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Texas Tribune Layoffs Leave State’s Journalism Future Uncertain

Ask anyone in the journalism business and they’ll tell you The Texas Tribune is one of the most successful outlets in the country. That’s why seeing them layoff people for the first time in 14 years has the industry a little nervous.

Launched in 2009, the Tribune has been a model of non-profit journalism. That model seems to have worked incredibly well. Even journalists from the country’s most prestigious outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have lauded the way The Tribune has managed to grow under the non-profit model. In 2019, the paper started advising other companies on how to do so.

Despite this, last week the company announced a round of layoffs that cut 11 jobs. These include one of their most experienced editors and the entire copy desk. In addition, CEO  Sonal Shah and editor-in-chief  Sewell Chan will take 10 percent pay cuts.

Thus far, there hasn’t been much transparency around why the layoffs have happened. The paper expected to grow by 10 percent in the last fiscal year, but retracted by 5 percent. Being non-profit doesn’t exempt the company from needing to make enough to pay salaries and operating costs.

It’s also possible The Tribune is looking toward an antagonistic financial future. Earlier this year, Texas Republicans in the legislature introduced a bill that would have prohibited colleges and universities from giving money to non-profit media. This would greatly impact The Tribune’s funding if it ever made it into law. The bill would also apply to institutions like NPR.

The news of The Tribune cutting jobs is a further sign that the journalism industry in Texas is in crisis. Since 2005, Texas has lost the most journalists-per-capita of any state except California and New Jersy. There are 27 counties in Texas without any newspaper at all.

Even in big cities, the journalism industry is struggling. Houston lost the print edition of its alternative weekly, The Houston Press, in 2017, and laid off nearly its entire staff. The Houston Chronicle has steadily lost journalists without replacing them, shrinking the organization significantly over the last five years. Non-profit news foundations have been springing up to provide coverage, but it doesn’t change the overall retraction of the industry.

As the newsrooms shrink, smaller stories are reported less. The cuts at The Tribune heavily affected the crime beat. Fewer staff reporters able to spend time chasing stories leads to an incomplete view of crime in the state. The same holds true for local politics. Most local governments do not offer streaming access services, meaning reporters have to physically attend meetings and hearings to cover stories accurately. As those positions get cut, more local activity flies under the radar.

It’s possible that the layoffs are just a hiccup for The Tribune, a necessary evil to ensure it continues the award-winning coverage that has lent it such prestige. Even so, yet another outlet bleeding reporters is never a good sign for journalism as a whole.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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