The Texas Tribune, the new non-profit journalism operation headed by former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith, had some big news yesterday: They'd received a $500,000 donation from the Houston Endowment.
The gift will go a long ways toward -- Say what now? The Houston Endowment is getting back in the journalism business?
The last time they did that, they owned the Houston Chronicle, and the list of sacred cows that were protected and coddled by order of the Endowment was lengthy and inviolate.
Longtime Houston reporters have never forgotten the time when the Chron's Dan Grothaus and Olive Talley uncovered widespread financial shenanigans at the Endowment -- charity money going for luxurious hunting lodges, that kind of thing -- and the stories got killed. (There were also angles involving Hermann Hospital, one of the sacred cows.)
The two reporters held a press conference, and the Houston Post gladly printed the details (and hired Grothaus and Talley). The Endowment held onto the Chron until tax laws forced them to sell it in 1987.
Smith tells Hair Balls he's well aware of the Endowment's history with the Chron, but has absolutely no worries about any repeats.
"Look, anybody who's putting any money into public-interest journalism, that's good news, right?" he asks. "I understand what you're asking, but the difference is that ownership is one thing -- and I have no perspective to offer you on the Endowment's ownership of the Chronicle -- but I can tell you that when someone invests as a donor in a philanthropic sense, they don't entertain any idea that they control outcome of what they're investing in."
He says "this is not a deal where the donors are going to put money in and then as a result of that have a right to control the content. We have told the Endowment...that we intend to produce public-interest journalism, we intend to cover public policy and politics....What we haven't said is that 'We are going to do this specifically, and that you have any say in what this is.'"
The potential of the Endowment dictating coverage "doesn't worry me in the slightest," he says.
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To be fair, we're pretty sure Smith -- or any of the respected names he's hired as staff -- would stage their own very public revolution if they thought their integrity was being compromised.
But still, the Houston Endowment and journalism: Not always a great match in the past.
Smith notes, by the way, that the Tribune has raised about $3.5 million, and will probably hit $4 million before the end of the year. That would be enough to keep them going for "two to three years" without any other income, but more donors, and money from events, is expected to add to the coffers.
Starting in November, Smith says, the Tribune will offer journalism across a wide range of platforms (i.e., all that webby stuff), and give it away free to any paper or outlet that wants to use it.