Thursday, June 20, 2019 by Dan Zehr

Publisher’s Note: A new chapter

A thriving and vibrant community requires a robust independent press, an engaged citizenry, and the evidence policymakers and citizens need to make informed decisions.

Since its inception almost six years ago, the Capital of Texas Media Foundation has sought to bring greater depth to the policy discussions that shape the lives of Austin residents.

Today, we’re announcing three new initiatives that will expand the scope of our mission. Each is designed to help mitigate the ongoing breakdown of civic engagement in Austin.

The first relates to the Austin Monitor, the very heart of this foundation. The rapid contraction of local newsrooms over the past decade has made it impossible for any single institution to sustain the breadth and depth of coverage our booming metro area needs. Central Texans must now turn to a growing array of news outlets to try to make up the shortfall.

In this media environment, COTMF believes a locally based, civically responsive and nonprofit news outlet must serve as the indispensable core of daily community journalism. So, in the coming months and years, we will begin to expand the Monitor’s coverage. While we’ll remain your eyes and ears around City Hall and other municipal entities, we’ll also begin to supplement that coverage with new, complementary beats.

Our second new initiative seeks to reverse the growing apathy of citizens toward government and other civic institutions. To this end, COTMF will be developing innovative programs that actively draw more residents into the policy and civic discussions affecting their lives. We will educate a broader cross-section of Central Texans and bring in a wider diversity of voices, helping to temper the dogmatic arguments that dominate Austin policy debates today.

This effort stems from a new merger between COTMF and Glasshouse Policy that formalizes the long-standing joint venture between the two nonprofit entities. The combination allows us to enhance existing programs, such as forums, budget game nights and our annual City Summit. But it also provides additional resources we can use to develop innovative methods to deliver information and help people of all stripes make their voices heard.

Third, COTMF is announcing the formation of a new, Austin-focused research organization. Austin is one of the largest cities in the country without a think tank dedicated to comprehensive research of its many growth and development issues. It’s long past time to fill that gap.

Thanks to a generous initial donation from Notley Ventures and Dan and Lisa Graham, COTMF has started laying the groundwork for this independent, nonpartisan research entity. We expect to have a research director on board by the second quarter of 2020, with a charge to build an independent, trustworthy and authoritative source of information about the metro’s rapid growth. This organization will provide the kinds of evidence both policymakers and citizens need to build an equitable, sustainable and vibrant future for Austin.

As a longtime Austin journalist, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of declining newspaper readership and civic engagement on the community. In my last newspaper job, as the economy reporter for the Statesman, I kept hitting the limits of what data and information could tell us about life in Austin. My colleagues and peers labored to deliver quality coverage of the region, even as our ranks thinned. We bemoaned the loss of interest we saw in news and civic life. And we tried to find new ways to create the data and evidence we needed to illuminate the forces that were changing our community, for better and for worse.

The new COTMF model begins to address these issues. It’s a new kind of civic institution – one that can begin to restore confidence in local government and local media, in part by building upon the confidence we still have in independent, nonpartisan research and analysis.

Of course, none of this will happen overnight, nor for free. We have launched a capital campaign to help build these critical institutions, and we will provide our readers and supporters with more information about these fundraising initiatives in the weeks to come.

It’s impossible to sit here today and promise that this new organization can ease the upheaval in Austin, in Texas or in any other community in the country. But we know the current environment will only result in a more deeply divided community, and we need to address the root causes.

If we hope to build the kind of vibrant and equitable community we believe Austin can continue to become, we know we will need at least these three elements: a robust independent press, an engaged citizenry and the evidence policymakers and citizens need to make informed decisions.

With your support, COTMF will deliver the information Austin needs to thrive. I look forward to working with you to build a new kind of civic institution, one that delivers the news, facilitates community engagement and produces the research that our city deserves.

Dan Zehr
Executive director, Capital of Texas Media Foundation
Publisher, the Austin Monitor

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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