Speech to APRA at their convention in Austin this week. (Copyright 2011 Ross Ramsey)
I looked through your Schedule at a Glance. I wanted to see what color I was — what color this session was going to be. Nothing. I didn’t have a color. I didn’t have the Hot Topic Indicator. I wasn’t even in the Schedule at a Glance. So I should thank you, I suppose, for choosing this over sitting next to the pool. Of course, it’s also 300 degrees out there.
The Texas Tribune is a three-track experiment. Journalism. Technology. Business model. And we’re very open about everything that isn’t secret. We won’t tell you what we’re working on at any given moment. Most of that is competitive — we don’t want to give our stories away to our rivals before we can pull it together ourselves for our own audience. The idea started with the journalism, and with what we wanted to do. That is far and away our primary interest and the primary interest of our audience and our patrons and supporters. It’s the idea that journalism is important. It’s important to me because I’m a journalist. It pays my mortgage. When I was young and in school, I had jobs in pizza places, fast food restaurants, a liquor store, convenience stores, construction, digging sprinkler systems in the rocky ground in El Paso, and over one notable summer, I was the operator of a waxing machine in a cardboard box factory. Journalism is easier, and I like it for that. But mostly I like it because I think it’s cool to be in a business that on its good days is really good for people. You can’t have a functioning democracy if the people who ultimately make the decisions — the voters — don’t have good information. Part of our role is to tell you what’s going on. Part of it is a watchdog role. There are the things you do when your mother is not watching and the things that you do when she is. To torture the comparison a bit, we function as your mother’s eyes. Governors are less likely to try to sell appointments. Congressmen are less likely to twitter their tender vittles. We even catch each other sometimes. The news scandal over phone hacking in England was broken by a newspaper, including the part about the police being somewhat complicit in the illegal phone-tapping, at least to this extent: The reporters at The Guardian kept working while the police ignored 11,000 pages of records that were sitting in trash bags in the evidence room at Scotland Yard for years. Watchdogs need watchdogs need watchdogs. The added benefit is that some of this stuff is incredibly fun to read, to learn, to uncover. Civics turns out not to be nearly as boring as they made it in high school and in college. It’s real people doing real stuff.
And in this country, we designed our government as open-source software. It’s designed to be tampered with, to be amended, improved, reformed, redone, remodeled, retooled, torn down, built up. Folded, spindled and mutilated. It’s a hackable system, and it’s built to encourage hackers. Come and tinker. Run for office and do it from inside. Petition your lawmakers and regulators from outside. Hire a lobbyist. Become a lobbyist. Work on campaigns to help your friends and deny your enemies.
Another way to think of it is as a big decision box. Send in a problem, get a solution. Eventually. Sometimes. All without making a fist. You don’t have to shoot someone or burn down their house or form a conspiracy to make changes. We’ve taken most of the violence out. You don’t have to kill anybody to take power. Just raise enough votes and you get in without guns or swords or horses or elephants.
The whole thing turns on information. It turns on research. It turns on putting together particular kinds of research, building context and having those things in place at the moments when decisions are made.
Professionals are better at it than the general public, and they always have been. The royal court might have been replaced by the lobby, but it’s the same thing as always. Relationships and information.
What we’re here to do is even it up some, to give people who aren’t here all of the time the tools to compete with the people who are. Everybody keeps everybody else from over-reaching, from taking too much advantage, from cheating.
They have to have information, and from my seat, they have to have journalism.
That’s the first piece.
The second problem — technology — was easy to understand and somewhat harder to execute. How to deliver that information? Part of the answer to that is technological. We decided that this is not the time to buy a printing press, a fleet of trucks, and an army of 12-year-olds on bicycles who’ve got good enough throwing arms to put a three-pound paper somewhere near the front door every day.
My 15-year-old daughter, with her TV, laptop and phone always on and ready, isn’t going to get her news off the porch. Neither, probably, do most of you. There’s a newsstand in your pocket, or your briefcase. We’ve moved from cleaning ink off our fingers to constantly wiping our fingerprints off of our screens.
