OCTOBER 18, 2018

Episode 30 – Keeping Journalism Accountable

John Thornton from Texas Tribune and John Garrett from Community Impact Newspaper

This week, we sit down with John Thornton and John Garrett. John Thornton has an extensive background in early-stage software investment, and nonprofit journalism. He founded the Texas Tribune 10 years ago, which won a Peabody Award in 2017, and is now the nation’s largest statewide news organization. John Garrett is the founder and CEO of Community Impact Newspaper. He founded the paper with his wife in 2005, and it now distributes 2 million monthly newspapers to the Austin, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix metro areas. In the episode, we tackle integrity and accountability in media and journalism. Listen now!

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hi, my name is Lisa Graham, and I’m excited to welcome you to today’s episode of the Change The Rules podcast. I have my co-host Dan Graham with me, and today we have John Thornton and John Garrett in the studio. John Thornton has an extensive background in early stage software investment and nonprofit journalism. He founded The Texas Tribune 10 years ago, which won a Peabody award in 2017 and is now the nation’s largest statewide news organization. John Garrett is the Founder and CEO of Community Impact Newspaper. He founded the paper with his wife in 2005 and it now distributes 2 million monthly newspapers to the Austin, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix Metro areas. Thank you guys for being here.
Lisa Graham (00:41):
I would love to hear how each of your backgrounds led you into publishing.
John Garrett (00:49):
I started my career at the Houston Chronicle during kind of the glory days of the newspaper business in the late nineties. And I just loved it. I was always on the business side. So I started as an ad assistant and learned right away how important small businesses were. I had some great small business clients and just loved it. But I just moved up fast. I learned the distribution business on the mail side, working with large grocers and figuring out how to do targeting. And we were doing some pretty advanced stuff then. The Houston Chronicle was really known for their targeting. But my wife and I both grew up here and we wanted to come back. And so I took a job at the Austin Business Journal as the Advertising Director there and my first management job at 25. I learned a lot about people and building a team, but living north of Austin. You know, Austin has two cities.
John Garrett (01:40):
It’s kind of like eight cities now, but back then it was North and South. And we felt like North side deserved more content. We had community newspapers there, but we felt like there was something missing. Something like a business journal, you know? Development news, local business type stuff, stuff that we thought was kind of smart news. And so left the Austin Business Journal to start Community Impact in the game room of our house. And here we are now with 200 employees strong, starting to do our national growth effort, which we’re really excited about and so we’ll see how that goes.
Dan Graham (02:14):
In an age where print media is on the decline, everyone’s worried what’s going to happen to our media, Community Impact is thriving, growing, scaling, and doing so well. Was there a master plan or opportunity you saw that you went in and took to become kind of your own entrepreneur there?
John Garrett (02:35):
No master plan. We were talking earlier about how some newspaper companies have just, they’re kind of just self-destructing. I used to try to defend the newspaper business, you know, like, well, no, it’s important what we’re doing, which it is it’s so important we’re doing. But now as media consolidation has happened, the self-destruction has just gotten worse. And so the holes, the local journalism holes have gotten bigger. So we just started going into new markets. And the latest one, for example, out in Phoenix, there’s actually pretty good local community journalism play there. There’s a lot of great local companies that are there. But our style of news is a little different, you know? We’re not writing about Johnny kicking the winning field goal. We really are trying to write about things that really impact your life, that’s useful to you, and help you connect to the community.
John Garrett (03:21):
And so there was no master plan for sure. I was not smart enough for that. But we’ve just been able to find a new opportunity and our last two newspaper launches have actually been some of our most successful in company history. And to your point, Dan, it’s print advertising. So, you know, we always say print ain’t dead. But the numbers demonstrate that there’s a need for what we do. And, certainly we hear from the readers that they value what we do. So we’re gonna just going to keep doing it. As long as we can, we’re going to keep doing it.
Lisa Graham (03:52):
Great. And John Thornton, what did your journey look like?
