An open letter to nonprofit news leaders: marathon, not sprint

You’re going to feel like you need to do more at the same time you’re less confident about the money coming in the door.

Although I hope to remain associated with the Texas Tribune and the American Journalism Project as long as they will have me, this note comes from an entirely personal perspective. It’s addressed, with all due humility, to the leaders of America’s nonprofit news organizations. Well, with some due humility — and also with some advice both unsanctioned by my AJP colleagues and unsolicited by you.

Last week’s cascade of alarming news about all things COVID-19 reminded me of the last time I wondered if the world was coming apart, in the third quarter of 2008. September 15 of that year is etched in my mind with particular indelibility.

For starters, that Monday signified the end of an era on Wall Street.

At midnight, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy after 158 years in business.

In the afternoon, the Treasury Department held a shotgun wedding between Merrill Lynch and Bank of America after a scant two days of negotiations. No cake was served.

And by day’s end, it was clear that AIG — a company with almost no name recognition but more than $1 trillion in assets — was in deep distress. $180 billion deep, as it turned out, when a few months later the US Treasury wrote its biggest corporate bailout check ever.

Poof. Three pillars of the global financial establishment reduced to rubble, seemingly over a weekend. It was attention-getting, to say the least.

September 15 is also the day that most people remember as the beginning of the Great Recession — the second largest global economic downturn in recorded history. We spent weeks not really knowing if our global financial system would hold. Young people who came of age during this time are far less likely than their parents to believe in the legitimacy of the whole capitalist shebangle. Understandably so — it was a truly awful time for most Americans.

Let me be clear: I’m not equating a past financial crisis, however severe, with a truly frightening pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives and will claim many more. But I call out September 15, 2008 for a reason that would be a mere asterisk to a footnote if my intended audience weren’t who it is.

September 15 also turned out to be the day I filed the incorporation papers for Steady Strain Media, a side project I had been fiddling with out of concern for the direction of the newspaper business. When I convinced Ross Ramsey and Evan Smith to become my co-founders in early 2009, Steady Strain became the Texas Tribune.

Since then, Ross and Evan have built a team that has in turn built something special beyond my wildest imaginings. Having a front-row seat to their continuing journey has been one of the great joys of my life. Having the luxury of being just another back-bench board member (and yes, opinionated founder) for the past several years is another one.

I tell this part of the Tribune origin story at this rather wretched moment not because of the Tribune’s successes, but because things could have just as easily gone the other way. Our timing, at least financially, positively stunk. And let’s face it, the word sustainable in this line of work still comes with obligatory air quotes, even after more than a decade of doing a helluva lot more than just sustaining.

Like most startups I’ve been involved with, we came dangerously close to running out of money. For a brief while, I took to calling Evan “Sully,” after the US Airways pilot who managed to land a distressed airliner in the Hudson River in early 2009. “Your f — -ing airplane,” I told him. “I’m just the money guy.”

That turned out to be an exceedingly good call. Evan and his team kept the plane aloft by doing what makes this work so exhausting sometimes: they “bear hugged their mission” (one of a thousand memorable Evanisms), while pinching pennies until their fingerprints disappeared under copper. The team had several chances to spend their way out of business — but they didn’t. A couple of bad choices and the Tribune wouldn’t exist today — but it does, emphatically so.

The joy I find in this rather miraculous fact is matched perhaps only by the fact that there are now so many of you doing indispensable and not infrequently heroic work leading nonprofit news organizations. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we are likely headed into an economic spell that will suck to high heaven for heaven knows how long, while our day-to-day lives are disrupted as we’ve likely never seen. This is a time that will profoundly test our resolve and resourcefulness, just for starters.

What makes all this yet more complex is how each and every one of you is wired. You are going to feel like, in this time of scarce resources, you still need to do more — more journalistically, more to advance the mission. More.

Here begins my unsolicited advice, tough love version: resist that temptation. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re even a little unsure about hiring someone or incurring an expense — especially for the next 90 days — just don’t. What counts more than any potential project right now is the financial security of the enterprises you’re building. They are the no-shit future of the news ecosystem that must underpin our democracy, on account of the fact that the one that our democracy came with simply no longer can. The more counter-intuitive your decisions may seem, the more important they probably are. Breathe deeply, step away from the checkbook, and go check your cash balance.

At the same time, revenue of all kinds will be harder to come by, although your exclusively mission-driven value proposition becomes nothing but more distinctive in hard times. If you’re uneasy about asking for money by highlighting the current crisis as an open-and-shut case for the importance of local, non-commercial news, don’t take my word for it. Follow Lady MacBeth’s advice to her weak-chinned husband and “screw your courage to the sticking place.”

At the same time, be strategic about whom you ask, for what, and when. It’s particularly hard for donors to add new grantees in times like these. They’re concerned about supporting their existing commitments out of a pot of money that is probably much smaller than it was only a month ago. A little donor empathy and relationship building now could pay big dividends down the line. Remember, marathon, not sprint.

Anybody who isn’t a little wigged out right now is plainly catatonic. They are also the object of my unrestrained envy. The rest of us are all worried about the health of our kids and aging relatives. Worried about our staff, and their kids and aging relatives. Really worried about child care. About 401Ks. Worried about what would happen if Slack went down. Worried about everything from the future of our democracy to the future of toilet paper.

But we’ll get through this for three reasons: the work is more important than ever, your fellow citizens increasingly know that, and we are all part of a nonprofit news community that cares about one another deeply.

All that, and good things really can happen when you manage to bear hug the mission while pinching the pennies.

Thank you for all you do. I’m with you all in deed where it’s possible and in spirit where it’s not.

John Thornton is co-founder of the American Journalism Project. He has been a venture capitalist at Austin Ventures since 1990, where he has co-led the technology practice for more than two decades. He also co-founded venture capital firm Elsewhere Partners in 2017. In 2008, John founded the Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.