2015 General Excellence in Online Journalism, Small Newsroom finalist

About the Project

The Texas Tribune celebrated its fifth anniversary in November. That may seem young, but for an online, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization conceived during trying times in American journalism, it feels more like dog years.

In that time, we’ve grown from a brash startup with a few reporters and plenty of moxie into the largest newsroom in the nation devoted to statehouse coverage. With a combination of incisive daily reporting, deep-dive enterprise work, useful data interactives and visualizations, powerful photography and videography, an aggressive slate of free statewide events, and an annual festival that brings together hundreds of speakers and thousands of attendees, we’ve gone from being the new kid in town to a vital resource for anyone interested in Texas policy and politics.

As we marked this milestone, the conversation at the Tribune wasn’t nostalgic; it was questioning: How can we tell stories better? How can we engage more Texans in the crucial business of state government? How are the actions of elected officials — local, statewide, even national — affecting the lives of Texans?

We got a great head start in the last 12 months.

It was a year of high-impact investigative projects, starting with Hurting for Work, a four-part deep-dive into Texas’ troubled — and, unlike every other state, voluntary — workers’ compensation system. More than six months of reporting and data analysis revealed horrific injustices and tragic tales. One story in the series detailed the traffic death of a father and husband driving for work; the insurance company disputed his widow’s claim then filed suit against her and her young children. Within days of publication, the insurer dropped the suit. After subsequent reporting revealed that a state-mandated 24-hour worker safety hotline was anything but around-the-clock, the state moved quickly to reinstate it.

Meanwhile, we embarked on two related series exploring the flip side of the much-touted Texas economic miracle: Falling Behind took a hard look at the side effects of the state’s growth, from gridlocked roads to suffering schools. Bypassed by the Miracle examined the people and communities on whose backs the state’s economic success was built.

Two other major projects marked a big foray into news partnerships. Our Blood Lessons investigation, produced in collaboration with The Houston Chronicle, showed how little safety measures and death rates have improved in Texas refineries a full decade after the deadly Texas City explosion. And Undrinkable, a dual language project with Univision, exposed how terrible access to safe, clean drinking water is for many of Texas’ poorest residents.

This big investment in enterprise reporting paid off in the fall, when we unveiled The Shale Life, a 15-part multimedia series examining the impact — good, bad and uncertain — of the massive energy boom in South and West Texas. From regions that have always been poor to parts of the Permian Basin that have seen repeated booms and busts, the surge of drilling activity has brought prosperity and countless new jobs — along with damaged infrastructure, exploding housing costs and interruption of services.

The Shale Life project was notable for us in two key ways: First, the series was almost entirely multimedia, relying on video, slideshows and data visualizations to tell stories with very little text. Second, it was our inaugural foray into crowd-funding journalism — asking interested readers to help defray the costs incurred by reporters fanning out across the state.

We produced these big projects while never loosening our grip on the daily watchdog journalism that is our trademark — from quick hits on outgoing Gov. Rick Perry’s felony indictment on abuse-of-power charges, to a series analyzing his sweeping legacy after a record 14 years in office. We owned the 2014 elections and Democrats’ failed endeavor to turn Texas purple, and we continued to track Perry’s growing presidential ambitions.

And we did it with the Trib’s hallmark emphasis on using new technology to advance storytelling. Delivering on a Kickstarter campaign promise — one made on the heels of 2013’s now-famous Wendy Davis filibuster — to livestream as many political events as possible, we hit the road with our newly purchased technology. While gubernatorial election coverage was our forte, we didn’t stop there; we streamed Texas Tribune events, press conferences, interviews, debates — anywhere we could squeeze in a camera and a microphone.

We sent a journalist armed with a pinging GPS chip and water quality testing equipment out for seven months to trace the length of the Rio Grande River by foot and kayak, exploring the health and value of a highly contested — and rapidly dwindling — source of water. The resulting project is the incredible Disappearing Rio Grande series.

Big, ambitious projects are exciting to execute, but the Trib also continues to use technology to serves its readers in small but crucial ways. Our many apps — from our huge salary and prison databases to our hospital explorer, bill-tracking interactives, basketball-style election brackets, school lesson-plan collection and multiyear higher ed outcome tracker — all seek to put meaningful and accessible information in the hands of Texans.