John Thornton (03:58):
Mine was not quite such a straight line. I had a day job in 2008, which was a Managing Partner of a good sized venture capital firm, Austin Ventures, which at the time was the largest venture firm off the coasts. We historically had, relative to our sort of peer venture firms, the ones we thought of as comparable and sometimes competitive, had been underweight medium in terms of our investment strategy. And so, one of the things that I thought it might not be a bad idea to do was just make sure that if we were going to be contrarian, that we were being purposely contrarian, as opposed to just accidentally or lazy or whatever. And so we sort of dove in and decided pretty quickly. Looked at news-related things, other media related properties, both startups and existing, including…
John Thornton (04:55):
And remember, this was just about the time that distressed newspaper properties were first coming on on the market. So we looked at all that stuff and decided as a firm pretty quickly that we were just fine being underweight. Uh, and if anything, we were overweight relative where we wanted to be. Just not for us. Uh, my conclusion personally was yes. And yes, this is not a very good business. And it looks like a real market failure as it relates to civic news and civic information. And so that was sort of where the light bulb went on that this needed further investigation. I’m an obsessive personality. That’s what sort of birthed the Tribune.
Dan Graham (05:40):
If if it had come across your desk at Austin Ventures, would you have recommended an investment in Community Impact?
John Thornton (05:50):
Never. Never. Are you kidding? Never in a thousand years. I can’t imagine that there’s another company that has been established in the time that you’ve been going that is as big or has grown as fast or even close. I mean, I can’t name one that’s even in the same ballpark, so no. Community Impact would have gone on the list of other venture investments I missed like, um, when I told Travis Kalanick that nobody was going to give him any money until he got the taxi regulation figured out. And what was the other one? Oh, when the semiconductor CEO we were meeting with, he was selling chips to Apple. This was pre iPhone. And I very credulously asked who on God’s earth would ever want to take a picture with their cell phone. So, John would have been in good company having been passed on by me.
Lisa Graham (07:04):
Can you, John Garrett, talk about, and I’d like to hear from both of you, how does your model differ from a more traditional model of delivering the news and print media?
John Garrett (07:15):
I think we’re more of the future of community newspaper journalism in that obviously we’re monthly so less frequent, and you’re starting to see that. But the problem is a lot of these legacy news organizations are caught in legacy issue traps. They can’t just do what we do. So we’ve kind of found a way from a frequency standpoint to kind of take advantage of the market that’s there and still fill the need for the news. How we are different also is our approach to news. So we focus on really five focus areas – local business, local government, transportation, healthcare, as well as non-profit. What’s going on on the community side. We’re not doing school sports, you know. We’re not doing those kinds of things that are very costly to do.
John Garrett (08:05):
There’s interest. Usually though, it’s mom and dad and uncle that do want to cut the picture of Johnny and put it on the refrigerator. There’s a need for that. But we’ve been able to really focus in on these core things. And plus, you know, being monthly, we’re able to take a deep dive. Do some smart, deep journalism on topics that sometimes are hard to understand, like city planning, transportation projects. It gives us a great opportunity to do great design and infographics. And so we really invest heavily in infographics. A lot of newspapers now are doing consolidation of production here in Austin. In fact, Gatehouse has a big center for news and design that they do over 200 local papers here in Austin. But we don’t approach it like that.
John Garrett (08:50):
We have a designer for every one of our papers, because we feel like in this time, we learn from design. Like we don’t read as much, generally speaking, as a society. We’re busy. So if we can invest in quality infographics that explain complex issues, we believe, and it’s demonstrated, that people will look at it and read it and pay attention to it. So we really focus on design. Our distribution is different as well. We’re calling it now inclusive journalism. Like we go to every home. Everybody gets a paper, regardless of your income, or what your education looks like. We feel like everyone deserves to know what’s going on in their own backyard. And so we’re excited about that. And it’s remarkable, you know, we’ve found in Central Austin, very liberal, more blue than red. The readers really love us in Central Austin and in Williamson County, generally more red in terms of conservative readers. They love us too. So we found a way to kind of keep trust in our brand and our product with our content even with our growth.
Dan Graham (09:49):
Do you find your different papers calling each other fake news?
