All Politics Is Local at Texas Tribune Festival

Evan Smith leads the fest's move Downtown and brings national newsmakers to Austin

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith in his natural habitat (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Does Steve Bannon get out of bed for less than $10,000? We may never know, since he straight-up blew off Evan Smith's invitation to appear at this weekend's Texas Tribune Festival – for free, just like the hundreds of other people in the program.

The portly wingnut, last seen trendjacking the rise of neo-Nazism across the pond, did say yes to an invite to The New Yorker Festival next month, but saw that (paid) gig implode within 24 hours of its announcement after a social media shitstorm and a talent strike by other high-profile festival presenters. Smith, the co-founder and CEO of the Tribune, got a small taste of that same opprobrium when he tweeted out that he'd tried and failed to get Bannon here. "We invite people from all sides," he says, noting that he'd also reached out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (The Bronx star at least took the time to decline.)

"The reality is that Bannon's input is still being felt in the administration, and his people are still in the administration," Smith continues. "But I realize in the case of Bannon specifically, that trying to understand where he's coming from is a 'hell, no' for many people, and my thinking about that is different now than it was before. It was useful input for me that the lens of festival planning is not always a useful lens. And I'm elated not to be going through what The New Yorker has gone through."

Bullet dodged, but the fact the shot was even fired illustrates how much distance TribFest has traveled in its eight years of existence. Beginning life as, basically, Texas Tribune Live!, delving deep into the policy and politics of our own Great State and featuring much of the Capitol crowd, the event is now a stop on the national (and even international) ideas festival circuit, attracting many of the most famous names in politics and media. It's grown dramatically in attendance and in density, to the point where it's decamped its former grounds on the UT campus for a Downtown footprint that includes a Saturday street fair on Congress Avenue.

Yet TribFest still aims to offer the Texas-style red meat that is the Tribune's raison d'etre, maintaining journalistic integrity (see: not paying people) and authenticity alongside the meet-and-greets and live podcast tapings and one-on-ones with about a dozen past, present, and future presidential candidates. (Not including Beto O'Rourke, who's doing the closing keynote. His opponent will be elsewhere.) "About one-third of [festival programming] is stuff that entirely lines up with what we cover in the Tribune," says Smith. "I've made the decision to extend it into the national and global space because those issues affect Texas. Once upon a time, Texas being a walled city was a possibility, but we can no longer do that in an interconnected world, so we've increasingly done those conversations."

Conceptually, TribFest predates the Tribune itself; when Smith was still "just the lowly editor" of Texas Monthly, he started exploring the idea of a festival to extend that magazine's brand and reach, without much enthusiasm from his colleagues. Those explorations linked him up with South by Southwest Managing Direc­tor Roland Swenson and then-UT President Bill Powers; then just as the three parties solidified plans for the first Texas Monthly Festival, 10 years ago, Lehman Brothers collapsed and we were off to the Great Reces­sion races.

The following spring, Smith left TM to establish the Tribune, and brought the festival idea with him, in keeping with the fledgling online publication's commitment to events as "just another delivery mechanism for journalism," as fellow co-founder and current Executive Editor Ross Ramsey puts it. "The festival is what happens if you do a bunch of that at the same time." Coinci­dentally, that's when Tanya Erlach, a talent manager for the New Yorker Festival on her way to live in Austin, pitched Swenson and SXSW on the concept of a politics vertical at that conference; instead, they sent her over to Smith, who hired her as the Tribune's first events director, responsible for finally bringing TribFest to life in the fall of 2011.

We're Going Downtown

The September date was originally set to be as far away from SXSW as possible, although the on-campus setting required working around football weekends; it also constrained the meat of the programming to Saturday and Sunday, when classrooms were not in use. "We always had light attendance on Sunday mornings," says Erlach's successor Agnes Var­num, describing big names and deep panels playing to half-empty rooms. (Varnum is married to Chronicle music editor Raoul Hernandez.) "And we have corporate partners who didn't want to have to give up their Saturdays."

So this year's event starts on Thursday (today) – actually, it started on Wednesday evening with a separate-ticket Franklin Barbecue feast with New York Times Exec­u­tive Editor Dean Baquet – with "Friday being the policy-wonk day for people who are actually working when they're here, and Saturday as the public day," says Varnum. "That's where we started reconceiving the event with a Downtown footprint."

Decamping from campus came about for several reasons. One is simple capacity; registered attendance has grown five-fold since 2011, to about 5,000 last year. Another is a passel of limitations and restrictions and Board of Regents rules, constraining the outside sponsorship upon which TribFest (and the Tribune) depend heavily. "They were already making an exception for us," Varnum notes. "We knew that our time at UT was probably waning and that we needed to think about the next iteration."

Smith says, "They were great partners, but we outgrew them and they outgrew us, and it was time for the relationship to transition to separate corners. They were great and gracious hosts, but it was time for us to spread our wings and fly."

