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Dec. 5, 2019, 9:47 a.m.
Business Models

Drawing on ten years of expertise, the Texas Tribune wants to coach you on its money-making lessons

“People just want to learn a playbook. At the high level, it’s motivational, but at the grassroots level, it’s answering what do your proposals look like, what does your budget look like, how are you talking to donors and members.”

It’s always bigger in Texas.

The Texas Tribune is introducing a training hub — replete with DIY videos, rounds of cohorts, and maybe even a road trip — to help spread the wisdom and minimize the mistakes the Tribune has learned in its ten years and $56 million-plus raised. Longtime chief product officer Rodney Gibbs will take the helm of the new, grant-funded Revenue Lab (nickname: RevLab), which will also create space for the Tribune to experiment with new products and strategies to keep growing its own revenue and continue sharing the lessons.

The Tribune started, unlike many local nonprofit news outlets, with a significant pile of cash from a benefactor who wanted them to do good and to do it well. (That benefactor, John Thornton, provided $1 million singlehandedly and helped the team hit $3.6 million before it even launched. He’s now working on preaching the gospel nationwide.) The organization is a leader in the nonprofit news space — a staff of 70, 4,400 paying members, 1.9 million monthly users, and a robust and growing mix of revenue sources — and now it wants to help others who didn’t have as much of a head start.

From its strategic plan for 2025:

And it’s had a whirlwind past few months — and has several high-level job openings — as CEO Evan Smith described in the RevLab announcement:

First we mounted our biggest and most successful ideas weekend ever: 450 speakers, nearly 9,000 registrants, $2.3 million in gross revenue. Then we announced plans for a massive investigative journalism strike force in partnership with our pals at ProPublica: five years, more than $8.5 million spent on deep-dive reporting, and eleven new hires. Then we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our launch — a legit milestone. Then we told the world that our editor-in-chief and chief audience officer are leaving the nest to start the next great nonprofit news org, creating two openings on our masthead that will be among the best jobs in the business.

Today I’m excited to share the latest big news from the Tribune: We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab — a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers.

Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora are launching a national news nonprofit aimed at women and we’re dying to know more ]

The RevLab is funded with $2.5 million from the Facebook Journalism Project and is seeking an additional $1.5 million from other supporters to fund itself for three years. I talked with Gibbs about what the RevLab will look like in action, how folks can get involved, and how the Trib sees its role amid “pack philanthropy.” Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christine Schmidt: Why did Evan Smith call the project “our first-ever” revenue and training lab in his post? Is there another one coming?

Rodney Gibbs: No, no, there’s not. I think that’s an Evan Smith flourish. He wrote that post himself.

Schmidt: So tell me more about how this came about. Where did the idea come from?

Gibbs: It’s been gestating for close to a year. There were two drivers for it. One was, as Evan noted in the post, we’ve always had an open door to other organizations who wanted to call or email or come by. I’m always heartened that some of our most busy people like Evan and April Hinkle typically just take time and spend an hour with someone and let them pick their brain. It’s become a de facto thing we do or part of our mission.

We’re always happy to do it and we get good feedback, and we feel like it’s part of the mantra: Do we survive together or hang separately? We started thinking about is there a way we could be more efficient about this so it’s not just “we all stop what we’re doing for whoever comes by” but to make it more effective and scale it more so people don’t have to figure out how to finagle a trip to Austin or how to get Evan on the phone — that we could help more people around the country and around the world and be a little more systematically efficiently.

That was one thrust. The other was, coming more from my product development side, we’ve done a fair and respectable job on developing new revenue products and optimizing the ones we have. But it’s often a challenge for us that there’s the competing demand for the newsroom and the churn of the daily breaking news — the CMS has a bug, oh there’s a new feature we have to get in for some kind of pedestrian reason. It’s all the daily demands of a newsroom product. So the other driver for the lab idea was: How do we really carve out time so some of us can try things, test things, research things without being called away unexpectedly to put out a fire or to help with a big project coming up?

So it’s putting those two things together: How do we share our knowledge, and how do we carve out time to think about where tomorrow’s dollars are coming from? I worked with [outgoing editor-in-chief] Emily Ramshaw and we put together this proposal to get feedback internally. Then we started shopping around to different foundations and major donors and folks to say, “We think there is a need for this and we could execute it well.”

Schmidt: What kind of expertise have you shared with folks passing through already? What do people most ask about?

Gibbs: We did a dry run of what this might look like in October. We worked with the Center for Cooperative Media out of Montclair State University. [Here’s the event description.] They helped coordinate a group of 40 or so publishers to come to Austin and spend a day with us.

