The Texas Tribune Is Losing its Three Founders But Is Ready to Take on the New Year

John Thornton, the Tribune's co-founder and venture capitalist, is relinquishing his board seat at the turn of the year. Ross Ramsey retired, and Evan Smith is handing the CEO role over.

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi speaks with Texas Tribune CEO, Evan Smith during a panel at The Texas Tribune Festival
Evan Smith speaks with Nancy Pelosi at the Texas Tribune Festival. Getty Images

The Texas Tribune is losing its three founders after 13 years involved in the publication. Venture capitalist John Thornton, its cofounder, is relinquishing his board seat at the turn of the year, the company announced Dec. 27. Earlier this year, co-founders Ross Ramsey and Evan Smith said they’d step back from the Tribune.

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The nonprofit digital news site has earned a myriad of state and national awards for its coverage in Texas politics and policy. Thornton had the vision for the Tribune and served as the first investor and board member. With his backing, Ramsey and Smith launched the publication in 2009. Ramsey was previously the editor and co-owner of Texas Weekly and Smith the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly.

Ramsey retired in May. Smith will be turning in his CEO title on Jan. 1 but will remain as a senior advisor to Sonal Shah, the new chief executive, for one year.

For many news organizations, 2022 has brought cost cuts, layoffs and closures due to advertisers pulling back on spending in anticipation of a recession. Gannett (GCI), which owns local newspapers like the Texas-based Austin American-Statesman and El Paso Times, has laid off 600 workers since August, representing less than 5 percent of its workforce. It also required employees to take unpaid time off in December and paused hiring. Protocol, a tech news site, shuttered in November and laid off more than 60 employees. But for the Tribune, this leadership change signals something different, according to Smith.

“With John, Ross and me departing in different ways this year, we all feel so good about the state of the organization that we can leave,” Smith told the Observer.

In 2022, the Tribune raised the most money and garnered the biggest audience since its launch, Smith said. And it is on track to raise more in 2023. While for-profit news organizations rely on subscriptions and advertising revenue, which are affected by the economy, the Tribune is funded by foundations and corporate sponsors and hasn’t faced the same issues, he said. The numbers for 2022 aren’t public yet, but in 2021, the Tribune earned more than $10 million in funding with 3.8 million unique monthly users.

Smith doesn’t expect any content or business strategy changes with Shah as CEO, and he said the board has not yet decided who will fill Thornton’s seat. Under Shah, the Tribune will be able to grow in ways Smith couldn’t set in motion, he said. The publication could rethink how its brand is situated in the world and earn more money to support journalism, he said. But as a founder, “I’m not sure I’d be the best person to lead that growth,” he said. “The keeper of the flame can’t be the agent of change.”

The Texas Tribune Is Losing its Three Founders But Is Ready to Take on the New Year