John Garrett (09:54):
No, they don’t. I love that. I mean, it’s been unbelievable. The Texas Tribune has demonstrated a true nonpartisan voice is actually really respected and wanted and needed more than ever. And we’re covering local elections, I think, better than anybody. But we’re not endorsing candidates. We’re not endorsing issues. And what we found is that people like that. The days of the newspaper editorial board, in my view, being smarter than the average reader, those days are over. And we don’t need an editorial person behind a glass wall who’s smarter than us telling us how to vote. We just need the information. And so that’s been our approach.
Dan Graham (10:43):
As an entrepreneur, I think the most confusing thing to me is given your success and the scale that you’re seeing as opportunity in front of you, why aren’t other companies doing this? What’s your barrier to entry? How has this opportunity existed out there for you, even though you’re in plain sight?
John Garrett (11:04):
There are copycats. But they don’t do it right. There’s always something.
Speaker 6 (11:10):
First entrepreneur in history that’s ever said that. “There are copycats. They just suck.”
John Garrett (11:27):
Truett Cathy, though, did say that he was always worried about people copying him. He’s like, how hard is it to copy a chicken sandwich? Well, it’s really hard to copy Chick-fil-A. In and Out Burger is the same thing, right? Like some of these, we consider ourselves kind of this evergreen company. We really want to build a great hundred-year company, if we can. We just had a big conference where all 200 of our employees came in, and if you were in that room, like our salespeople, our reporters, our designers are excited about our product. That’s really hard to find. The newsroom is excited. The sales team is excited. You know, you guys saw this building your company. I mean, there’s a point where you just, there’s something special happening, you know, in the company. And I think that that is the gas that’s keeping us going. If our product is the solution, I’m sure somebody else will figure out some of our recipes, but that’s good. That’s good for local journalism. Like, we don’t have to own every market. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep going until there’s not a need for us, but we feel like what we’ve built is really unique.
Dan Graham (12:32):
Like Phoenix, which is the natural next place after Dallas. How did you decide Phoenix?
John Garrett (12:36):
Yeah, everyone’s always asking me that. So, you know, first of all, we looked at several cities and we’re going to go to other cities. We have a five-year plan and we’re going to be growing nationally. But the reason we went to Phoenix first is that we asked our staff like, who wants to go to these cities? And we had two of our very best that said they wanted to go to Phoenix. And for us to be able to put CI’s DNA in Phoenix.
John Garrett (13:11):
So, it was really just about, you know, the market itself was right. We’re actually in Gilbert, Arizona to start, which is a suburb outside of Phoenix. And it’s bigger than the city of Round Rock. It’s got a great local business community. And we feel like there’s a lot of growth. A lot of development. We feel like there’s a need for us. And so we’re going to do it. And, listen, of all the three metros that we’ve launched Austin-Houston-Dallas, Phoenix was our largest Metro launch in terms of revenue in our company’s history in 2018. So, I’m really proud of that.
Lisa Graham (13:55):
That’s incredible. And John Thornton, I’d love to hear too about the Tribune. What does your model look like in comparison? Because I know it’s also very different than Community Impact.
John Thornton (14:08):
Yeah. I think one of the reasons I started the Tribune was because there aren’t very many John Garretts in the world. If you think about, kind of the post broadcast history of local news, it really has been dominated by newspapers. And newspapers, even to the extent that broadcaster is important or public radio is important. And even national news is important. Local newspapers have been the feeder for all of those distribution outlets to stories that are broken by local newspapers certainly since World War II. And so what happened around the 1960s was the appearance on the scene, not unlike tech world circa 1999, people figured out you could take these things public. And so beginning in the sixties, newspaper companies began to be publicly traded. And began to be just from a balance sheet standpoint, less John Garrett, less sort of enlightened family ownership, and less long-term thinking, and more public company. Fast forward to today, hedge funds. And all kinds of exclusively financially motivated owners and exclusively, in many cases, increasing number of cases of short term, financially oriented owners.
