Another Death in Journalism: Texas Watchdog Finished?

Texas Watchdog, we barely knew you. After four years of some stellar muckraking, but so-so writing, that exposed malfeasance in the HISD, dredged out some waste in stimulus dollars (who-woulda-thunk-it?) and exposed "gaping lapses in Texas ethics law," Texas Watchdog may disappear into the ether in two months.

Its funding from Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a libertarian organization, has run out and it hasn't found anyone to fill the void. Editor Trent Seibert, like some weary coach, took some of the heat. "We've done some really good stuff and I just wish I knew how to pay for it," he said. "I've loved following the money when it comes to dirty officials, but I'm not good at getting the money to run the organization. I'm not a businessman. Part of this is my fault. If I was better at the fund-raising side, maybe we'd be around a little bit more."

Franklin, Seibert said, gave them $300,000 to fund their online-only venture this last year -- which was enough to pay six full-time reporters and editors. But not enough, at the end, Seibert said, "to keep the lights on."

It's possible that Franklin, which bankrolls most of the state ventures, may offer to hire on the Texas team, folding them into more national coverage, but Seibert and the rest have launched searches for outside employment.

"It's tough all around," he said. "If I had the answer on how to fund quality journalism, I would be talking to you from my Learjet as bikini models pour me champagne, but instead I'm talking with you over my shitty cell phone."

In the late 2000s, this sort of foundation-funded journalism was getting mad props, even amid ethical concerns on what was driving coverage. Journalists -- otherwise cynical about everything -- thought maybe if there were enough benefactors, we could continue to do our thing. Nonprofit organizations like ProPublica, the Watchdog network and GlobalPost all took money from philanthropists and foundations to do journalism. But the problem is: The money always runs out. Those organizations make short-term commitments -- perhaps two years, maybe three, but that's it. And when the money's gone, it's gone.

Texas Tribune, another one of these Web sites doing investigative work on the foundation dime, has done better in some respects, netting a spot in The New York Times every Friday.

But how long will it last? And, in the meantime, the search for how to put out stories with actual reportage that are worth reading -- rather than shooting off more dense analysis into the digital echo chamber strangling our senses -- continues.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terrence McCoy
Contact: Terrence McCoy