By Emilie Lutostanski, Local News Resource Center director

Having learned countless lessons during the last decade from testing products and revenue opportunities as a trailblazing digital nonprofit news business, The Texas Tribune — through its new Revenue Lab — now also aims to guide other news organizations into a future of progressive sustainability. 

Kickstarted with a $2.5 million lead gift from the Facebook Journalism Project, with another $1.5 million or more to be fundraised during the first three years, RevLab will “experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers,” according to the announcement from CEO Evan Smith

RevLab is led by two Texas Tribune veterans: Executive Director Rodney Gibbs, who shifted from the role of chief product officer, and Agnes Varnum, who signed on as deputy director in January after years leading the Tribune’s events business. They’re now establishing an advisory board of groups and individuals to help guide the direction and offerings, and have plans for RevLab to roll out in three stages over three years: 

  1. On-demand training for everyone 
  2. Topic-based workshops for selected cohorts
  3. Product development for The Texas Tribune (and eventually, everyone)

On-demand training for everyone

Revenue Lab staff will work from the 6th floor The Texas Tribune headquarters in downtown Austin.

RevLab is currently developing a catalog of publically available training resources commonly sought after by the local news community. In videos, documents and other curricula, RevLab will share from its deep knowledge base on topics such as how local news organizations can find success with fundraising, corporate contributions, membership, events, and more.  

Gibbs said Texas Tribune has long been happy to answer questions from other media organizations but designed RevLab as an opportunity to scale and make education more efficient. 

“Instead of having to do the same hour-long Q&A a thousand times, we can do it once and still have an open-door policy, but direct people to use online curriculum first,” he said. “Go take the freshman level course over here, then when you’re ready for your sophomore-level course, we could talk.” 

Topic-based workshops for selected cohorts

In a few months, RevLab will launch its first cohort workshop of ten to 20 news organizations that convene to focus on a specific topic related to sustainable revenue. Participants will have weekly in-person and online training over three months. 

“Three months is pretty short, particularly if people have other businesses to run and this is their two hours a week on the side,” he said. “I think that’s gonna be a big challenge; we need to test to figure out what’s realistic. We want them to feel accomplished, but they’re not going to go from zero to a 7,00-person Tribune Festival in 90 days.”

Given the near-universal interest in events among publishers, and Varnum being one of the nation’s experts on journalism events big and small, RevLab will focus its pilot cohort this spring on events.

The state-of-the-art Texas Tribune studio hosts private events. An area of high interest among other news organizations, events will be the focus of the pilot cohort this spring.

“We hear from organizations all over the country and in all areas of the news business, that they see potential with events but are having a hard time of it for one reason or another,” said Varnum, RevLab deputy director and Texas Tribune Festival director. “It’s an expensive line of business that seems risky for the uninitiated, but we know that there is a ton of opportunity when you bring people together. I’ll be sharing what we know by way of practical training and resources, like building a budget or a production timeline, while also hosting conversations around best practices.

“Events are a big piece of the revenue puzzle leading to sustainable journalism and its an area where RevLab can add value to the news start-up resources already available and growing.”

Agnes Varnum

Future cohorts will focus on areas where Texas Tribune has found success, such as garnering financial support from foundations, corporations and major donors. The two-person team at RevLab has been reaching out to other organizations that offer news industry training — such as Poynter, The Membership Puzzle Project, and WBUR’s BizLab — to gather best practices for training cohorts and complement those efforts by developing unique training topics.

To offer a more individualized experience, RevLab has budgeted for professional coaches that will be matched with each company to collaborate during and beyond the three-month workshop. 

“Coaches work with each member of the cohort individually, help them develop a plan, and then hold them accountable for that plan as they go through the program,” Gibbs said. “Coaches can stay in touch with them for about six months afterward as well.” 

While RevLab will rely some on internal Texas Tribune expertise — for example, Chief Revenue Officer April Hinkle for a workshop on corporate donations — Gibbs said they expect to hire the first contracted part-time coach as well as a full-time project manager in the next two to three months. 

Rodney Gibbs

“I anticipate as we start getting into video production and cohort selection, we’re going to need help — someone to keep the trains running on that in particular. Assuming we have multiple contract coaches, [the project manager] will be someone to help coordinate all the communication and the check-ins,” he said. “I think where we start hiring more full-time heads will be next year, when we get into the product development side.” 

Product development for The Texas Tribune (and eventually everyone)

Next year, RevLab will add an engineer, a user experience developer, a data analyst and potentially a second project manager to prototype different products and features. They’ll test and provide documentation for other organizations to learn from. 

“The idea with the product team is, let’s carve out a small squad of people who aren’t beholden to the daily news churn, and … they can be trying new ideas to generate revenue. Those could be ideas that we have on our wish list that we just haven’t gotten around to. They can be ideas that people in academia say, ‘We think there’s potential here.’ … Or it could be ideas that we just see or hear about elsewhere.

“They see what’s promising, what’s not, do a little user testing, and whatever seems to have potential, then we can move over into the Tribune itself,” Gibbs said. “If we’re testing, then have real-world data to assess. Whether it’s a soaring success or it’s a great failure, our plan is to be transparent with that and share it all. … And if it works, help others adopt it.” 

Some potential early ideas for the product team involve partnering with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, and projects with focus on transparency, such as where data comes from and the journalists behind the articles. Gibbs said he is also interested in ethical paywalls, in which a company or organization sponsors access for their employees or members who frequently traffic and find value in the site. 

Gibbs said the product phase of RevLab will allow focused effort on more long-term solutions to the most critical question in the journalism industry — sustainability.

“We’re pretty aware of where today’s dollars are coming from and tomorrow’s dollars are coming from. … But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where next year’s dollars are coming from, or next five years or 10 years,” he said. “Hopefully this group, by its own device but also in working with other peers and partners, will be more part of the conversation in trying to figure that out.”

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