Recently the Texas Tribune held a fundraising drive. As is often the case with non-profits, the Tribune’s fundraising team came a lot closer to identifying the real product the group is selling than the organization’s official mission statement. While the Tribune’s “organizational overview” talks about “civic engagement and discourse,” the Tribune’s fundraisers are selling donations to the group as a way to become an “activist.”

Seriously. While the Trib’s fundraising levels range from “Student” and “Enthusiast” to “Benefactor,” the default setting is Activist” at $60. One level up and a donor can become an “Advocate,” for whatever that is worth.

The Tribune’s five day campaign included a lot of very interesting selling points. On day one, they implored readers to give so they could become “everyday insiders.” On Day four, they echoed that line, telling readers to “claim your seat at the table.”

There’s a table in Austin alright, and they’re divvying up your tax dollars. But you would have to be pretty naïve to think that giving Evan Smith $35 is going to get you a seat at it.

Day three brought a sales pitch that sounds like it could have been written for Empower Texans. After extoling the “power of data” (the subject is all the rage of politicos who followed the inside-game of the 2012 Obama machine), the Tribune argued that “access to public data promotes transparency and empowers Texans.” The group continued, claiming that, with your money, they can “provide Texans with the information they need to be better citizens at election time and all the time.”

The tribune had better watch it with all that talk about elections or else someone’s going to be calling them a PAC soon.

Only Day two sounded remotely like a pitch for a newspaper and not an advocacy organization. That day, the motto was “Support Texas news you can trust.” Unless it’s paid-for content, of course …

Day Five brought it all back to the election with the Tribune noting: “We know you’re invested in the 2014 election … we all are.” I guess many of us are invested emotionally in whatever candidates we care about and support, but plenty of the people giving to the Tribune seem to be invested financially as well.

Several months ago the Texas Tribune even caught flak from the left-wing Huffington Post, with author James Moore asking: “[C]an a news outlet take huge donations from lobbyists and corporations and not be influenced?”

My guess is, probably not. That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists, in its code of ethics, urges reporters to “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

And while the Tribune likes to talk about how it reveals its donors and notes conflicts of interest in its stories, what they don’t point out – but what was clear on the pledge drive website – is that donors can volunteer to give their money anonymously.

In the end, an organization’s credibility is built on what they say and what they don’t say. I don’t think I have a right to know the Texas Tribune’s donors, just as they don’t have a right to know the secret formula for Coca-Cola. However, there are many publicly known facts that suggest the Texas Tribune is very different from a traditional newspaper. Its fundraisers certainly don’t think of themselves as just journalists.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.