Why Did the Hewlett Foundation Fund the Texas Tribune's DC Bureau Expansion?

Of all the changes affecting the current state of American journalism, one that doesn't get enough press (pun intended) is the precipitous drop in statehouse reporting.

Pew Research Center has seen a 35 percent decline in statehouse newspaper reporters since 2003, leaving fewer than 1,600 journalists in America's capitols. Compounding this problem is the fact that even fewer news outlets have reporters in the other place that influences state operations — Washington, DC.

The Hewlett Foundation wants to address this problem as part of its new push to strengthen U.S. democracy and reduce polarization. As we've discussed in our coverage of Hewlett's "Madison Initiative," one challenge the foundation is tackling is the decline of high-quality unbiased media, a trend that's especially pronounced at the state level. In an article entitled "How to Improve Statehouse Reporting," the foundation lists seven root causes that conspire to dilute the efficacy of statehouse reporting. Those causes include a lack of sustainable business models, lack of public engagement with the news, and reporters' limited access to public records.

Another big problem is a dearth of good reporting on what a state's congressional representatives in Washington are up to. Hewlett is taking aim at this problem with a $350,000 grant to the nonprofit Texas Tribune. 

The Tribune has a healthy number of statehouse reporters in Austin: a total of 15. However, Hewlett's gift aims to fund the Tribune's presence in Washington, DC, enabling it to cover policy that impacts the state and follow Texas' 38 House and Senate leaders.

(Hewlett has also made broader grants to improve the quality of news and information, including to the Investigative News Network and the American Press Institute.)

And in what's likely encouraging news for other organizations looking to establish a foothold in Washington, the Tribune's editor-in-chief, Evan Smith, believes that just getting one contributor on the ground will open a "firehose of material."

Hewlett was drawn to the Tribune because the paper has addressed some of the root causes afflicting poor political reporting: namely, its embrace of big data and high-quality content. As Smith notes, "The people we reach are very sophisticated about the world we live in and they want to know more. If you give them shallowness they run from us."

But as other nonprofit outlets know, great journalism alone may not pay the bills. Donor member accounts make up $750,000 of the Tribune's overall revenue, which totals approximately $7 million. Live events constitute $1.4 million of this total.

The real money comes from the Tribune's corporate sponsors, outfits like Exxon and WalMart, which triggers the inevitable follow-up question: Should news organizations be so dependent on rich benefactors?

Smith's opinion on the matter is blunt and to-the-point. "If they tried to influence us we would give them their money back," he says. "The only people we are beholden to are the people of Texas."