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A Lively Political Press In A State Where Everything's Bigger

Texas reporters surround state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on Monday.
Todd Wiseman
Courtesy of Todd Wiseman
Texas reporters surround state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on Monday.

All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country. We take a closer look at the local journalists covering the coming changes, in this part of the series.

By the time Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis ended her 11-hour filibuster last week in the Lone Star State, more than 180,000 viewers were watching her efforts on a YouTube live stream made possible by a nonprofit news source, The Texas Tribune. As chaos broke out in the Senate gallery after the filibuster to block sweeping abortion restrictions ended, the live stream stopped. Social media lit up.

As the Wendy Davis drama met the social media moment, she became an overnight sensation. So, too, did the organization that made it possible for the world to watch her. Cable news outlets — and local TV in Texas, even — hadn't carried the filibuster live, so the interest in Davis convened around the Texas Tribune's stream.

"This was a truly transformational moment in Texas politics. We hadn't considered the possibility that by the transmission of this live stream it would become the national and international story that it did," Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith told the Columbia Journalism Review. In a post, he summed up the 3-year-old news startup's sudden global renown:

"A great many media organizations — among them The Dallas Morning News, Gawker, The Nation and Slate — piggybacked on our feed, and our ongoing posts from the six reporters we had at the Capitol were tweeted and retweeted all day and night. Speaking of Twitter, our cadre of followers grew by more than 30 percent in a single day, and praise came in from all corners in 140 characters or less. Best of all was [a] tweet from the president of the United States, which linked to our stream."

The Tribune is a new kind of animal in the state's political media ecosystem. And the state's political media ecosystem is itself a different kind of beast, teeming with a variety of voices intensely monitoring politics and government in the nation's second-largest state.

It's not necessarily bigger than the press corps in other mega-states like California and New York, but the Texas press corps is unique, political watchers say, because of the shape it's taking amid the state's recent, raging growth. Aside from the Tribune, there are influential blogs and newsletters, a regional magazine of national renown, an energetic public radio presence and newly arrived national correspondents stationed in Austin. And that doesn't even count the traditional newspaper and television presence. It doesn't hurt that Texans love reading about Texas — the notion of Texas exceptionalism, it seems, drives demand.

"Texas uniqueness and its self-conscious 'apartness' of Texas leads to more explicit and different coverage. You can't assume that what's happening in Texas happens in the same way everywhere else," says Joshua Trevino, a rabid news consumer and the vice president of communications for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank and advocacy organization in Austin.

"I lived in California for five years, and even there you couldn't generate interest — in sustained fashion — in the state. Here, there's a market for Texans talking about Texas."

The Texas Tribune tore into that market in 2009 as an experiment in niche-focused, nonprofit digital news. (Disclosure: This reporter was part of the launch and the Tribune's first year.) Content is offered for free across digital platforms, coverage zeroes in on public policy and politics, and the organization collaborates with other news outlets, like The New York Times and major television stations that run its content. It's funded not by subscriptions or advertisements in print pages — the Tribune doesn't have its own pages, after all — but instead by corporate sponsorships, foundations and public support.

While it introduced itself to a national audience last week, the Tribune had already injected some energy into state reporting ranks that had dwindled in the aughts.

"What we needed was dramatic reform and new infrastructure," says Jason Stanford, a former journalist turned Democratic political consultant. "Texas Tribune forced quick [digital] adaption."

In the latter half of the last decade, the state's major metro dailies like the Houston Chronicle and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram began buying out, laying off or otherwise saying farewell to its longtime Capitol watchdogs. That decline has not reversed itself, and probably won't, but Texas Capitol watchers say the sheer presence of a new competitor has helped keep numbers from dropping further.

