The Story of The Texas Tribune: Evan Smith at ComNet19
Erica Pelletreau: So, we’re here, we’ve got an hour here with Evan, and we’re going to talk a little bit about The Texas Tribune, but I also want to make sure we’ve got time that Evan can talk with you guys and hear exactly from you questions that you have about what he’s doing in Texas and the business model. So we’ll go back and forth, and I’ll start off, and then we’ll open it up.
Evan Smith: Good.
Erica Pelletreau: Dr. Jones, welcome. Glad you came to join us. I assume that most of you know a little bit about Evan and The Texas Tribune. What you may not know is he’s just coming off of throwing a party for almost 9,000 people, so 10 times the size of our little intimate gathering, with 450 different breakout sessions, in which he had not only Republicans and Democrats in the same room, at a moment when our country is so divided, but he also got 30 minutes of Nancy Pelosi talking about impeachment off camera. So that’s something good to know about Evan Smith.
Evan Smith: It’s pretty good. It’s good to be smart; it’s better to be lucky. And in the case of Speaker Pelosi, we had invited her to participate in our festival as the closing keynote conversation six months ago. She had been at this festival twice in the last four years, so it wasn’t a left-field request, and she said yes, she’d like to come in Austin.
You know, Rick Perry used to say—pardon me—that Texas, or Austin, is the blueberry in the tomato soup of Texas, and Texas is looking a little less tomato-y these days, and so I think the speaker sees that her time and the time of other high Democratic officials in Texas is beginning to pay off. So, heading into election season, it was all the reason for her to come, but of course, we had no idea that right at the moment that she would be here, we would be talking about impeachment for only the fourth time in history, and I fully expected last week for her office to call and say, “Idiot, what part of only four times in history don’t you understand? Of course she’s not coming.”
But she was here. So let me just slightly correct you. Four hundred fifty speakers … 130, a mere 130 hour-long sessions along the course of this festival. But it was in fact a great opportunity to do the thing The Texas Tribune for now almost 10 years has done, and that is to get people in a conversation about the priorities of their community and the priorities of their state and our country.
We believe that journalism is one way, not the only way, to motivate people to participate civically, to pay attention, to engage. Texas has been woefully under-engaged for many, many years, and we’re trying to be a solution to that problem.
Erica Pelletreau: So, as you walk into this, Evan, thinking about the different career paths that you’ve taken and the changes that you’ve made along the way, I want to know, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a journalist?
Evan Smith: I think the biggest mistake I’ve made as a journalist over the years, not necessarily at The Texas Tribune and not necessarily in my capacity as CEO of the Tribune, but just generally in journalism, I think the biggest mistake I’ve made is deciding, heading into a conversation or into a situation, that I knew the answers to a question or a series of questions or knew the motivations of somebody I was sitting down with, and basing my assumptions on what I frankly believe are preconceived notions about people.
I don’t think it’s a good idea ever to enter into a situation where you don’t give somebody the benefit of the doubt or you don’t keep an open mind. The best journalism is done by people with open minds, and one of the things about our newsroom, which is filled with people half my age, the age of my own children in some cases, is these are people who have not learnt bad habits that they have to unlearn. As we train them to be journalists, we train them, mentor them, and impress upon them the importance of keeping an open mind.
We are truly a nonpartisan news organization. We do not wear the uniform of any team. And having an open mind heading into every situation allows you to, without any impediment, to gather facts, to present those facts in a way that tells a story, and to allow the consumers of those facts to draw the conclusions. We don’t need to draw conclusions. We don’t need to tell people what to think or how to think; we just need to tell people to think.
That’s been the difference maker as far as these 10 years have gone, is understanding that our job is not to be on the field of play; our job is not to draw conclusions; our job is to keep an open mind. Where I’ve made mistakes as a journalist, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done this because I’ve learnt, is when I’ve headed into a situation without as much of an open mind as I needed to, and I think no good comes from that.
Erica Pelletreau: I think that’s super helpful because I think that applies not only to journalism, but it applies to many different types of life.
Evan Smith: Life, to life, I think, yeah.