And the technology makes something else possible. When you’re in the newspaper business, the joke is that today’s paper trains tomorrow’s puppies, or ends up in the bottom of a birdcage or wrapped around a fish. It isn’t permanent. Information — news — still has that quality of a river flowing by. Some things are only important for a little bit. Scores of routine games. Daily stock prices. Legislative votes. Jokes.
But the Internet allows everyone to have access to something that used to belong to certain types of elites at libraries and newspapers and other places where they regularly pile paper and books and such. It’s the stacks, the bookshelves, the microfilms, the “morgues” where newspapers collect all of their clips. The things that I wrote at the beginning of my career, in radio, are gone. Written, read, trashed. Then there is a period what I wrote, some of it, is still around. But it’s in boxes of moldering paper that might never get opened again. And then there’s the stuff starting that’s was slowly and then methodically piling up in electronic bins. Someone asked a question recently and within three minutes I had my mitts on a story I wrote about Ann Richards in the 1990 race for governor of Texas.
So there’s a database of stories. Information starts to become permanent in some ways.
And a kind of information that used to be used as source material — again, mostly by elites — is now available any time, any place. Court records, deed records, campaign finance, elections, legislative histories, the scores of all the ball games, the lists of serial numbers that can tell you what year that saxophone was built, the operating manual for the indestructible sewing machine your mother left when she died. You can get most of that quickly, and in the middle of the night, from anyplace with electricity.
Some of it, you have to pay for. You can get everyone’s 990 tax forms, but you have to subscribe to Guidestar or go to the IRS and find it yourself. Some of it is available but in unfriendly ways. And some of it isn’t available but can be. An example: Public employee salaries are public information in Texas and many other states, but you have to ask for it. You often have to pay for it. And you have to ask for it again, periodically, because it’s part of a changing database. There are all sorts of things like that. Who’s in which prison and for what and for how long? Where are the red light cameras and how much money does each of them make? Where do legislators make their money, and what do they own, and does that conflict with what they’re doing in their official capacities?
One way we’ve used technology is to pull together databases of that kind of information, putting public information where the public can get to it, easily, without messing with bureaucracies, without paying for clerks to go pull it off of the shelves for them.
This session, with a grant, we transcribed everything said on the floor of the House and of the Senate in Texas and put it online within a very few days for legal and political and legislative researchers, and the curious, to pore over. It’s searchable. It’s hard to imagine the person who’ll use that all the time, but it’s easy to imagine needing it once in a while — maybe even needing it urgently once in a while.
We put all of the bills online in searchable form. We lifted an idea from The New York Times and put together an online software widget that let people figure out how to cut spending, raise taxes, and fiddle with the numbers to try to balance a busted state budget.
News isn’t the only form of journalism. Data is journalism, too, if you’re putting it together in a way that allows people to better understand how their world works. It’s another tool for the hackers: Tell them what’s going on today, like journalists always have, but give them access to some of the tools journalists and others have used to assemble that information. Let them see for themselves.
Technology is also our delivery system and a very critical part of our newsgathering. Social media, email, rss feeds and other channels are important for getting our stuff out — telling our friends and audience what’s on the Tribune. But also for listening to that audience and getting feedback and news tips and stories from there. A lot of people on the Internet are pinheads — the modern-day equivalents of the trolls and ogres in the stories told by the Brothers Grimm. But there’s a vibrant community out there, too. They know stuff. Email and Facebook and Twitter have all but killed the stacks of mail that used to come into the newsroom. We read other papers and watch TV and hear radio reports online, too. It’s a developing experiment.
And then we have the third leg of this adventure. We didn’t really set out to create a new business model. We set out to do journalism and the business model is simply our answer to the question: This is all very interesting, but how are we going to pay for it? We don’t rely on the traditional commercial mix of display ads, classifieds and subscriptions. We simply didn’t think that would work for us. To make a long story short, we decided to make it a non-profit delivering a public good — that public good being the news and information it takes to operate a democracy, to complete the feedback loop that starts with an election, lets the voters monitor what’s going on and to tell them how it works so that when they go vote again, they’ll do so with enough information to make good decisions. Smarter voters, better state.
