Editor’s note: In remarks at TribFeast, a dinner to support the Texas Tribune, Laura and John Arnold Foundation Co-Founder Laura Arnold discussed why she supports nonprofit journalism. Her remarks have been edited for publication.
It’s an honor to be here, as a member of the philanthropic community and, more importantly, as a citizen of our great state.
My mission tonight is to tell you why John [Arnold] and I support the Tribune specifically, and nonprofit journalism in general.
As many of you know, John and I run the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Our core objective is to improve people’s lives. That’s the most fundamental reason why we do this work. We look to develop – and implement – smarter policy solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems. We invest in a wide range of areas: criminal justice, climate, education, public finance, health care, public health, and what brings us here tonight, democracy.
The Tribune is a key partner in this work. And it’s a partner with which we share both values and mission.
First, we share an unparalleled commitment to excellence. We all know that an organization is only as good as the people lifting it. At our foundation, we’ve assembled a top-notch team of thinkers, experts, and change agents. Collectively, we identify problems, work on solutions, and make change happen.
We can say the same about the team at the Texas Tribune.
Their outstanding reporters saw Houston’s vulnerability to flooding months ahead of Harvey. Their beat writers have led the way in covering the tragedy of family separation at the border. Their reporters have exposed the harm professionals have suffered when their licenses are suspended because they couldn’t pay their student debt. And those are just a few highlights of recent memory.
Evan [Smith] and his team understand that transparency is a core tenet of our democracy. They shed light on big problems. And identifying these problems is a critical first step – because you can’t fix something unless you know what’s wrong with it.
And you can’t propose solutions unless you approach the problem with rigor. That’s yet another mantra that we share. We both start at neutral. We investigate. We research. And we let the evidence take us where it leads. Regardless of the politics. Regardless of ideology. Even if the policy recommendation is unpopular. Even if we get unfairly criticized.
John and I often describe ourselves as nonpartisan. In practice, that means that at any given moment, someone somewhere is upset because we’ve taken on a legacy problem that elected officials don’t have the will to tackle. But that’s what good policy work is about – making the tough choice. Taking the tough stance. And I know that Evan Smith and the team at the Texas Tribune share that conviction.
Now, why does a policy foundation care about nonprofit journalism? Because policy work won’t mean a thing if we have no democracy, if our political institutions are broken, and if there’s no check on power.
Unfortunately, we can’t rely solely on private journalism to carry the banner of transparency and rigorous reporting. The business model of journalism is broken. Advertising and circulation revenues can no longer sustain the business. Publishers are forced to chase eyeballs instead of searching for truth.
Think about this for a second: The number of employed journalists has fallen more than 60 percent since 2000 – a faster collapse than the coal mining industry experienced. That can’t be good for democracy.
In the last couple of years, the term “fake news” has been introduced into our national cultural vocabulary. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a media critic. I consider myself one. I rage against the media when I see sensationalist, oversimplified “gotcha” stories, when I read hyper-partisan coverage outside the editorial pages, or when a newspaper’s partisanship blatantly stands in the way of its objectivity.
But it’s one thing to criticize. It’s quite another to seek to undermine a free press.
We have to win this war of labels. We cannot allow hyperpartisan voices to redefine truth. The only fighting chance we have is to bury fake news in real news, well-reported news, news that makes you think, news that makes the world a better place. That news is the kind reported by the Texas Tribune.
We support them – and hope you will, too – because it is more than an act on behalf of journalism. It’s also an act of patriotism.
Thanks for coming tonight, and thank you, Evan, for sharing the podium with me.
The decrease in the number of employed journalists since 2000.