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Media Watch

Experiments in Journalism

By Kevin Brass, Fri., April 23, 2010

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

In Fact Daily founder and former Good Life Editor Ken Martin recently launched his own local nonprofit online publication, The Austin Bulldog, dedicated to investigative journalism. "There's not a whole lot of that going on around here," Martin said. "It was a way to stay in journalism and do the type of stuff I want to do."

Initial stories include a report on the Texas Commission on Environ-mental Quality and a commentary on the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The site launched with the help of a $17,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (in contrast to the Texas Tribune's $3 million initial budget).

Martin declined to discuss how much he would pay writers. But the site offers donors the unique opportunity to finance specific projects. For example, $1,250 would support a report on mortgage relief, or $1,000 would sponsor a story on property taxes – the type of direct support that would make journalism traditionalists cringe.

"The answer to that," said Martin, "is transparency" – i.e., clearly identifying the sponsor.

The Texas Tribune, the nonprofit start-up headed by former Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith, passed 200,000 unique visitors and a million page views in March. But the Austin American-Statesman still refuses to use the Tribune's material.

The Tribune offers its articles for free to newspapers and media outlets, one of the more intriguing aspects of its business model. Newspapers around the state have picked up its articles on health, education, and political issues, with two notable exceptions, Smith says: The Dallas Morning News and the Statesman.

To anyone familiar with the mindset of newspaper executives, the Statesman is apparently adopting the familiar Seventies-era attitude of refusing to promote any entity seen as a competitor. Considering that papers are in a struggle to engage readers and cut costs, why else wouldn't they use free, local, in-depth articles, often by reporters who have worked at a higher level than the Statesman?

"We have an outstanding staff of state reporters, and they more than meet readers' demands and our needs," said Statesman Editor Fred Zipp

In similar fashion, the Statesman has no plans to use copy generated by In Fact Daily, the online subscription newsletter the company recently purchased. The purchase surprised insiders, who never sensed any interest from the paper in IFD's daily coverage news of community boards and City Hall. "It is my belief that such highly specialized content is the answer to the debate about what people are willing to pay for on the web," said Statesman Publisher Michael Vivio, in an e-mail.

In Fact Daily will continue to operate as a "separate and independent business," Vivio said – and there are no plans to integrate IFD's content into the Statesman. "The two publications have different audiences," Vivio wrote. "The In Fact reader has a different interest in the happenings at City Hall because often his/her income is tied directly to what happens."

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