We ran them through the business side of a lot of the organization. Evan started the day, since it was on the heels of our 10th anniversary, giving 10 lessons he’s learned in 10 years of the Tribune. Then we got in a little more of the nitty-gritty. Agnes Varnum, our events director, spent a good amount of time walking people through how we put on events — how to select a venue, what does your production task list look like, what kind of budget are you talking about, where can you save money. Terry Quinn, our development chief, talked about how do you solicit foundation money — what do you look for in a foundation, what does the courtship look like, how do you ask them to marry you, if they say no, how do you come back from it. April did something similar with corporate sponsorship — what are they buying and not buying, why would they support nonprofit journalism as a for-profit corporation.

People just want to learn a playbook. At the high level, it’s motivational, but at the grassroots level, it’s answering what do your proposals look like, what does your budget look like, how are you talking to donors and members. We caveated it that this is how we learned about it over the years. We stumbled and stood back up and got better as we went. People seem to be appreciative of us discussing an example and how it’s worked. We try to send them home with templates and boilerplate language and Basecamp task lists so they have something to start with back home — where they can say, “we can take half of this, and put it with some other stuff, and could be a good solution for us here in Tennessee or Nevada.”

Schmidt: That’s a great past example, but how are you imagining RevLab itself in action? What will be different about it?

Gibbs: In the first year, I’m envisioning three phases. The first that we’re starting right now is the creation of a base curriculum, calling it shorthand the Tribune 101. It’s mostly videos but these talks like Evan does — it’s getting him in front of a camera, making it available on the web, and attaching relevant documents like “here’s what a pitch looks like that we make to a corporation.” That’s an early easy win to get that stuff online and available so people don’t have to come to us to get that info.

The next phase we’ll start immediately after that, early next year, is that we’re going to start having cohorts of publishers come through like WBUR’s BizLab and the Facebook accelerators. We’re still figuring out exactly what that looks like, but essentially it’s a team of publishers that come through in three-month cycles. It’ll probably have a theme for each cohort — maybe events, major donors and foundations, corporate revenue — so that we have a curriculum we run them through that’s kind of the way we do it and our best practices, but then have the resources and time to help them go home and, over those three months, work on a plan.

We would have regular check-ins with them. Hopefully, eventually, as we pass through more and more cohorts, they will seed more knowledge out there and get people support as they build up their own revenue structures, so that they’re not just throwing darts at the wall. They’ll have more coaching and support.

The third phase, which will probably be later in the cycle, after we’ve done all that, is to get more of that product development time. We’re budgeting to hire a small product team: engineer, UX person, beta testing person. We want to hopefully figure out what are new revenue-generating products we can try and what are new things to get out there. We can test it on The Texas Tribune and, if it works well or if it doesn’t, make it available to the public through documenting it and GitHub repositories. That’ll be later in the lifespan of the lab.

Schmidt: What are some examples of products or ideas you want to test out?

Gibbs: There are a couple that are interesting that we haven’t been able to check out yet. In researching the lab, someone turned me onto a group in New Zealand doing an “ethical paywall.” They’ve found a way to see when companies are using a single location to access their website a lot, and then they’re targeting them with solicitations. They say “a lot of your employees are accessing our site, and it’s free and that’s great, but shouldn’t you be a corporate sponsor of us then?” They’ve found good success through that. [From Scoop, the site he mentions: “We call it an ‘Ethical Paywall’ because business users who obtain direct benefit from our service are paying for the costs of providing access to a high-quality news service to the general public.”]

We keep our ear to the ground about academic research, like what Talia Stroud of the University of Texas does [at the Center for Media Engagementhere’s our coverage of their past research]. Working with people like Talia who are looking for more partners out in the field to test ideas she’s developing at the university — this would open up a lot of bandwidth for us to try that. Talia would bring the academic research, we’d bring the real-world testing environment to this, and we could advance it together.

Schmidt: What kind of people, organizations, or projects are you looking for to get involved with the RevLab?

Gibbs: I’ll preface it by saying we’re in the process now of assembling an advisory board. The people we’re starting to target for the board are entrepreneurial journalist types who have some experience in journalism but also in the revenue/sustainability side of the business. We’re going to look to them as we form the cohort to help inform that process.

In general, we’ll probably be looking for groups that are looking to build up the revenue side of the operation. Looking at the companies that come through the Tribune last year, a lot are very young startups with two or three people. We’ve had some that are quite successful groups that say, “You do a festival and we want to do a festival,” or “Your major donor program is really soaring and we’ve never unlocked that.” We have a range from small outlets who are trying to get the first dollar in the door up to people who are more like our peers or who have exceeded us, perhaps, but maybe there are more nuggets they want to understand.