John Thornton (15:33):
So we looked at landscape in 2008 and just said, gosh, that’s probably not great for the civic information needs of communities. That’s probably not great for what I believe is where the political center lives, which is in local news. It’s where the center resides. It’s where our society has developed over time muscle memory for collaboration and for compromise. And we always say that the closer to the pothole you get, the less partisan the discussion is likely to be. And so, we really just kind of looked around and said, “Holy cow, the winds are not blowing in the right direction with regard to the economic model at the local and, our course, the state level.” And so let’s just take a shot at a model, which is entirely mission-driven, which recognizes this notion that I’m fond of that the maintenance of an informed citizenry is the responsibility of the citizenry itself, and not the accidental coincidence of a bunch of commercial transactions.
John Thornton (16:46):
And when you recognize a market failure like we thought we did, philanthropy has got to be somewhere in the mix. And so the Tribune’s model is about 40% philanthropy. It’s about 60% membership and commercial. And that’s the model that I am now trying to evangelize to communities that will never get a Community Impact. Wichita will likely not get a Community Impact newspaper, at least not anytime soon. At the state level, it’s very, very difficult to have the sort of economics which provide the information that we’ve, as a society, become lazily accustomed to over time.
Dan Graham (17:31):
So certainly philanthropy is a differentiator. John Garrett, I don’t know how many donations you get to your business. But you know, in terms of the actual model, you know, how is the Tribune different?
John Thornton (17:43):
Just think about the revenue line. Call it 30/30/40. 30% is revenue generated by and among and around readers and members. 30% of it is corporate sponsorship. And 40% of it is philanthropy.
Dan Graham (18:07):
I thought you were going to say 40% was Evan Smith.
John Thornton (18:12):
Ah yeah, 120% is Evan Smith. Emily Ramshaw, who is the editor of the Tribune, when I said, well, you can’t replicate evidence. She’s like, look, wait a minute. You can’t replicate Evan because Evan does the jobs of three people. But what you can do is raise enough money to pay for three people. And that’s only kind of true because there is only one Evan Smith. But the model that we’re trying to evangelize is that, look, for the most part, the sort of transaction fees between newspapers and readers, and the transaction fees between newspapers and their audience and advertisers are just no longer adequate to sufficiently inform our communities. And just like we support in our communities, hospitals and museums and ballet companies and parks. We believe that these community news organizations are assets that are fundamentally civic rather than commercial in nature. And so what we’re trying to evangelize is just a mindset shift toward that.
Lisa Graham (19:19):
And how then do you view your business model affecting your content? And so, you know, with Community Impact, we talked about how it’s a monthly publication. You all are available online. What is the timeline for most of your stories? How do you guys look at your cycle of news?
John Thornton (19:36):
Well, I should say, first of all, that any editorial question you asked me is going to get answered at a relatively superficial level, because as I always say the best way to get a story idea killed at the Texas Tribune is for me to suggest it. Very bright line between editorial and all other. That newsroom is like, “Hey Grandpa, how much money have you raised today?” That’s all they’re really interested in from me.
John Thornton (20:13):
I think that the magic, if you will, of the community news organization model, which is, slightly better branded than just “non-profit news” is entirely mission-driven. And so, when we talked about the mission of the Texas Tribune, it was really simple. And that was to help people make better decisions in their civic lives. To help people determine what’s in their best interests and act on it. And so if it doesn’t fit that, the Tribune doesn’t do it. And so there’s always a tension between the notion of kind of public interest media and doing stuff that is actually interesting to people. And so, the next chapter, if you will, in the Tribune’s life, now that it’s sort of captured all the sort of insiders around Texas government and Texas state house is to go that next layer out and be more inclusive. Be more probing in terms of reaching communities that aren’t necessarily insiders. And upping its Spanish language capabilities. Long way of saying we’re trying to have the content be influenced by the public interest rather than by an economic model that relies on people reading some particular story or not. And then making some judgment from that one piece of economic data.
Dan Graham (21:48):
I think when I hear people talk about the Tribune, they’re talking about either the journalism or Tribfest. How do you view Tribfest and its role in the organization? Its role in the community? I mean, it’s a very unique thing for a media outlet.
