeks and smarmy lobbyists and people who don’t even like politics has been enough to induce tears — this time, the happy kind. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked, but the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. We mean it when we say this has purpose.

Those of us who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism know Walter Williams’ creed well. It begins like this:

“I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.”

Ever since the day I graduated from college and started working in journalism, I’ve observed the slow whittling away of the public service part of what we do in order to meet the high stakes demands of turning a profit. Our founder, John Thornton, who started the Tribune as his personal form of philanthropy, decided that you can’t serve both God and mammon. That journalism plus business equals business, and in starting and being a non-profit-by-choice we can throw every dollar we raise straight back into the product and our mission – journalism that matters.

This whole experience has been nothing short of a series of small miracles. In my personal life, had this not come along, who knows what Stiles and I would have had to sacrifice in order to be in the same city. In my professional life, had the Tribune’s Evan Smith and Ross Ramsey not called, I may have wandered out of this craft that I love. On many, many fronts,  I am so grateful. We’re exhausted but exhilarated.

More than 1,000 people crowded an Austin bar last night to celebrate our coming out. I cried (again) when I saw my friends who I’ve missed seeing so much. Thank you a million, gazillion times for supporting this financially, intellectually and in spirit.

Finally, I think y’all know that part of the reason I love my new job so much is because I get to mess around a little and exercise creative freedom as much as there’s time in the day. Our site developers are so awesomely geeky that I used my little pocket Canon to catch some moments in the early morning hours before launch. That’s the video above. Here’s to the boys.

The Hole

Decided to title this post “The Hole” since it is both the multimedia room where I stow myself away and the vortex in the time-space continuum many of us at The Texas Tribune have disappeared into as we make our final push toward next Tuesday’s launch. Whoa. Next Tuesday is November 3rd. Conceptually, it’s tough to wrap my exhausted and excited mind around.

It’s a significant date because it’s launch day… the unveiling of the first iteration of what will be many versions of The Texas Tribune.  The goal is a rich, satisfying site full of context – which our founder will explain much, much better on day one.

I’ve never worked on a campaign. But a lot of commenters on our Facebook site have made that comparison. I guess we’re working for a cause (public service, the reason why we wanted to be journos in the first place) and toward a certain drop dead date (the aforementioned November 3rd), but perhaps the most apt similarities are the frenetic pace, sleeplessness of staff and piling up of food containers everywhere.  I took a picture of a typical end-of-a-working-weekend trash pile yesterday, but decided it was too gross to put up, even in this personal blog space.

I haven’t seen or talked to many of my closest friends in the past few weeks. So I’m really sorry, and I miss you. Also, a huge thank you to the friends who have already supported or are planning to support The Tribune in one way or another. This is a non-profit organization dependent on support from ‘viewers like you’, so it means a lot. Until we can come up for air, I’ll make better use of this cyberhole to communicate. Much, much more to come.

My Office

My first project for my new job, The Texas Tribune, was never assigned. The startup ethos in the newsroom is such that we’re free to go down the roads of interest to us, explore, and even fall on our faces should that happen. In this case — my teammates and bosses were great sports in just ‘going with it’, despite having little idea what I was doing.

Anyway, I thought it would be perfect, conceptually, to ‘introduce’ our team members by putting them in scenes straight out of NBC’s ‘The Office’ opening sequence. Thanks to some outdoor shooting help from my photog friend Justin (who almost got a ticket for riding on my back bumper while shooting an Austin City Limits sign off the side of a tollway), it actually turned out as I imagined it in my head.

The (Texas Tribune) Office from Elise Hu on Vimeo.

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“I found what I wanted. It was the aspiration to become a political news journalist. Let’s examine the facts.

a.) I love politics. I find it interesting and feel it is a field that takes a lot of work and critical thinking. I also like it because of the involvement of the people in the field.

b.) I love news and current events.

c.) I like to write about the news. Actually, I like to write about any interesting topic, and the news is constantly changing so I think it would be very interesting to write about.”

–Me, Mrs. Blackmore’s 7th grade Language Arts class, Age 12

Even after all these years, the a, b, and c remain the same. But I won’t be writing for broadcast anymore, at least not with the same regularity. After spending my entire adult life in television news, it’s my last day at an organization with “-TV” at the end of its name. It’s kinda weird to think about.

The strength of friendships forged in the field between TV reporters and photographers is unmatched, largely because we rely so heavily on one another to turn our news products. So I’ll miss my photographer friends the most, but hope that they will teach me as I start shooting and editing in my new capacity as a multi-platform journalist at Texas Tribune. My friend (and TV reporter idol) Otis put it well when he said, “The thing about TV news is that it is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. The pay stinks, the hours suck, and, more often than not, the reward for work well done is more work.”

A goodbye wave to TV News
A goodbye wave to TV News (photo by JL Watkins)

Still, I’m generally hopeful about television news’ future. I’m not leaving because there’s ‘no way to save  TV’. I just think it needs a serious gut check. My own experience at big broadcast companies has led me to worry these corporate behemoths might be systemically crippled from making the kinds of innovative and agile changes necessary to compete in this Web 2.0 world. In many ways they run like battleships, and the thing about battleships is that they take awhile to turn.

My hope is that leaders in the industry think beyond the next few years and consider the best ways to distribute a product for a smarter, more engaged and more discerning ‘next generation’ of news consumers. In the meantime, I’m grateful for ideas like Texas Tribune, which will dedicate itself to civic engagement, explanatory and enterprise reporting, and using the tools of the social web to allow our users to be active in the ongoing political conversation in Texas. As we consider the future, the Tribune model is as worthy as any other idea in trying to keep journalism alive.

My favorite mentor, Marty Haag, died in 2003 before he could see what’s happened to the world of television journalism in which he was a titan. I hope my decision to leave TV, but not leave journalism, won’t let him down. As he liked to say to his sons, who passed this on to me: “Just make a decision and move forward.”