Erica Pelletreau: Yeah. I want to make sure that in the room, we’ve got a kind of level set about what you’re doing with The Texas Tribune, so could you just tell us a little bit the origin story, like where this comes from?
Evan Smith: Let me give you the log-cabin story very quickly. I was the editor in chief of Texas Monthly magazine for many years. I was at Texas Monthly for almost 18 years, my dream job. I was saying to Erica that I got the Texas Monthly although I’m not a native Texan. I started to read Texas Monthly when I was in graduate school at Northwestern University and decided, really the first time that I picked up a copy of Texas Monthly, I’ve got to work at this place one day and started to write letters to the editor of Texas Monthly at the time. He would become my boss eventually. Just let me come and sweep the place up at the end of the day. I don’t care what you hire me to do.
Texas Monthly had an understanding of Texas and its audience. On every single page, it conveyed a sense of place; it had ambition about the way it told stories; it invested time, and depth, and resources into storytelling in a way that, at that point—this was in the late to mid-’80s—very few magazines still did. The days of Harold Hayes’ Esquire long gone, the days of the … at that point, The New Yorker had taken a detour from its historic commitment to that long-form journalism. It eventually got back in a big way, and thank God for The New Yorker.
But the problem with The New Yorker and even the Texas Monthly of the era that I read it and then I ran it, the exception that proves the rule, most of what we now see in that genre of journalism is we’re in the nostalgia business, mostly. But Texas Monthly at that time was still doing incredible storytelling, long-form narrative nonfiction, and I just wanted to be in that environment because that’s the kind of work I wanted to do.
It took me three years, and I eventually got a job at Texas Monthly as a senior editor. Within a year, I was promoted to deputy editor and then became editor in chief in July of 2000 and spent my time from July 2000 to leaving … I started at The Texas Tribune in August of 2009, running that magazine, and it was the best job I thought that I could ever have in the world.
But I had this other part of me that was feeling anxious about the state of things outside of the magazine business but inside journalism and inside Texas, my adopted home. They’ll now carry me across state lines in a box. I’m not leaving. Even though I’m not a native, I have the zealotry of a convert as far as Texas goes. I was watching the number of reporters at our state Capitol drop precipitously. When I got to Texas in 1991, there were three times as many reporters covering the Capitol as there were when I left in August 2009 to start at the Tribune.
In 1991, there was still a Houston Post to go along with the Houston Chronicle. There was still a Dallas Times Herald to go along with the Dallas Morning News. There was still a San Antonio Light to go along with the San Antonio Express. There was still an afternoon newspaper in El Paso to go along with the morning paper. The broadcast [networks], local affiliate broadcast networks, the ABC, and NBC, CBS affiliates in the big cities, had reporters at the Capitol in some cases. There were radio stations that had reporters at the Capitol, not just public radio but commercial radio. Long gone.
And I understand it because the business had changed. The media business had changed. The conclusion that these entities, the ones that remained, came to pretty quickly was we can no longer do all the things that we once upon a time did. We have to make choices. I had the editor of the Dallas Morning News the other day say to me, “We used to be a newsroom of record. We are now a newsroom of choice.” That’s an acknowledgement of the necessity of having to shrink your ambitions and the footprint of what you are able to accomplish on a much smaller budget in the world today.
Erica Pelletreau: But what happened? Where did that come from?
Evan Smith: Well, what happened is that the editors of the big papers—I know it because I talked to them about it at the time—and the other people in the media business in Texas had come to the conclusion that the readers, viewers, and listeners were just not as interested in discussions of public policy, politics, and state government as they might be in high school and college sports, or crime on your street, or softer news features.
That’s not to say that the newspapers were not covering any of this stuff or the TV or radio stations were not covering any. They were just covering significantly less of it. Texas has had terrible voter turnout over the last … I mean, go back decades. Texas has been at or near the bottom among the 50 states in voter turnout. That’s only one measure of civic engagement, but it’s a pretty good one and it’s a pretty visible one.
And I drew a straight line between the degree to which the [people of the] state of Texas were checked out of the conversation about the priorities of this state, on public education and higher ed, on health care, on immigration, on transportation, on criminal justice, and on elections, right? I mean, you had abysmally low voter turnout, a very small subset of a subset of a subset determining who led a state that had the 10th- or 11th-largest economy in the world, that was the leader on energy, and on health care, and on … in the negative sense, most uninsured people are in Texas of than any other state in the country.