John Thornton (22:08):
It’s interesting how that has evolved. Both Evan and I coming from different perspectives very early had a vision. And the events business, generally, the team will do something like 60 events this year. Tribfest is kind of the culmination and the big one. And it is big. It’s going to have somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people this year, It’ll be gross revenue of almost $2 million for a $9 million organization. And so it’s a big damn deal. And it’s funny, there are now for the first time, I think in the last couple of years, there are people who don’t really even know the Tribune exists. They think of Tribfest and they think it’s its own thing, which in a way is kind of cool.
John Thornton (22:51):
The two have become very, very intertwined. What I think is so terrific about the events business, a couple of things that are terrific about the events business at the Tribune. First of all, that’s $2 million journalism that gets to get done that wouldn’t get done otherwise. And so it is a relatively reliable high-margin revenue stream. So that’s just the business person in me The more civic minded person in me, it just delights me that 6,000 people want to get together and geek out on this stuff. And be with one another. And hold elected officials to account. And engage on topics where there are partisan differences, but you can feel a really sort of solutions orientation in that gathering and in the events that the Tribune puts on more broadly. And so, I love it, because it serves a great commercial purpose and I think a great, and increasingly replicable in other places, civic purpose as well.
Dan Graham (23:58):
A big piece of evidence of a job well done is there are politicians and public servants who I know do not want to be there in the public eye, but go anyway, because if they don’t, it looks so bad on them. And that kind of level of accountability, I think, is what you’re talking about, which is so cool to see.
John Thornton (24:23):
Well, Tribfest is an example. But the events that the team does all over the state are really indicative of that as well. Because it’s amazing how infrequently elected officials, particularly in safe districts, which most Texas House and Senate districts are, how infrequently they come back and talk to their constituents unless they’re kind of held to account to do so. I think this is one of several critical civic functions that the Tribune has filled. And there’s no reason that other organizations around the country can’t do the same thing.
Lisa Graham (25:05):
Y’all have both mentioned, you know, civic interest and public accountability, and talking about what news is important for us to know as citizens of our community. And so as a news or media outlet, how do you determine what that means for your publication? And then what does that mean for your community? And what is the end goal in a way? Do we want action from folks? Do we want simply informed citizens? Do we want them to take action on certain things? What is y’all’s philosophy on that in your organization?
John Garrett (25:38):
I mean at Community Impact in terms of deciding like, what is, what should be reported? It’s simple. Like we show up. We show up to city council meetings. We go to county commissioners court meetings. We just show up. And our reporters are there. In the good old days, there were several news organizations there. A lot of times, we’re the only reporter at a Leander city council meeting, for example. And so, by just showing up, reporting what’s going on, then the the readers can kind of start determining, like, what do they care about? Because if it’s a rezoning issue, let’s face it. Sometimes only three houses actually care, right? But we still report on that. We don’t want to just do the news that 80,000 people care about. I think the Texas Tribune has the same approach to things. They show up. They’re huge. They have a huge reporting force.
John Garrett (26:24):
And I just also just want to say, just to kind of piggyback on what John was saying earlier, the entire country is waiting to see (it’s not about Community Impact, no one even knows who we are, honestly), but everybody knows who the Texas Tribune is. And the entire country is waiting to see, “Hey, can we scale this kind of model in towns everywhere?” And that’s because, you know, John is just such an amazing leader. And I know he gives his staff credit. Evan Smith is a one of a kind talent, one of a kind. But it took the vision of John and the business knowledge of John and the mission approach. Like we’ve got, we have a mission at hand. And so I know I got a little off topic there, but that mission, I think, is what drives all the content.