We ask foundations and wealthy people for money. We seek grants that are in line with our mission. We ask our audience for contributions. We have corporate sponsors, both for the website and for events that we put on, interviewing newsmakers and policy and political people on a variety of subjects in a variety of places for anyone who wants to come. We charge for some of those things, offer many more of them for free, and squeeze every single one of those events for information — for the journalism that is our main dish. The idea is that a live event can be just as effective for delivering journalism as a laptop computer. We sell subscriptions to premium publications, later moving that information from behind the pay wall for everyone else. When we were thinking about this, we talked about syndicating our stories — selling them to papers and other outlets that wanted Texas political and government news they weren’t getting from other sources. But we decided not to do that and instead, we created the Abby Hoffman button — Steal This Story — on everything we write. It’s the republish button and it explains the simple rules — give us credit, don’t edit errors into the stories, and so on — for using our work. That helps us in two ways, getting our work out to a wide audience that needs and wants the information, and also getting our name out to an audience all over the state. Some will become supporters. Some will be tipsters. Some won’t do anything except know more about their state and their government. And we have a collaboration with The New York Times now, putting together two pages of news on Fridays and Sundays for the papers they deliver in Texas and for their website, as well as ours.
Let’s talk about the news business, or what you would probably call the information business.
It’s not enough to just tell people what happened today. You have to also tell them why you’re telling them. What it means. How it fits in with everything else. Part of the job is to stitch things together in a way that makes them understandable without skewing them ideologically. That’s context. Then you have to apply what you know about the system you’re covering, whether it’s politics or space travel or war or business or culture or religion or whatever. Tell them how things might go from here, why certain people behaved and can be expected to behave. What might happen. What might not. That’s analysis. And then you have to give them the tools to go off on their own, to gather their own information, to put what they find into context, to turn what they know into analysis. News is not enough: People need context, analysis, and access to the informational building blocks — databases, maps, charts, graphs, numbers, reports, source material — to pull together their own understanding of the world or some small part of it.
This is where our work intersects with yours in some ways. Gathering news requires some skill. So does research. But context and analysis require skill and brains, and improve as you gain experience. It’s why organizations send good people to trade conferences, to add to their skills so that the work begins to synthesize, to mean something, to become the kind of informed and valuable source of knowledge — not just news — that separates really great thinking from a mere stream of fact and information.
What we have done in recent history is to try to guide our audience to our newspapers or TV stations or radio stations for all of their news. That’s over. People get news from everyplace, and part of our job is to help them gather it, to pull it together — whether it starts with us or someone else — to pull it together in a meaningful way. We still want to be their first choice, but we realize that the information diet has changed. We’re not necessarily the whole meal, but we want to be one of their staples.
If we’re not going to be the only thing, we want to be an indispensible thing. And we think we’re in an important space — that what we’re doing has value to our audience beyond some intangible desire to do something good. The shrinking news business is alarming to us, sure, but it’s also worrisome to people who think that our section of the feedback loop is a critical part of the system. That’s the value proposition. It turns out that people give to us who don’t necessarily benefit from it in the short term, or directly. We disclose, within our stories, when we’ve received significant contributions from people or entities covered in those stories. Those are often stories that the donors would probably rather not see online, but we’ve never heard a peep about it. The people who might raise their eyebrows about what we’re doing get an answer right there while they’re reading. They can judge for themselves. It’s important that we do that, to avoid conflicts and apparent conflicts. It’s also important because it gives the audience confidence in what we’re doing. We’re trying to increase understanding of the things we cover. We’re not hiding the ball, and when there’s something you ought to know about our relationships, it’s right there in the open.