Most contiguous miles with the Mexican border. So many of the big issues: energy, immigration, health care. We have the second-highest enrollment of public education students of any state in the country. Ten percent of all enrolled students in public education in the US are in Texas.
This is an important and very big state, and yet no one was paying attention to what was going on on all these issues. No one was paying attention to the politics at our Capitol, and I just found this to be problematic enough that I said, “I need to be part of the solution. This is not a situation that can remain in place. Let’s see if we can’t come up with a way to provide the kind of nonpartisan reporting on all this stuff that the state needs and that Texans need.”
I can guarantee you that if we don’t provide that kind of reporting, people won’t pay attention. I can’t guarantee you that if we do provide that reporting, people will pay attention, will engage, but that was the theory. If we build it, they will come, right? And so we said, let’s start a news organization dedicated entirely to the purpose of filling in the white spaces. What everybody else is not doing, let’s do this. Let’s hit them where they ain’t. Let’s provide something that is a public good inherently, and hopefully by doing that, people will pay attention, will start to be motivated to participate civically.
And I have to say, 10 years later, no one is more surprised than I am at how the idea that if you give people journalism in the public interest, they will step up, and they will participate. They will embrace that idea that there is a purpose larger than themselves that they want to devote themselves to in the state of Texas. It’s really worked out much better than I ever anticipated.
Erica Pelletreau: So, one of the things that’s unique and been pioneering about this project that you embarked on is your business model.
Evan Smith: Right, nonprofit, first of all, because we couldn’t possibly have made this work as a for-profit. Duh, right?
Erica Pelletreau: And so, what’s the difference in the news that I would consume on, say, your platforms versus The New York Times, based on the different models that you’ve got?
Evan Smith: I don’t know that it’s necessarily different. I think The New York Times is a full-service newspaper, and so The New York Times is going to report on not just what’s happening politically, or in terms of policy issues, but they’re going to report on a whole bunch of things that we don’t cover. We don’t cover culture; we don’t cover sports.
Look, I like music; I like college football as much as or more than the next person, but there is no public interest, in the sense that we define it through the lens of public interest journalism, in reporting on the Houston Astros or on Willie Nelson, unless we’re talking about marijuana reform, right, then maybe. And plus, there are other media organizations that have realized that they can still make enough of a buck covering those things because those things naturally attract an audience and attract an advertiser or create an environment where advertisers want to be in there.
What people had gone dark on was the stuff I described, and so what you’re going to see is a deep vertical niche product that we’ve produced. We just do the things we do. We just do public policy, politics, and state government. That’s it. So, it’s a subset of what you might see in The New York Times, or the Dallas Morning News, or the Houston Chronicle, and that’s good.
One of the things about an organization like ours is we all arrive every day with the mission of the place, which is pretty explicit about what we do, in mind. We all march underneath that mission every single day. When you know what you are and you know what you’re not, it’s easier. Nobody comes to work at The Texas Tribune on any day wondering, is this a story for us, or is this not a story for us? We know. We know what we cover and how we cover it.
Back to your original question, Texas Monthly, it turns out, which was my dream job—that was a job. This is a calling. I believe in this work and in the value of this work and in the public interest being served, the public service aspect, the public good aspect of this, in a way that, quite honestly, I had no idea in the beginning I would. I have become a complete and total believer in the importance of this work, and I genuinely believe that Texas has been better for it in the 10 years we’ve been in business.
Erica Pelletreau: So, you make a very compelling case based on, you built this model; it’s proven highly successful. But back in the beginning, when you were thinking about approaching funders, what was that journey like? Who did you think about? And just to say, in interest of candor, Ford does fund you …
Evan Smith: Ford has been a funder, a generous funder, of The Texas Tribune for six years. We don’t take it for granted every year.
Erica Pelletreau: We’ve got Annie E. Casey in the house. We’ve got the Knight Foundation.
Evan Smith: Annie E. Casey generously supports us, of course, and I was in, yeah.
