Texas, as you might have heard, is quite big. Even a semi-recent transplant, the Texas Tribune’s editor-in-chief Sewell Chan, can tell you that El Paso is as close to Los Angeles as it is to Beaumont and that the Lone Star State could fit many, many smaller states inside its vast borders.
This geographic expanse is one hurdle to clear as the Tribune seeks to revamp its policy coverage to include stories and perspectives outside the shadow of the state capitol in Austin. The nonprofit outlet has announced plans to hire reporters in the Panhandle-South Plains, East Texas, Rio Grande Valley, and Permian Basin regions, along with a regional editor to oversee their coverage.
Chan, who joined the Tribune from The Los Angeles Times last year, said the newsroom is working to become less Austin-centric.
“There’s a whole debate right now about the Washington-centric nature of political news in America. When everything is refracted through the one powerful capital, what distortions does that produce?” Chan said. “I think in Texas, we have a similar challenge on a different scale. If all news is refracted through the perspective of Austin’s lawmakers, regulators, lobbyists — all of whom have immense power — does that mean that we’re not getting the diversity of perspective from the various parts of the state?”
In addition to its Austin headquarters and a bureau in Washington, D.C., The Tribune currently has reporters working from Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio. This new expansion, however, will mark the first time Tribune reporters are living and working outside of major metropolises. The selected regions have smaller cities, more rural areas, and many underserved communities.
“What is being said in Austin may be different than what is being felt in Lufkin and in Lubbock,” senior managing editor Ayan Mittra noted. “We want to make sure that perspective is being heard by our statewide audience, as well as lawmakers who are consistently changing and redirecting policy.”
“We’re going into this with a very clear mission to represent the impact of state politics and policy in these different communities and not assuming that policy affects people in the same way,” Mittra added.
The vision comes with some potential pitfalls. Chan said he’s already begun to think about how to ensure the reporters stationed in these regions don’t feel isolated and unsupported compared to the rest of the (primarily Austin-based) Tribune staff. Perhaps more importantly, the Tribune has reached its 13th year thanks, at least in part, to its strict focus on statewide politics and policy coverage.
“One of the areas I’m concerned about, honestly, is maintaining the organization’s cohesion and identity,” Chan said. “We started off as the statehouse bureau for Texas and I want to expand what covering the statehouse means, but I don’t want to lose what makes the Texas Tribune special, which is that we know our lane, and we try to stick to our lane. Because, first of all, that’s a formula for success in media. Not trying to do everything for all people, but rather asking, ‘What audiences can we serve uniquely well?’”
The Lubbock-based reporting position stems from a partnership with Report for America — a first for the Tribune — and the East Texas role will be funded in part by the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. The nonprofit newsroom said they are “in the process of securing funding” for the two other reporting positions.
The new regional reporters will be asked to team up not just with the Tribune’s existing beat reporters but with community and local media as well. Partnering with other news outlets is “embedded in the DNA of this organization,” Mittra said, pointing to recent coverage produced with The Beaumont Enterprise, The Military Times, and local public radio, among others.
And though local coverage has shrunk in recent years — between 2004 and 2019, Texas lost nearly 200 newspapers — the first counties that the Tribune aims to expand into have existing outlets, including daily newspapers. The new regional reporting, like the rest of the Tribune’s work, will be free for Texas news outlets to republish.
“We are not here to compete with the local news outlets,” Chan said. “We are here to supplement, complement, be additive.”