Texas Tribune Shows Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean Non-Growth

There are plenty of bad-news stories in the media industry, so it’s nice to hear from a company that is not only beating its revenue and traffic targets, but seeing what it calls “hockey stick” growth. The Texas Tribune, an independent non-profit publisher based in Austin whose focus is on public-service journalism, turned one year old yesterday. CEO and co-founder Evan Smith says the Tribune has exceeded almost all of its targets, despite the fact that it didn’t really have a road map of what to expect. In a blog post on the anniversary, he said the startup was “humbled and energized and elated and tired.”

“It’s important to note that we more or less made all this up as we went,” Smith, a former editor of Texas Monthly magazine, said in an interview with me on Tuesday. “The world of online non-profit journalism isn’t really very big — there was no real playbook to follow.” Among the small group of similar startups are ProPublica, a non-profit that does investigative journalism, in many cases in partnership with existing media entities, and MinnPost.com, a non-profit in Minnesota.

Some of the questions the Tribune didn’t really know the answer to before it started, Smith says, were: “How much money could we raise? How much traffic would we have by December 2010? How much should we charge corporate sponsors? All that stuff we more or less made up.” As it turns out, “we were right much more than we were wrong, thankfully.” In particular, the company exceeded its fundraising goal by the end of last year — it raised almost $4 million — and is on track to beat its goal for this year as well.

When it comes to traffic, the Tribune has also beaten its internal expectations by a wide margin, the CEO says — the site hit its traffic goal for the year in February, when it topped 150,000 monthly unique visitors. By the end of the year, Smith says he expects to double that number and get about 3 million monthly pageviews, and traffic continues to grow rapidly. “It is hockey-sticking,” he said. “I don’t think we have even scratched the surface, frankly.” The Tribune co-founder said he expects the site is outgrowing most of the mainstream media in the state.

Tribune CEO Evan Smith

The Tribune launched last November as an ambitious experiment in covering a state from one end to the other, and in depth — not just quick-hit news items, but longer, more research-oriented stories about important public issues, the kind of thing that many newspapers lack the resources to do as a result of cutbacks and losses. Co-founder John Thornton, a venture capitalist with an interest in public issues, put $1 million of his own money into the company and also helped raise a total of $3.6 million by the time the site launched, from both individual and corporate donors, as well as several charitable foundations.

The company now has 26 full-time employees, Smith said, and half of those are reporters. The startup’s journalists now make up more than one-third of the entire state capitol press corps, a sign of how much cutting there has been at mainstream media outlets. The Tribune also doesn’t just rely on sponsorships and donors, the CEO says — it also has a growing live-events business and also syndicates its content, including through a recent partnership with the New York Times.

So if growth has been easier than expected, what has been harder than the company expected? Smith said building up a membership of donors — like any non-profit entity must — has been difficult, and in particular “getting existing members to renew and getting new members has been harder than we thought it would be. We haven’t done as much there as I think we should.” The site has about 1,800 individual member/donors, the Tribune CEO said, and a goal of having more than 2,000 by the beginning of next year. The site has done better with corporate sponsors, he says, and now has more than 124 — and 95 percent of those who signed on for the first year have renewed.

Embedded below is part of a video interview Evan Smith did with MediaBistro:


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