First Layoffs in Texas Tribune History Raise Questions About Future of Texas News

Still unclear why criminal justice coverage was first to go

The Texas Tribune laid off 11 people this week (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After the bombshell news Wednesday that The Texas Tribune had laid off 11 people – an engineer, the entire multimedia team and copy desk, and two reporters and an editor covering criminal justice, voting rights, and communities of color – staffers were waiting for an explanation.

They had been aware of financial troubles since the spring, and were told that layoffs were a possibility, but they had no idea they were imminent.

When Senior Editor David Pasztor got an email from human resources inviting him to a 15 minute meeting Wednesday, he knew it was over. After Alexa Ura and Jolie McCullough – two journalists that had been with the Tribune since soon after its start – got the same email, Ura and Pasztor spent the last few minutes before their firing finalizing what would become Ura’s last story with the Tribune.

That the Tribune, which has long seemed one of Texas’ most financially stable news orgs, would need to lay people off was shocking enough. That they chose to eliminate positions covering criminal justice and marginalized communities – in fact, eliminating its criminal justice beat altogether – was unfathomable for journalists and justice advocates statewide. Los Angeles Times reporter Keri Blakinger, who covered Texas prisons for years, summed it up on X (fka Twitter): “This is devastating not just to readers, but to the 120,000-plus people in Texas prisons who the Tribune apparently does not think merit coverage anymore.” So how did the Tribune come to that decision?

In an all-staff meeting Thursday morning, CEO Sonal Shah, Editor-in-Chief Sewell Chan, and the rest of the management team addressed reporters about their reasoning. In 2022, the Tribune had budgeted for a year-on-year revenue increase of 10%; come 2023, revenue was 5% below what it was the year before. Last year there were new hires in the regional team, and a new beat in mental health – hiring decisions that staff say were too hasty. Funds that aren’t dependent on donors – such as ad revenue – became harder to secure, and in Texas’ ever-increasingly polarized political climate, public institutions had pulled sponsorships, which make up about 35% of the Tribune’s revenue. Poynter reported that Shah and Chan will each take 10% pay cuts, and the layoffs will save the Tribune $1.1 million a year.

In response to the shortfall, Shah – who came on in January of this year – took recommendations from the senior management team, including Chan, Senior Managing Editor Ayan Mittra, and Director of Editorial Recruitment Andy Alford, and made the layoff decision. As Shah wrote in a note Thursday, the Tribune has also put two podcasts – the daily Brief and the weekly TribCast – on hiatus. The laid-off reporters will not be replaced, but there are two new hires to the sponsorship team and more planned for the development team. There now remain six coverage areas: politics and government, health, education, environment and energy, and regional. Shah did not explain the decision to cut criminal justice, and the Tribune did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment on that issue.

The layoffs shocked staff. Reporters had a sense that the Tribune was a place where their jobs could have longevity, a rarity in the industry. Shah addressed that feeling in her note: “We acknowledge this may affect your trust in us.” But she framed the decision as a necessity: “The Texas Tribune is not immune to external forces. We don’t get to opt out of the realities of an unsteady economy, an evolving media industry, the pressures of technology or the world in which we’re operating in.”

Former Tribune reporters were frustrated by Shah’s statement: Roxanna Asgarian, who covered courts and law for the Tribune until this year, wrote on X, “This doesn’t address why the two reporters eliminated focused on marginalized communities. Or why the development and fundraising teams up to now have literally been famous for raising adequate funding.” The New York TimesJay Root, who worked at the Tribune from 2011 to 2020, wondered, “Why did no one ever ask me to contribute to an effort to avoid this? Gotta think the Trib I knew would have screamed it from a moonlight tower if necessary.”

Director of the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ Prison & Jail Innovation Lab Michele Deitch called McCullough a “one-person form of oversight” of the prison system, especially in one of the most heavily incarcerated states in the nation. “Our prisons and our jails and our juvenile facilities are the most opaque institutions in our society,” she told the Chronicle. “Without reporters, it’s just closing up these places even more.” McCullough herself called the decision “an unthinkable disservice. The decision-makers should be held accountable.”

The move also brings up questions around the nonprofit model – one that many touted as the future of news but that is dependent on powerful sponsors and donors. Pasztor fears it signals a shift in the priorities of the Tribune. “The beauty of what Ross [Ramsey] and Evan Smith were trying to build was that you could use the nonprofit platform and not go down the same path to failure of so many dailies.” He says new leadership “totally neglects the actual mission that the Tribune was set up to do, which is to provide really excellent in-depth reporting on politics, governance, power, and so forth. Audience pursuit is trumping the journalism part. The farther they go down that path … they’ll basically become another in that range of media organizations holding out their tin cup and saying, ‘Please, please, we'll write whatever you want. Just give us money.’”

Ramsey and Smith, for their part as co-founders, have been publicly supportive of the journalists laid off and reluctant to step on current management’s toes. “I'm one of the co-founders of the Tribune, and I still believe strongly in the mission and the importance of its journalism,” Ramsey posted on social media Thursday. “I'm also retired, and I'm not here to second-guess any of the decisions managers have made and will be making in the future. I don't want to be that guy.”

Smith told the Chronicle Thursday, “I feel very emotionally attached to the organization, so this is a very sad day. I don't envy my very smart, very capable successor, somebody who I really respect and who I support, because I understand that being in this job requires tough decisions. Someone might say, ‘You're prioritizing revenue over journalists.’ I would say, revenue ends up being journalists. I think that what ultimately happens here is that the Tribune slims down to bulk up – that the Tribune may be reducing people in the newsroom at the moment in a difficult time. But the road forward involves bringing in more money to pay for more journalists. And if that is what happened, I'm 100% for that.”

But the rationale for where the cuts were made remains a mystery. “What will the people Jolie & I prioritized in our work take from the decision to cut our positions?” wrote Ura on Thursday. “Setting aside coverage of marginalized Texans, the most affected by government decisions, is not what I thought the Tribune was.”

Staff’s GoFundMe, set up Wednesday evening with a goal of $2,000, had raised almost $23,000 as of Friday afternoon.

*Editor's note Monday, August 28, 12:49pm: This story has been updated to reflect that women's health as a beat was not added last year, and Alexa Ura and Jolie McCullough have not been with the Tribune since its founding, but within a few years of it.

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Texas Tribune, Sonal Shah, Jolie McCullough, David Paszto, Alexa Ura

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