Media companies cannot resist the necessary evolution of the model if they want to be successful, according to the brains behind a growing online news site.
The Texas Tribune is a non-partisan, non-profit media organization that promotes coverage of issues like public policy, politics and government. Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief, and Rodney Gibbs, chief innovation officer, spoke to students Wednesday as part of Mass Communication Week. Smith and Gibbs discussed the importance of journalists and news media evolving with technology.
Nov. 3 is the third anniversary of the Tribune’s launch. Smith said the Tribune’s mission is to produce dynamic, aggressive journalism about public policy and politics that is completely non-partisan. He said the discussion of those issues is the only way to reach solutions in a properly functioning democracy.
“When everybody in the for-profit press was saying, ‘We’ve stopped writing about this stuff because nobody cares,’ we knew better,” Smith said. “We knew they were exactly right, but they had it backwards. Nobody cares because they’ve stopped writing about it.”
Smith said while newspapers have to make money and satisfy shareholders, the Tribune asks for support from individuals, foundations and corporations. The Tribune will have raised $15 million by the end of 2012—$6 million more than anticipated. Smith said this was accomplished with a model that was untested in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Emily Lyons , mass communications graduate student, asked if the non-profit model for reporting will be popular nationwide. Smith said the base of wealth and number of billionaires in Texas are not present in other states. Accordingly, the Tribune’s model may not be replicated easily.
Smith said the most successful media companies are now using technology to create relationships with audiences, build their brand and present information in new ways.
“Any media company that is not self-defined as a technology company is headed for the graveyard,” Smith said.
Gibbs said the Tribune is “a technology company that has to deal with the news .” The Tribune is trying to find news ways to use technology to engage people wherever they are and predict the future of this form of journalism, he said.
Gibbs said the Tribune takes what might be “hard to understand, mind-numbing data” and presents it in a way that is comprehensible to the readers. The Tribune’s Public Schools Explorer, for example, combines records from all of Texas’ districts and public educational institutions into one easy-to-navigate database, he said.
Smith said data journalism means displaying information in a non-traditional, non-narrative fashion.
“It’s not just data for data’s sake,” Smith said. “It tells you something. It points you to more traditional narrative stories.”
The news media evolves with technology, and students need to adapt to the change, Smith said. He said today’s mass communications students are needed more than ever because data journalism is second nature to them.
Students must now have a set of what Smith described as Swiss Army knife-type skills, not just one area of expertise. He said the best job candidates are the ones who have a diversity of skills.
“Nobody gets within 100 feet of our door with the traditional ‘I want to be a writer’ attitude,” Smith said. “Build a time machine. Go back to Esquire of 1962. That’s where you’re going to get a job.”