Erica Pelletreau: A lot of us have been part of it. But what was the beginning part of it? But I don’t want to just hear what worked; I want to hear what didn’t work.
Evan Smith: What didn’t work, yeah. I had a real aha moment about a month before we launched as I began to think about the business that we were actually in. So, who did we approach, first of all? Well, rich people, because we are in Texas, the state with more millionaires and billionaires than any other state—what the military would call a target-rich environment for raising money for this kind of work.
There are 40 billionaires on the last Forbes 400, 10% of the list, and probably another 40 whose net worth is so closely held that they’re not on the list, but they actually would be if that information were there. We’ve got a lot of rich people in the state of Texas. That’s a great thing. We have very deep-pocketed institutional philanthropies. Houston Endowment, Meadows Foundation, Mitchell Foundation, Brown Foundation, I could go on. And we have … I think we’re number three in Fortune 500 companies and number one in Fortune 1000 companies headquartered, I believe, or we were until recently.
So, if the model which you alluded to is a different business model, is raising money from individuals, rich and regular, institutional philanthropy and corporations, you’ve got to have those things, first of all, to go to. So, we said at the very beginning, started out to say, let’s go to the people who are likeliest to understand what we’re trying to do without needing to be sold very hard on it, people with whom we had personal relationships. “We,” in this case, is John Thornton, our founder, the venture capitalist who had the original idea that ultimately morphed into what became The Texas Tribune.
John and I went on this sort of road trip to see a bunch of people, to ask for their support. And again, it was a combination of people who we just thought substantively would understand what we were pitching them on, but it was also people with whom we had personal relationships. One of my favorite days of pitching people to support in the beginning was a day in Dallas that I call my Boone Day.
In the morning, it was T. Boone Pickens, who I had a long personal relationship with, going back to my days at Texas Monthly. Boone was a crusty old cuss till the last day he died a couple weeks ago, and you know, Boone, there’ll never be another person like Boone. Boone, a very conservative Republican, was part of the effort to swiftboat John Kerry in 2004, not the kind of person you’d think wants to spend money supporting the lame-stream media.
But Boone knew me, and Boone trusted me, and had come to trust me over working with me for many years as somebody we covered in Texas Monthly and somebody I interviewed, and he said, “The only other news organization I’ve ever funded is The American Spectator.” And I said, “Yeah, but I thought you funded a news organization. You just mentioned The American Spectator.” He thought that was funny.
And then he said, after I pitched him on the idea, he said, “OK, I’m going to give you $150,000 over three years at launch, but you have to be there. If you leave, then the deal’s off because I’m really giving the money because I believe in you—I trust you.” OK. So we walked away with $150,000 from Boone Pickens.
Then we went to see Garrett and Cecilia Boone. Garrett Boone was the founder of The Container Store. I think at that time, he may still have been CEO. He’s now executive chairman. His wife, Cecilia, is one of the biggest supporters of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in the country. She, in fact, was until recently the president of the National Planned Parenthood Board. As liberal as Boone was conservative, and they gave us a generous gift at the beginning as well, mid-five figures, and they’ve supported us every single year since.
I mean, to my mind, getting money from Boone Pickens and the Boones on the same day, Boone Day, was really an extraordinary endorsement of the idea that we could do this in a way that generated supported for both sides and did not have its thumb on the scale for either side.
But there was another day in those early days of fundraising that was really material, and I’ve now started at the 10th anniversary that’s coming up to tell this story a lot. There’s a biotech startup entrepreneur, very successful, and as a consequence of his success, very wealthy, named Matt Winkler, who lives here in Austin, and I knew Matt because I was the chair of the Public Television Board in Austin. In my last, sort of the last, circling the drain as the chair, Matt came on the board.
And Matt is a tall bearded guy with white hair, very soft-spoken in fact. I don’t remember him saying five words in all the time that I knew him as a fellow board member at the public television station here. And I really didn’t know much about him at all, but I knew, when we started The Texas Tribune, that my partner John Thornton and his venture capital firm, Austin Ventures, had been a supporter of Matt’s various businesses, had been venture investors in Matt’s businesses over time.