John Garrett (27:13):
We have a dual mission. It’s kind of unique. We want to inform citizens. Our mission is to inform citizens, right? But it’s also to help local businesses thrive. So we have this kind of dual thing that’s going. Now, editorially, we help local businesses thrive. So when you open up a new business, businesses don’t pay us to be written about or anything like that. We’re still very strong on making sure that integrity is there. But, for advertising, it’s an interesting dichotomy because John talks about how we don’t want to have the business of the marketplace dictate kind of the journalism and make sure that the journalism happens, right? Well, actually Community Impact, our mission is we want to help local businesses do well. And how are they going to do that in an Amazon world? And, you know, Facebook is basically going to the yellow pages whereas whoever has the biggest budgets gets to when Facebook. And so we actually feel like if we can help local businesses get exposure editorially, as well as advertising, we believe that actually builds a better community. And local business Main street is really what drives community and drives, frankly, the news that we write about. Economic development, local business city taxes, and that kind of thing.
John Thornton (28:28):
I think what the team at the Tribune worries about is the disappearance of accountability journalism. And so when they’re trying to figure out what it is they cover, one of the first questions I think they ask is anybody else doing it, right? Is something already being done? Because sort of the definition of a market failure means you go somewhere else if the market seems like it’s kind of doing an okay job. And so that may seem like a small thing, but it informs a lot of the decisions they make. It’s always a tricky dance between writing stories and covering things that’s going to get attention. And writing stories and covering things that you think are in the public interest. I always think about, at the time, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, in 1961, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, where he said, “Look, fellas. And they were all guys. The public interest and what interests the public are not the same thing. Which led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1968, National Public Radio, and PBS. I think we find ourselves in a SIM similarly what Paul Starr calls “constituted moment” as it relates to the formation of our media. And I think in 2019, we’re at a similar juncture where we’ve got to figure out how basic civic news and information, the economic underpinnings of which have gotten sliced out, are going to be delivered to a public that needs it without government support and without the sort of advertising boon that print saw for 60 years post-war. And so it’s a very long way of answering how do you determine what to cover, but you’re trying to cover the stuff that holds democracy together. It sounds a little bit melodramatic, but we believe it’s true.
Dan Graham (30:37):
Maybe three years ago, it would have sounded melodramatic.
John Thornton (30:39):
Yeah, the headlines have a way of catching up.
John Garrett (30:45):
Well, I got to say like, I’m very contrarian on this. And doesn’t make a lot of sense for folks outside of my brain. But the local advertising piece is really important to me. Because I agree with John, like the nonprofit piece is amazing. If you can get the local citizens to pay for it, right? That is fantastic. But the reason why the local business advertising that drives the revenue is so important to me is, because if you combine that with a true mission-driven journalism organization, not the IPO based companies, or the venture backed, or the PE firms that own these newspapers. But if you actually have entrepreneurs, and there’s lots of them out there that care about the editorial mission, and you combine that with local business investment into the product, I think it does two things.
John Garrett (31:35):
It pays for that important journalism, if it’s done right. Not out of greed, but out of mission-driven. And it engages the local business person into the community. The whole idea of the fourth estate is this idea that we’re going to be a part of the community, regardless of who’s in office, right? And what I worry about, what keeps me up at night, and I know that when I talk to most newspaper officials, they don’t even, they’ve already given up on advertising. What keeps me up at night is that if you lose the local business, then you lose everything. And I’m sorry, but even the Dailies, they only have 60,000 subscribers now or whatever, they bring so much value to the advertisers, but the sales team are not excited about selling it anymore. And I’m just like, man, you guys are really missing engagement. You’re missing building community. And you’re also missing an opportunity, I think, to help pay for that important journalism.
John Thornton (32:28):
And we really, this is in the context of the Tribune and in the context of our broader effort to help foster these things in other places, we really believe that what I call a sort of “surrender behavior” on the part of some local businesses is something that’s gotta be reversed. Because the Google and Facebook onslaught has just been so demoralizing. And so it really has just caused people in the industry to kind of curl up in a fetal position. We believe that there are ways to engage with local businesses in a variety of ways that, as you say, keep that fabric of the community tighter rather than looser. And we think it’s a real mistake to conflate business engagement and business supportive local media with digital advertising. Which yeah, is a game that’s kind of over.
John Garrett (33:27):
Yeah, that’s right.
Dan Graham (33:27):
Well, and I know you guys are friends, and you respect each other’s work and you get together periodically. Are you guys scheming on anything together?
