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The most meaningful conversation in the months before we launched The Texas Tribune is still on my calendar all these years later. It was Sept. 23, 2009. Late that afternoon our founder, John Thornton, and I met a biotech entrepreneur named Matt Winkler for a drink in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. We were in fundraising mode, and Matt — who had means (he had started and sold several companies) and motivation (he was a big supporter of public media) — was one of our prime targets. John knew him better than I did. Whether we could convince him to support our startup news org was anyone’s guess.
We arrived at 5 p.m., got pleasantries out of the way and surrounded him with sound (we tended to do that in those days). John talked, I talked, John talked, I talked, John talked, I talked. Here’s the problem we’re trying to solve, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to do it, here’s how you can help. Public service, innovation, decline in the number of newspapers and reporters, low voter turnout, civic engagement, blah blah blah. Not much reaction from Matt. He listened patiently but silently. He was polite but seemed not terribly interested.
An hour passed — quickly. We hadn’t made the sale. Oh, well. It happens. I looked at my watch and remembered my wife and I had bought tickets to a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, so I got up and explained I needed to leave. I extended my hand to Matt. He got up, extended his, and said, flatly, “OK, I’m in for a hundred.”
There was a pause. I expected the next word would be “dollars.”
Instead he said, “thousand.” I was floored. And then he said, “Go save my democracy.”
Matt’s words have been ringing in my ears ever since. He got it in a way that we hadn’t. From that moment forward they defined in my mind what the Tribune was going to be about — how I would talk to big groups and small about our values and our purpose. We were in the journalism business; no doubt about that. But this was not about journalism. This was about motivating civic participation by educating millions of Texans about the issues in play, the fights being waged in their names in state and local government, and the stakes they have in the outcomes of those fights — how laws passed and budgets approved, and not passed and not approved, affect their daily lives. This was about creating more thoughtful and productive citizens. This was about enabling a better state by better informing more of our friends and neighbors. This was about democracy.
As I prepare to step down as the CEO of the Tribune, I’ve been asking myself over and over: How we’d do? What did we do right and wrong? What should we have done differently? What should we have done that we didn’t do? And, of course, after I go, what can I and you and all of us do to keep us on the right path forward?
Democracy still needs saving, but we’re getting there. In Texas, and in journalism, because the Tribune existed, we’re better off than we were 13 years ago. I’m enormously proud of all we’ve accomplished. And in fairness, threats to democracy have changed since 2009 in ways none of us could have predicted. They are more of them, and they’re more pernicious. They’re embraced not just by the fringes but by some in the mainstream, by people in charge. The job is bigger than any one of us, or any one org.
We have to keep going. And that we includes you.
Over the last 13 years, your support has been crucial to our success — to our ability to do the hard and important work of searching for the truth and holding the powerful accountable. Over the next 13 and beyond, it will be even more crucial. The reality of a nonprofit news org like the Tribune is that we rely on the generosity of individuals and institutions who embrace our mission to fund our operations. We do this for you, for all of you, but no matter how long we do it or how big we get, we cannot do it without you.
As the population of Texas grows and changes, as the issues get more numerous and more complex, as politics and politicians get meaner and uglier and more unwilling to be scrutinized, Texans increasingly need a place to go to get reliable, credible, independent news. That’s the simplest reason and the best reason for continuing to give what you can to the Tribune. The demand is real. Our team of capable, committed journalists and their exceptional output are the supply. It’s why my wife, Julia, and I will be Texas Tribune donors every month for the rest of our lives. Once more, with feeling: Join us.
Take care, and take care of each other. It’s been fun. It’s been real. It’s been a calling more than a job. And it’s been an honor — the honor of my lifetime.
Matt Winkler was spot on. What he said to me and John is my final message to you as CEO: Go save my democracy. I’ll be watching.