Let’s talk about craft. Some of us gather information from inert sources: papers, reports, databases, and so on. Some of us gather it from people. And most of us gather it from a combination of the two. At the Tribune, we’re trying to gather information just like you’d think. But we’re also trying to be a source of information. That stack of databases and documents and maps and story archives sits, always, on the Internet. It’s there when you need it. You might not need to know just this minute how many prisoners there are in the Stiles Unit of the Texas prison system. But it’ll be there, ready to use, when you need it. You might not care about the third candidate in that race for the state Legislature in 2008 until she pops up on your radar for some other reason, in some other context, two years later. It’s there.
We get most of our information by talking to people. You get good at it. You become comfortable asking questions. Everybody has a different way of doing it, but you find something that works for you and go with it. When you’re covering government and politics, you’re often writing about people who’ve decided to play in public spaces. That’s a cat and mouse game where everyone has some level of skill and experience. But there’s the regular public, too, and the idea of what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds is sometimes different. A legislator is accustomed to and has accepted certain invasions of privacy and it’s not just us — it’s the people who stop them on the canned soup aisle in the grocery store to talk about tax bills and such. But staffers to those legislators haven’t necessarily opened their doors to that. The people here to petition their government for this thing or that one haven’t necessarily opened their doors. You have to be sensitive and discerning, to decide what’s important and necessary and what’s just plain nosy.
We do a lot of our work on the line between public and private. There ought to be a couple of rules.
• Public information ought to be available in a form and in a place where the public can easily get to it. It’s not open if it’s not accessible.
• Information ought to be available to people without forcing them to reveal themselves. You shouldn’t have to tell people what you’re doing or what you’re working on just to get to something that’s supposed to be available to anyone for any reason.
This can get weird. Lots of people, it turns out, don’t know that the salaries of public employees in Texas are public records. Lots of people, it turns out, like to Google their own names to see what pops up. Some of them call us in a state of agitation when their Googling pops up their salaries. One woman called and asked me to pull her information down until after her high school reunion. We didn’t, and she was actually making a nice salary, but I was empathetic.
It gets weird in other ways. A lot of what’s public about people is public because they made it so, or they didn’t read the instructions. It’s astonishing what some people reveal on sites like Facebook. It’s alarming when it comes up out of context. It’s great to share information with your closest friends, but it’s uncomfortable when everyone in the break room at work knows what you were saying or doing.
What’s going too far? You never know. Sex stories used to be mostly out of bounds. Then Bill Clinton happened. This week, U.S. Rep. David Wu announced he’d resign amid allegations he made unwanted advances on the teenage daughter of a donor, a story broken by his hometown paper, which also published similar allegations in 2004 about an assault when he was in college.
Now, of course, you probably can find any story on the Internet that you can’t find in the mainstream media. Monica Lewinsky’s story started in the tabloids and then into the mainstream. That provenance leaves it to the audience to decide what’s credible and what’s not, and raises the value of organizations and people who can reliably and responsibly put things in context, analyze and provide the source materials for further research.
Journalists have this advantage over other information gatherers: There’s no real restraint on what we’ll ask. An editor with some rumors about his past held a newsroom meeting on his first day at the Dallas Times Herald, where I used to work. He spoke for a bit and then told us we could ask him anything. “Are the rumors that you’ve got problems with cocaine true?”
It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but it makes it easier to get your research done, to get to the point. Sometimes people are remarkably open about it. A reporter at that same paper was great at getting crime stories and at talking to the families and friends of dead people and other victims. An editor had a question about something she was working on and found her, at the kitchen table with the family of the person she was writing about. They wanted to tell their story.
That said, transparency takes you into an area where people are either naked or uncomfortably close. Each of us has to decide whether and when to shine the lights and show everyone else. And there’s always going to be some level of discomfort around that.
The technologies have changed, and the speed has changed, and the ability to pull things together has become almost trivial. But something that’s always been important is still central. News is interesting and important, but knowledge is more powerful. And if you’re able to stitch things together, put them in context, analyze them and then allow others access to the tools and fundamental building blocks of information, we’ll all be better off.
Copyright 2011 Ross Ramsey