By Ann Stern, Rich Kinder and Laura Arnold
Journalism is, at its core, a public service — and Houston could use more of it.
Our representative republic relies on an informed citizenry that has access to trustworthy, vital and actionable information that sheds light on problems and solutions, and provides a platform from which to spur reform. As Thomas Jefferson once said, it is preferable to have newspapers without government than government without newspapers.
But that twilight scenario Jefferson lamented is increasingly coming true. Misaligned market forces and outdated business models have caused a troubling erosion of journalistic resources nationwide. More than 2,000 newspapers have disappeared, leaving many cities with only a single newspaper of record, or worse, no newspaper at all. Information gaps are filled by partisan outlets that frame every issue to fit electoral ends, or by social media sites that care more about profit than the public good.
Even Houston, a city rich in local media in every language and on every platform, lacks news coverage at the size and depth appropriate for our chaotic, energetic, sprawling coastal metropolis. That is why we have decided to collectively invest $20 million for a new nonprofit newsroom in Houston. This newsroom will augment and strengthen the existing journalism ecosystem and add more resources to serve our community.
We made the decision to fund this new venture in response to an assessment conducted by the American Journalism Project. Their survey revealed an appetite for more resources to do focused beat reporting, news that is accessible in different languages and on various platforms, and journalism that directly connects journalists with the communities they serve. Houstonians had desire for coverage that reflected not only the meat and potatoes of news, but the rich cultural diversity of our region, from the proud history of Fourth Ward to increasingly international suburbs growing along the Katy Prairie and everything in-between.
More than anything, this is an investment in Houston’s future — but we can’t do it alone.
Our region’s success lies in the power of its populace to demand and drive change. Research has shown that in the absence of a reporter’s watchful eye, government corruption and mismanagement flourish, voter turnout plummets, and public finances go unchecked. The historic model of competing journalistic outlets struggles to give people everything they need to be fully informed about the civic institutions of their own hometown. Our proposed nonprofit newsroom will instead work hand-in-hand with existing outlets — print, digital, social media, radio and television — to put more reporters at work investigating local government, Houston-specific issues, and community needs. This is a Houston-centered agenda that will fill gaps and bolster coverage of critical stories in a way that will not only add to the existing news ecosystem, but also give journalists at other establishments more flexibility to dig deeper on their own work.
To that end, the organization will provide all journalistic content for free to all Houstonians and all media outlets. The journalism will be fiercely independent and nonpartisan without editorial control or influence by its funding sources.
The announcement today is only the beginning – there are a great number of details to be ironed out. A search committee is actively looking for a new CEO and managing editor who will be responsible for developing the mission, vision, name and hiring the staff of people to execute the hard work. We hope to begin publishing by the end of this year, but that will depend on finding the right candidates who are committed to forging a new vision for Houston journalism that is as big and bold as Houston itself. And it depends on Houstonians stepping up to demand a city as great as its people.
Ann Stern is President and CEO of the Houston Endowment, a private foundation that partners with others to achieve a vibrant and inclusive region where all residents can thrive. Rich Kinder is chairman of the Kinder Foundation, a philanthropy that seeks to transform Houston in significant ways and help people realize a healthy and rewarding quality of life. Laura Arnold is the co-founder and co-chair of Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to maximizing opportunity and minimizing injustice.