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Feb. 18, 2021, 2:30 p.m.
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Launching a news nonprofit in Fort Worth, Chris Cobler doesn’t want to “repeat the mistakes of the past”

“Nobody wants to look back on the work we’ve done and say, ‘God, we were really clueless 50 years ago.’ We want to start every day thinking that we’re as in touch with the community as we possibly can be and reflect their interests and values.”

Fort Worth, Texas is a special place.

Cowtown, as its lovingly known among residents, is an hour west of Dallas and is a city of just under a million people. It’s the thirteenth largest city in the United States and it’s considered to be a majority-minority city, meaning its communities of color make up about 60% of the population (about 35 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino) while the other 40% is non-Hispanic white. But city government representation doesn’t reflect those demographics.

And Fort Worth and the surrounding area have often made national news for racist episodes.

But it’s special place to me because it’s where I developed a fervent belief in journalism that’s in service of a community. In 2018, I was the diversity reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a McClatchy publication, where I covered issues related to race and identity in what was, at the time, the most conservative large urban county in the United States.

As a transplant from New York, I was humbled by the ways that lifelong Fort Worth residents welcomed me into their homes, constantly sent me story tips, and generously told me the hardest stories of their lives because they knew doing so could benefit someone else. On my first assignment covering an immigration rally at Texas Christian University, I introduced myself as the diversity reporter to one of the protestors and she said, “We’ve been waiting for you!”

When I arrived at my first coffee meeting with a community leader, I found that she had prepared for me a five-page dossier of story ideas, with context, contacts, and screenshots. In Fort Worth I met people who demanded transparency from the public officials so deeply that they routinely file public records requests in the way that journalists do.

Later this year, Fort Worth residents will get another news outlet in town to do that accountability work for and with them. The Fort Worth Report, a new nonprofit news outlet, aims not only to fill the existing coverage gaps, but to provide nuanced journalism about the issues that matter most to the city.

The Fort Worth Report was started up by a few business leaders in town who secured its nonprofit status, and then partnered with the News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that helps news outlets become financially stable, in 2019 to commission research on community needs. The News Revenue Hub found that residents were concerned that existing coverage didn’t responsibly cover communities of color, and reporting about problems but not offering solutions. They were also frustrated by a “lack of continuity in reporting and continual staff turnover.” The Star-Telegram has long been the only daily newspaper in the city (though there are other news outlets like the Fort Worth Weekly and the Fort Worth Business Press), and it’s gone through multiple rounds of layoffs.

The Fort Worth Report hired veteran journalist and 2006 Nieman Fellow Chris Cobler to be the CEO and publisher. Cobler was the editor and publisher of the Victoria Advocate in Southeast Texas until its parent company, M. Roberts Media, eliminated his position this past summer.

Local news is a family business for Cobler. His daughter, Nicole Cobler, is a state politics reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and his son, Paul Cobler, is a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Fort Worth is an awesome city,” Cobler said. “It’s the nonprofit model that I really have been wanting to do for a long time.”

Last year the Report received a seed grant from Fort Worth’s Burnett Foundation, which is known for contributing to community enhancement projects. The plan, Cobler said, is to keep the journalism free and accessible to all, funding it through donations, memberships, and other grants. It’s already received more than $16,000 in donations from readers. The Burnett Foundation grant will underwrite a two-year business plan for the Report when it launches later this spring with a managing editor and three reporters to cover education, government accountability, and arts and culture.

Out of the gate, Cobler said that the Report won’t cover sports or crime and won’t run opinion pieces. The News Revenue Hub’s focus group members had emphasized that those were not necessarily things they needed from a new news outlet; instead, they were looking for the following in a nonprofit:

  • Challenges existing opinions with ideas backed by facts and evidence
  • Includes diverse sources, not just the same go-to people for a reliable quote
  • Maintains transparency in editorial approach
  • Is unafraid to stand up to politicians and fact-check them on statements
  • Includes reporters building relationships with the communities they cover
  • Gives residents the tools to act and be a part of a solution

“We’re not going to be doing police blotter news. I think you write about those issues, like institutional racism, from a deeper standpoint, get the context to it, and make sure you have the voices of all the community involved in it … I’m not looking to break the story of, [for example], a horrible injustice or a police brutality incident,” Cobler said. “That’s probably something that the police beat reporter at the Star-Telegram will get first, and that’s fine. But what we’ll come back with is a deeper, more nuanced story. I want to stress that this isn’t about a competition. This is about adding to the good journalism in Fort Worth. Unfortunately, the history of police reporting in America is too much superficial reporting and that worsens the problem. To the extent that we can provide more depth to that reporting, I think that’s what will help the issue the most.”

Nearly 80% of Hispanic households in Dallas-Fort Worth speak Spanish at home, but at least at the start, the Report won’t be publishing in Spanish. Instead, Cobler said, he’ll look for opportunities to collaborate with other local publications and share stories to reach the people who need them the most. He did so in 2019 at the Victoria Advocate, where the newspaper co-published a bilingual investigation into income inequality in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey with Revista de Victoria.

I’m in a Facebook group called Fort Worth Star-Telegram Friends. Its members are a mix of current staff at the Star-Telegram, alums, and engaged community members. I asked in the group members what they made of the Report’s launch announcement, and two members (who gave me permission to use their comments) were concerned that having a majority-white board of directors and a white CEO/Publisher would mean that the Fort Worth Report would operate within the same status quo that the rest of the city does.

“It’s a valid criticism that Fort Worth’s history is one of white men and power … Our board is aware of that, too, and is working to diversify the board, but I would say they’re all good people who are putting money behind having good journalism,” Cobler said. “It’s our editorial independence policy that’s really critical. They’re saying they hired me, in big part, because they believe in the journalism that I’ve done, they believe in my diversity efforts too, so I’ve got to prove that once I get the newsroom hired and news operations up and running.”

Cobler said that once he’s more settled in his role, he’ll start sending out an email newsletter with updates on hiring, what he’s up to, and what starting a news organization looks like. He also plans to do a listening tour once he moves up to Fort Worth to get a deeper sense of what stories are underreported.

“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We don’t want to be that old legacy paper that has to apologize for all the sins of its past for the past century,” Cobler said. “There have been horrible, horrible things that newspapers have done over the years. They were a reflection of their times, I guess, but nobody wants to look back on the work we’ve done and say, ‘God, we were really clueless 50 years ago.’ We want to start every day thinking that we’re as in touch with the community as we possibly can be and reflect their interests and values.”

These are, of course, efforts to be transparent with readers, donors, and funders from the get-go, but it’s also just the kind of community-journalist relationship that Cobler enjoys most about his work, he said. And he wants to make sure that community engagement happens offline when it’s possible again.

“I love the idea of what the paper out in Marfa [The Big Bend Sentinel] did of having an office in a coffee house,” Cobler said. “I’d love to figure out how to do that with a Fort Worth coffee house or taqueria where we could have our offices off in a room to the side. Maybe one of our membership perks would be to get a discount on the coffee. It’s just an idea right now … but that’s that’s the spirit of what I want to have, that openness where our newsroom is as open and as inviting as it can be.”

Downtown Fort Worth, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2021, 2:30 p.m.
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