Fly where, though? The typical event of this sort lands at a convention center or hotel, but Varnum says, "Evan has a strong aversion to standard event venues." With the new Tribune offices at 10th and Con­gress, in the heart of the Pink Dome Zone and with its own event space, and the precedent of the Texas Book Festival for an event centered on Congress and the Capitol, "all the stars aligned to bring it Downtown.

"Everything's between our office and the Driskill [Hotel] or St. David's [Epis­copal Church], which is a shorter walk than between AT&T [Events Cen­ter] and Hogg [Aud­i­torium]" on campus, Varnum continues. Other major venues include the Texas Public Policy Foundation's event center, the Paramount and Stateside theatres, and Capital Factory at Eighth and Brazos; the "Festival Hub" itself is at Eighth and Con­gress. Some special events are farther afield – such as Beto's keynote at the Long Center and "trivia night" with MSNBC's Steve Kor­nacki at Scholz Garten – but in general, expect more scooter traffic than usual on the north side of Downtown.

Plus, there's the Open Congress street festival, which along with food trucks and booksignings and the Texas A&M Agrilife Water Bus and yoga on the Capitol lawn, features a lot of the big-name, out-of-town guests, from Bill Bradley and Amy Klobu­char to Kornacki and DeRay Mckesson. All of that is free to you and me, for which Varnum and the TribFest team had to both plan and fundraise on the fly with what, in festival terms, is very little lead time. "Everybody wanted to do it, but we were inventing the whole thing as we were putting it together," she says.

Finding a Unicorn?

The Tribune's mission to "inform and engage Texas on issues that affect their lives in a nonpartisan way," as Varnum puts it, gave impetus to creating a free component to the organization's only paid event. "Generally speaking, a public service mission is best done without a paywall," Smith says. "If we want [TribFest] to accomplish what we want, we have to make it so people can afford to come. Our model has always been to make what we produce available for free and find something or someone else to pay for it. The festival isn't trying to raise money, but to raise the level of civic engagement."

“If I were to get a lower back tattoo, it would say, ‘This shit doesn’t pay for itself.’” – Evan Smith, Texas Tribune CEO

Nevertheless, Smith adds, "We make tons of money at the festival," for which he has no apologies. "If I were to get a lower back tattoo, it would say, 'This shit doesn't pay for itself.' Generating revenue creates more opportunity to create amazing journalism." The festival's rack-rate ticket price of $300 (discounts for students, educators, groups, and Tribune financial supporters; pricier VIP "executive" passes available for those who are into that) is pretty standard for events like this, and sponsors make up the difference.

All nonprofit media – from PBS to the Tribune to the Austin Monitor – has to deal with the ethical trap of depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful to reach the masses, but the festival circuit can be especially sticky since those elites are often also the attendees. "The two questions for an ideas festival are always, 'Is it financially viable?' and, 'Is it intellectually interesting?'" says Dan Drezner, Tufts University professor, Washington Post columnist, and author of The Ideas Industry, a deep dive into exactly this topic.

"You want to have enough resources to bring in people who are interesting not just to elites but to a broader population," Drez­ner continues, "so you have people there other than private equity fund managers or lobbyists. But to fund that, you need to have moneyed interests having a stake in the event. You can find a benefactor who's sufficiently heterodox in its thought to want to see people invited whom they don't agree with, but that's often looking for a unicorn."

Yet that is, so far, what TribFest has been able to do, at least in the aggregate – the sponsor list includes big corporates like Walmart (the presenting sponsor), universities and state agencies, and the ideological gamut of foundations (for example, both public school advocates Raise Your Hand Texas and charter school boosters the Arnold Foundation are on board). And once you scroll through the lengthy list on the web, you reach the disclaimer: "Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune Events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists, or line of questioning."

"When I talk about our events, this comes up all the time," says Varnum. "I think the nonprofit model gives us legs to stand on from the beginning. We'll engage with sponsors to help them reach their audiences, and we'll absolutely take suggestions for editorial, but what we do is journalism, and it's not connected to whether they give us money. We all know it. One of our sponsors changed their policy to only fund when their people are on panels. That was unfortunate, but it's a no-go for us."

On the other hand, since "the other thing that's prized these days is authenticity," in Drezner's words, that editorial independence can be a selling point not just to sponsors but to audiences. "These are all branding events to a degree, so the more you can make your festival part of an annual pilgrimage, you're going to succeed. You want it on people's radar, but you want to maintain equipoise." Having a national component, but also substantively discussing Texas politics, "can be the best of both worlds."

To Varnum, the audience she wants to reach, for both the Capitol inside baseball and the national punditry, is right outside the Tribune's door. "During session, there were regularly gatherings of hundreds and hundreds of people on Congress. How incredible would it be if we could get everyone who came to protest to come out for the next level of the conversation? To get people to literally come inside the tent [at Open Congress], meet with reps, challenge viewpoints, not just be angry but to participate and understand what their votes mean."