One challenge, to be frank, when we’ve talked to people in the past one at a time, is that the stuff that works with The Texas Tribune with our 10 years of history and resources may not work for three people in Montana starting something from scratch. That’s a challenge we’re going to have, and I don’t think we have all the answers, nor do we want to be prescriptive. That’s where the coaching and mentoring can come in for adapting the strategy to your circumstances. What’s going to work in your neighborhood may not be what works in our neighborhood, but hopefully the concept translates.

Schmidt: What kind of coaches are you looking for? Is it all people from the Tribune or partners that you have?

Gibbs: Some of our existing folks will coach in their areas of expertise, like our membership and events people. We’re aiming to hire or contract outside coaches who are just good trainers, and so I think they will be people who are familiar with the journalism world but are not experts on the Tribune and can come in and learn enough about what we do to coach people and know where to go find the answers to other things. They’ll be a little more on the coaching side versus the coming from the Tribune side.

Schmidt: That leads into my next question: Where is the $4 million going? Will the lab be free for participants?

Gibbs: It definitely will be free, which was part of the reason to solicit the financial support. We don’t see it as a revenue generator, but we see it as something that needs to happen and we want to make sure it can pay for itself. The grant support is going to fund the personnel to run all the stuff — the training, teaching, curriculum development, and product development. Over three years with a team, that adds up.

Our plan is, over the next year, as the online curriculum is available, to have a lot more in-person training. The funding will allow us to subsidize some of the travel to Austin. We’ll have some flexibility to augment if not pay for that. Eventually, we hope to take some of this on the road as well. Once we’ve figured out the process here in Austin — this will probably be years two and three — maybe there’s a West Coast or East Coast workshop or another country where we can take the lessons, rather than having everyone join remotely or fly to Austin to join in person.

Schmidt: Zooming out a little bit, the concept of “pack philanthropy” has been discussed in some reports on nonprofit news funding — how the more seasoned or prominent outlets, like the Tribune or ProPublica, are able to attract a lot of funders’ money ahead of smaller outlets. As you’re mentioning the accelerators and BizLab, there are smaller outlets that have been able to participate in those. But with some funders and projects, you see the same names mentioned again and again in grant announcements. I’m wondering what your thought process is around that.

Gibbs: My take on that is we’ve always provided or shared our knowledge and wins and losses with whoever asked for them. Our belief is that this will make that much more effective and accessible and help share that knowledge much further than it has in the past.

In the past, it’s relied on someone having the gumption to track one of us down or get on a plane and come knock on our door here in Texas. The funding now allows us to scale our efforts and to bring this to wherever they are. They may be on the other side of the world and they’ll still be able to participate and directly benefit from these things that wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m very grateful for that. I don’t think we should just be sharing our knowledge with whoever has the wherewithal to get themselves to Austin.

On the product side, we’ve always done the best to share our wins and losses. We’ve done that through the News Revenue Hub, with for-profit and nonprofit groups, our style guides and checkout system and anything we can. Frankly, often it’s hindered by: Do we have the time to make this open-source, to document this properly, to make sure if another publication adopts this tool that if we update it we can let them know they need to update their tool?

The other side, in addition to the training, is giving me a lot of hope that we can develop a lot more revenue-generating processes and tools and make them much more accessible to startups and small companies that don’t have a six-person engineering team like we do. It’s to put them out there in a more accessible way and so that we have a lot more bandwidth to share tools and technology with the three-person team in Montana.

We couldn’t do that as The Texas Tribune by itself. It would be at the expense of our news operation. So by creating this new lab and having an outside source of funding for it, we can really focus on the sharing and dissemination of knowledge and technology in ways that we never could.

Schmidt: Anything else I should’ve asked about or that you wanted to mention?

Gibbs: A couple people have pinged me wanting to know how this is different from the BizLab or what Aron Pilhofer is doing at Temple University [with NewsCatalyst] or the News Revenue Hub. We hope what we are doing will complement those efforts. We’re not trying to compete with anyone or reinvent any wheels.

In preparing, as we were starting to mix and bake the cake that became the RevLab, I did a lot of outreach to those people who run these labs and think tanks, people like Sasha Koren, who did the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab. It seemed universal that people were encouraging and seeing a lot of encouraging opportunities. My hope is that this lab, by scaling what we already do with the Tribune 101 knowledge, it can also fill some gaps in the ecosystem and cooperate with these groups. Talia Stroud was very helpful as I was thinking through some of these things with ways we could partner that would make a lot of sense. People from other labs said similar things.

I feel like there’s a unique hole we can fit in, and when it gets a little broader, my hope is we’ll be cooperating with these different groups. We’re not trying to be all things to all people. We can hopefully be additive to the process and not competitive to the process.

Photo of painted American and Texas flags by Matthew T Rader.

POSTED     Dec. 5, 2019, 9:47 a.m.
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