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These things happen in threes. In January, I became the first of the Tribune’s trio of leaders at launch to announce plans to step down. What I knew at the time but few others did was that Ross Ramsey, our managing editor on day one and our executive editor nearly ever since, intended to exit himself in just a few months.
That left John Thornton. Ross and I were co-founders of our nonprofit news org. John was our founder — the visionary venture capitalist who hired us away from good jobs to take a leap of faith on behalf of public interest journalism and join him in a well-meaning but uncertain effort to build a mission-driven media brand. John was our first money in, our first board chair and an active member of our board all these years. Turns out that’s coming to an end, too. At the end of 2022, he’s giving up his board seat. The transition from founding to sustaining will be complete.
Not enough has been said or can be said about John’s role or contribution. None of this — none of us, none of you — would be here without him. He had the idea that Texas needed a reliable, credible, independent source of news and information, a means of raising the level of civic engagement and civilizing the conversation about issues and ideas. He recruited me to be CEO and helped convince reporters and other potential staffers that we were serious and had a chance to succeed. He passed the hat among friends and acquaintances and collected pledges that allowed us to staff up and get the thing off the ground. He worked his connections at national foundations to get us on their radar screens — relationships that remain critical today.
John was the inspiration, the motivation, the proud papa, the loyal friend who tells you the difficult things you need to hear and holds you accountable, and always, always the smartest person in the room. More than anything, he was the true believer — he never stopped carrying the flag for this thing we were doing — and he made us true believers.
It is also the case that nonprofit journalism across the country would not be here without him. Because John founded the Tribune, dozens of communities from coast to coast and border to border have their own news orgs patterned after ours. They followed in our footsteps, but really they followed in his.
And because John went on to co-found the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy firm dedicated to starting and growing local news nonprofits, his impact on our industry and our democracy has been many times greater. When the modern history of journalism is written, John will be celebrated for all he accomplished and all he enabled. He’s a pathbreaker. A change agent. A public citizen. A hero.
Point of personal privilege: He’s my hero. I have been lucky over more than 30 years to build a career I’m proud of — and to have been more successful than I deserved to be. I had a handful of really great jobs, notably at Texas Monthly, where I was the editor for many years. But nothing compares to the Tribune. This was the place where I did my very best and most important work, where every day I got to be a force for good. Where I got to change lives. Where I got to make this state I love so much better by making my friends and neighbors better informed. That’s all because of John. I’m forever in his debt.
He’ll be gone in a few weeks, but he’ll never be far away. His voice will live in the heads of everyone at the Tribune, including and especially my successor, Sonal Shah. She knows how important John is to our origin story — to our values. At the same time, she knows that 2022 is the year of the passing of the torch. It says a lot about how far the Tribune has come that the founders, the three of us, feel good about taking our leave.
Thank you, John, for everything.
Disclosure: Texas Monthly has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.