Evan Smith on the Secret of Texas Tribune’s Success

Founder and CEO on the present and future of nonprofit journalism

Evan Smith in September 2018 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

A pitch meeting with Evan Smith resides somewhere between a very best man’s wedding toast and a reprise of Robert Preston in The Music Man. Delivering his one-man panel Wednesday afternoon, Smith was persuasive that working in nonprofit journalism “is not a job, it’s a calling.”

Smith, founder and CEO of The Texas Tribune, began by apologizing for his trademark marketing man’s best ensemble. “I’ve been to enough SXSW’s over the years to know I shouldn’t show up looking like the guy who flushes everybody’s weed down the toilet. What can I say – I’m afraid that’s my brand.”

He followed that ingratiating opener with an extremely polished, high-energy 45-minute presentation, aiming to explain both the mission and subsequent success of the Tribune, founded “9 years, 4 months, and 10 days ago” – in the wake of his 18 years (as editor and briefly president) at Texas Monthly – as a model of journalism “performing a public service” by reporting state public policy news in a steadily diminishing landscape for news produced for profit.

In a presentation apparently adapted from his fundraising rounds for big donors – perhaps with slightly more profanity – Smith sketched the decline of the media business (in Texas as elsewhere) and the corollary decrease in the available information for far too many people, especially voters, especially outside major cities. (Noted in passing: “Texans likes to think of ourselves as exceptional, and we are: We have the shittiest voter turnout in the country.”)

Smith said he had arrived in Texas (from New York) in 1991, and in the years since, the number of reporters working in Capitol bureaus had declined by two-thirds. That means, while the state population is expected to double in 25 years, there are fewer and fewer sources where people can get news about state policy – health care, transportation, the environment, what have you – meaning voters are less and less informed about the laws and policies directly affecting their lives.

“This is about democracy, not about journalism,” Smith said, insisting that the fundamental mission of the Tribune is “for the purpose of educating the people of Texas.”

Framing the Tribune’s aggressively “nonpartisan” approach to reporting, he acknowledged that in the current online context and the popular imagination, “nonpartisan journalism” sounds increasingly oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp.” He proclaimed, in reference to political parties, that “both teams suck,” and that whatever the political opinions of Tribune reporters, they understand they have to “check that shit at the door,” and the Tribune itself does not “editorialize or endorse candidates.”

He offered a simple equation, appealing in theory to every listener, as “Smarter Texans = a better Texas.” The Tribune duly provides those Texans “a safe space to go get the news.”

“Our job is not to tell you what to think. Our job is to tell you to think.”

“Our job is not to tell you what to think,” he continued, “our job is to tell you to think.”

There was more of that sort of catchphrase (or platitude, according to your mood), but it is difficult to deny the success of the Tribune’s nonprofit model in a time when so many publications, physical or virtual, are disappearing or laying off working reporters by the hundreds. Smith has persuaded donors, foundations, and institutions to invest in the notion that there is an undeniable public good in the spread of unbiased information – Lord knows we endure daily bucketloads of the opposite – and he insists, “We believe in civility and civil discourse, but we hold people and institutions accountable.”

He cited a couple of important examples: his own acute questioning of Sen. Ted Cruz at the Tribune Festival, a day after Cruz had endorsed Donald Trump for president despite Trump’s vicious personal attacks on Cruz’s wife and father; and more recently, the breakthrough reporting of the Tribune’s Alexa Ura (and others) on the bogus “noncitizen voters” list released by the Texas secretary of state – although heavily reported elsewhere, Ura’s work (rooted of necessity in direct Capitol access) led the brigade.

After he grilled the senator, Cruz told him offstage, “You pressed me pretty hard, but at least you weren’t a dick,” thereby delivering Smith another slogan: “We press you pretty hard, but we’re not dicks.”

Smith described as well the Tribune’s other arms of information. There is the database that ranges from “everything available on school districts” to an unhappily predictive story, produced jointly with Propublica, on the likely effects of Gulf hurricanes – prior to Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of Houston. And there are the myriad public events – most notably, the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, but annually some 60 others across the state, which raise the publication’s profile and its funding.

Ah, the funding: Smith unapologetically brags about raising now $66.5 million over the 9+ years he’s been at it, spread across individual donors, foundations, growing memberships, corporate sponsorships, and events. “If I had to get a lower back tattoo,” he said bluntly, “it would be, This shit won't pay for itself.”

Reciting what he called the “five secrets” of the Tribune’s business model, he would answer the question about the implicit influence of all that money, which has allowed the organization to grow from 17 reporters to 63 in that same period. Number 5: “You can always get more money, you can’t get more integrity” – insisting that he can afford to watch major donors walk away if they dislike some particular coverage, because others will fill the gap. “We hold people in power and institutions accountable.”

The other four secrets: 1. “Free [distribution] is a business model” in order to accomplish the public service mission; 2. “Nonpartisan is not non-thinking” (“when bullshit needs to be called, we call bullshit”); 3. “Push, not pull” (to get a broader, more diverse Texas public into the conversation), and 4. “There are no competitors” in journalism, only potential collaborators (“We will hang separately, or survive together”).

In short, if he catches you by your lapels, Smith can convince you that for his brand of nonprofit journalism, there is indeed nothing but good times ahead. In his occasionally breathless but always entertaining oration, there was little room to ask how to re-educate a generation taught to believe that "Content is Free," nor what will finally happen to all those laid-off reporters streaming out of newsrooms into penury, and who will be their successors? The Tribune (or its imitators) can’t hire them all.

Lone Star Standout: The Secret of the Texas Tribune’s Success

Wednesday, March 13, J.W. Marriott Salon D

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