John Thornton (33:41):
We have punctuated equilibrium of global domination discussions, but nothing.
John Garrett (33:45):
Yeah, no, we’re not scheming. I will say that John has been so helpful to me. Like when he showed up in Pflugerville, you know, before the Tribune launched, just to visit with me. I learned so much from him. And then we met periodically. He was always giving me crap. I’d bring him my financial reports and he’d be like, you’ve got to work on your CFO. You’ve got to be better at this. And then I’ll be like, I’m just learning. I just really learned so much from him. I really appreciate John. He’s been, he’s been awesome.
John Thornton (34:17):
What was amazing was, I was obsessed. And I was like, okay, you know, for-profit news locally is a shit-show. Nobody’s doing anything. This is awful. (And after seeing Community Impact) Oh, what is this? And I remember seeing a picture of John and all his employees, and I just sort of cold called him. And that’s the way the relationship started.
Lisa Graham (34:41):
My final question to you guys is, you know, talking to an audience, how do you suggest the public supports publications and news outlets like yours? As individual citizens, maybe we don’t have a company that can buy advertising space. What can the public do to support organizations like yours?
John Thornton (35:03):
Well, the Tribune is pretty easy. I mean, the team sort of slaps readers fairly often to remind them. It’s incumbent on these organizations to remind the audience, remind the public, that this stuff is not cheap and that they need support. And so the art of getting membership or getting readers to pay for the public service journalism that these organizations put out has come a long way in the last five years. It used to be just sort of a crap shoot. And public radio was really the only one who had figured out membership, because they had this nice captive drive time audience.
John Thornton (35:59):
And you get a mug. And you get a tote bag. And the science of membership and of consistently, but professionally, and not in an off-putting way, of asking for money has come a long way. And that’s, again, one of the needs that we see is to get that science out there into organizations that have been doing it in a less than professional way. Just because they don’t have the staff and the training to do it.
John Garrett (36:24):
You know, I’m so different than the rest of people in our industry on this too. Like, the reason why the Texas Tribune is successful is because the readers don’t owe them anything. Like they continue to provide unbelievable content. You know, 40% plus the other side of the business is business. They’re generating dollars from large advertisers that newspapers have lost from that 40%. Why? Because they’re doing a great job. It’s not just because the business wants to be a part of what the important work that they’re doing. They’re doing it because they want to grow their business. Our readers don’t owe Community Impact newspaper anything. Our job is to be relevant, useful, well done, presented to them in a way that helps them understand these complex issues.
John Garrett (37:10):
Our job is to get out there and pound the pavement and convince local business owners that the value is there. Make great ads that help local businesses succeed. So, I’m very humbled and just thankful that readers like us as much as they do. But I don’t feel like they owe me or John, or, you know, the local daily newspapers anything. We have to fight to survive and we have to show value. And, we’re doing it. I think that’s what we have.
Dan Graham (37:37):
And I feel like a little bit counter-intuitively both organizations are successful because of how they narrow focus. You know, the Tribune has a niche. It has a very specific lens. Community Impact is hyper-local, hyper-relevant. There’s almost a narrowing to create that relevancy and that value-add.
John Garrett (37:57):
That’s right. That’s really important to us. Like what I was saying earlier, like most newspaper organizations, they got to write about stories to get a bunch of clicks, that kind of thing. We’re thinking about that house. That’s a story for three or four houses or whatever. We get to do that because we are geographically targeted and geographically focused. And I think that’s really, really awesome.
Lisa Graham (38:15):
Thank you guys both for being here, John and John. I appreciate you allowing me to first and last name you both. I tend to reserve that for when our children are in trouble or something, so I appreciate that. We’re very inspired by your work and love what you guys do, so thank you for being here. You can become a member of the Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org and you can see the latest edition of the Community Impact Newspaper at www.communityimpact.com. The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio. Chez Boom Audio is the leading audio post-production company for TV, film, advertising, audio books, and podcasts in Austin, Texas. And we’re so honored to work in their studio with the wonderful Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. And if you want to hear new episodes every week, please subscribe to the Change The Rules podcast on iTunes.