The Policy Mosh Pit

As with any festival or conference, a lot of that engagement happens in between and around the tents and meeting rooms. "It's a lot like what happens between classes in high school and college," says Ramsey. "There are people running into each other and talking over tacos at dinner. People have conversation and community they wouldn't have in their normal policy or geographic silos."

Other than to schmooze, what's in it for the speakers – particularly the lower-profile electeds and activists talking on the policy panels? "They seem to like the opportunity to get out and sell their ideas," says Ramsey. "They want to get something done, and as public figures they're not freaked out about being onstage. And as the festival has grown, they're more interested in talking to that audience, and there's a lot of media there, not just us."

For one such repeat presenter, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, "this is an opportunity to get into a policy mosh pit and show each other what we've got." (She's speaking this year on affordability in Texas cities with other officials from Houston, Dal­las, San Antonio, and El Paso.) "I've learned from all the conversations, and it's good for people to be able to watch policymakers learn from each other and look out to the audience for input. It's a real trust-builder."

Both Eckhardt and Ramsey are policy geeks, as is UT professor Jim Henson, a Tribune contributor, director of the Texas Politics Project, and a repeat TribFest moderator. "In the past, I've moderated multiple panels that were all Texas-focused, but this year it's national, and it's my mandate to tie national politics in to Texas," he says. (His panel of pollsters and journalists is tasked with "assess[ing] the nation's temperament heading into November.")

"It's not only an opportunity for Texans to see the connections between here and the national environment, but it brings national journalists and pundits and thought leaders here to see things they ... [he pauses] might not be as well informed about as they could be. You don't have to believe Texas is the center of the universe, which I don't, to see that people are often making assumptions about our political environment that aren't accurate."

For experts like Henson – and Smith – those conversations in recent weeks have all started with "B" and ended with "o." "It's all about Beto, Beto, Beto," Smith says. "But he's the latest in a long line of Texans who've generated that kind of interest, and people want to know those folks better and learn about their ideas. Texas has a sense that it has the answers on a lot of things better than the rest of the country, and we like to be the center of every conversation. Our news and our newsmakers are bigger, and people want to come here to the festival to really see what's happening."

While TribFest is finding its way into many prime Austin venues, most of the activity is within a circle centered around Eighth and Congress – a smaller geographic footprint than the festival had on the UT campus.

Spotlight on Austin: TribFest's Local Fare

The Prognosis for Paid Sick Leave
Fri., 8:30-9:30am, Stateside at the Paramount
Paid sick leave is this year's proxy topic for the battle between our city and conservative state lawmakers. The local ordinance's architect Greg Casar sits down with nemeses state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, and Texas Public Pol­icy Foundation attorney Robert Henneke, which could get a little wild. The Center for Public Policy Priorities' Ann Beeson also joins the panel, moderated by Trib reporter Alana Rocha.

Hack the Vote
Fri., 9:45-10:45am, Studio 919 at the Texas Tribune
Are Texas elections as tamper-proof as they need to be? Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeau­voir answers that question alongside Keith Ingram of the Texas Secretary of State elections division, cybersecurity expert John Dickson, and Joshua Geltzer, executive director of the Insti­tute for Constitutional Advocacy and Pro­tection at Georgetown University. Moderated by Trib Editor Aman Batheja.

The Democratic Wish List
Fri., 10:30-11:30am, Texas Public Policy Foundation, McCombs Events Center
Take a trip to Texas Democrat dreamland with Austin state Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Donna Howard and their colleagues Mary González, D-Clint, Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, and Nicole Collier, D-Ft. Worth. Moderated by Trib reporter Alex Samuels.

Is Government Ethics an Oxymoron?
Fri., 11:30am-12:30pm, St. David's Episcopal Church, Bethel Hall
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore talks about why it's become so tough to police and prosecute official corruption, with prominent ethics attorneys Richard Painter, Walter Schaub, and Steve Wolens, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission. Moderated by the Center for Public Integrity's David Levinthal.

Code Red at HHSC
Fri., 3:15pm-4:15pm, St. David's Episcopal Church, Crail Hall
Local state Sen. Kirk Watson and state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, break down how to help the embattled Texas Health and Human Services Commission, with former HHSC head Kyle Janek. Moderated by the David McSwane of The Dallas Morning News.

The Way Forward Is Urban
Sat., 10:30-11:30am, Driskill Hotel, Citadel Rm.
Mayor Steve Adler joins mayors from El Paso and San Antonio and HUD administrator Beth Van Duyne for a conversation about Texas' growing cities. Moderated by KUT's David Brown.

One on One With Juan Sanchez
Sat., 2:15-3:15pm, Texas Public Policy Foun­da­tion Auditorium
Southwest Key got thrust into the national spotlight for its involvement harboring undocumented children who'd been separated from their parents by the Trump administration. The East Austin nonprofit, which operates 27 shelters in Texas and elsewhere, has also come under fire for its many state violations, allegations of abuse, and comparably oversized salary of CEO Juan Sanchez, who will sit down with Tribune reporter Jay Root to discuss the "politics and economics of housing immigrant children."

Mary Tuma

Texas Tribune Fest

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