"There's a major uptick in energy," says Richard Parker, a Central Texas-based media critic at the Columbia Journalism Review. In 2011, Reuters hired its first Austin-based national correspondent. Bloomberg also added an Austin-based legislative reporter. The Star-Telegram, which had closed its bureau, rehired its former bureau chief for the session. The Dallas Morning News, unlike the other dailies, maintained its staff of fulltime capitol watchdogs during the recession and it is planning to enhance its Austin bureau with a fellow, who starts this fall.

"I do think that the Trib has forced people to pay more attention. And the organizations that made a decision not to collaborate with the Tribune, they've had to take steps to be competitive. That's a beneficial side effect of the Trib just being present," Parker says.

Outside Agitators

While they're not traditional journalism organizations, advocacy groups have also discovered that they can drive conversations under the Capitol dome by using social media and blogging to turn the pressure on lawmakers. Regular readership of blogs by the Tea Party-aligned Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, led by libertarian Michael Quinn Sullivan, may hover in the four digits, but Sullivan gets a reaction.

"Sullivan actually moves the needle legislatively, and can have a bill reconsidered when he tweets something about it. Editorial boards once could do that," says Harvey Kronberg, who heads The Quorum Report, a longtime newsletter for Texas political junkies.

Sullivan's sites — Empower Texans and AgendaWise (whose motto is "Turn Texas Redder") — surface policy arguments or call out lawmakers for being not sufficiently conservative.

"The only election that still counts in Texas is the Republican primary," says Kronberg, who says that's where Sullivan's advocacy shows its strength. "Sullivan's biggest scalp is [Lt. Gov. David] Dewhurst losing to [now U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz."

Advocacy organization blogs can also drive coverage on Texas-based talk radio. And that kind of connection to conservative base voters makes Republican lawmakers pay attention.

Establishment Strength

In Texas, the establishment outlets — even if they're new establishment, like the Tribune — remain the main sources of news. Between newsletters for political insiders like The Quorum Report, whose electronic presence is blasting out emails to its loyal subscribers, and the award-winning Texas Monthly magazine professional journalists (insomuch as they're paid for producing content) remain the dominant information sources.

"In other states, I see them fighting paper to paper in a way that doesn't reflect a cohesive ecosystem," says Stanford, who is based in Austin but works in several Southern and Midwestern states.

"They don't have the community of news we have here. We all seem to come together over The Texas Tribune, even the competitors. They're not competing as much as they're each doing what they do best. It's more interesting, it's a more vibrant news culture now. There's more community because there's less duplication of effort."

The Austin American-Statesman and The Dallas Morning News, for example, have sought to set themselves apart with investment in long-form investigations, an area that the Tribune created space for by owning day-to-day political coverage.

Morning News Editor-in-Chief Bob Mong says the paper not only does strong investigative work, but continues to excel in political beat reporting. He calls the paper's veteran writer Wayne Slater "the most respected political reporter in Texas."

Room For Improvement

But opportunities for improvement remain. Progressives long for another Molly Ivins, whose sharp-witted and brassy takes on the blood sport of Texas politics have yet to be replicated. And it's not just progressives hurting for stronger columnists. "We don't have someone calling balls and strikes here," says Stanford. He cites bigfoot state political columnists in smaller states — like Jon Ralston in Nevada or John Brummett in Arkansas.

"Not just ticky-tacky fact checking, but are you really telling the truth? That's what a columnist can do that no one else can do. We don't have that."

Observers also see an opportunity for non-English news in a state experiencing rapid growth in its Hispanic population. The rise of the Spanish-speaking audience calls for a robust Spanish-language press to match it.

"I think that Texas and other places with large Hispanic populations like New York, California, you've never seen Spanish-language media really develop into a full spectrum of robust news and commentary. I am hoping that Texas develops that niche," says Trevino. "The media and the institutions are lagging indicators of [rapid growth]. The population is going to precede the newspaper rather than vice versa. Demographic change won't be reflected in media institutions until later in this decade."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 8, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original post included The Dallas Morning News as one of the regional dailies that had severely cut Austin-based staff during the recession. The paper lost only one full time employee, and this post has been updated to reflect that.
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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