And so, John said, “We ought to go see Matt Winkler. I have a relationship with him from the time that he started his company.” So we met Matt Winkler for a drink at the Four Seasons bar before the renovation ruined the Four Seasons here, in the old Four Seasons bar, the shitty Four Seasons bar. That was a real place to go have a drink.
So we went to the old Four Seasons bar with Matt Winkler, and we talked to him for an hour after work one day, and it was much like the Matt Winkler that I knew back on the KLRU board. I don’t think he said five words in the whole meeting. And I talked for a while; John talked for a while; I talked for a while. And he nodded—he was very nice about it. But I thought, in Texas terms, we are totally drilling a dry hole here. This is not going anywhere.
I’d bought tickets to go to the movies that night with my wife, and so, six o’clock rolled around, and I had to go, and I said … I got up to leave, and I said, “Matt, I’m really sorry, I got to go. We bought Alamo Drafthouse tickets, and I got to get out of here. I apologize. It’s really nice to see you.” And I put my hand out to shake his hand, he stood up to shake my hand, and then he said, “OK, I’m in for 100.” And there was a pause, and then I thought I was going to hear dollars. And he said, “Thousand.” And then he said, crucially, “Go save my democracy.” That’s what he said.
And I have thought a lot about that over the last couple of weeks, as we head toward our 10th anniversary, but really, if I’m honest about it, I’ve thought about it a lot through the entire 10 years of the Tribune. We are not in the journalism business; we’re in the democracy business. That’s what this is about. Our democracy is healthier when there are more thoughtful, and productive, and engaged citizens. Our democracy is stronger when more people are participating, having their voices heard, taking ownership of the issues that are decided at state capitols and at the Capitol in Washington, but ultimately affect them on the ground every single day.
Journalism is itself worth supporting, but journalism that strengthens our democracy, public interest journalism, public service journalism, the kind of journalism that we believed at the beginning and believe ever more now is a public good, that is so important, and we are in a now-more-than-ever moment in terms of the importance of an independent press, of a free press, and of the degree to which journalism enables our democracy to function properly.
So, really, that was the big takeaway; the big aha moment for me in those early days of fundraising was that meeting with Matt Winkler. It was that this is really about our democracy. And I think one of the things about it being about our democracy, as opposed to it being about journalism, is that it naturally aligns with this being a nonpartisan exercise because both sides care about our democracy.
Erica Pelletreau: Well, let me ask you a question to build on that a little bit. So, one of the things that you’ve attributed your success to here is your personal relationships, a little bit of the Evan Smith magic here.
Evan Smith: In some cases, and probably earlier in the time than now, but yeah.
Erica Pelletreau: And we have a little bit of … clearly Austin is a unique place to be, pretty amazing. So as you think about we’re interested in nonprofit journalism replicating to other areas, to what extent is that possible, do you think?
Evan Smith: I think it’s absolutely possible. So, we’ve raised $73 million, and something, and something, in less than 10 years, to support the work of our nonprofit news organization. We started with 17 employees on the first day. We have 80 full and part time now. We have the most reporters, journalists, at the state Capitol of any news organization in the entire country, for-profit or nonprofit, for the sixth straight year. Texas is big. In order to do this right, you have to deploy all available human and financial resources to take on this awesome task in front of you, and we’ve done that.
But not every state needs a news organization that raises $73 million in 10 years. Not every state needs a news organization with 80 staff members, full and part time, or with 40 journalists at the state Capitol. What Idaho needs or what Vermont needs is not what Texas needs. We don’t presume to know what those states need. Honestly, if you see one nonprofit news organization, you’ve seen one nonprofit news organization. People came to us a lot over the course of the first couple of years and said, “Could you franchise the restaurant effectively? Could you put The Texas Tribune in a box and sell it off the shelf to states all over the country and let them scrape off Texas from the masthead or the logo and then put the word Idaho in or whatever else?”
You know, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. People don’t need The Texas Tribune in Idaho, or in Vermont, or in Nevada, or in Mississippi. They need what they need. I think what we’ve done, among other things, is create a best practices laboratory for this kind of work that people can pick and choose what works for them from and then take back home and incorporate the things that they think will be meaningful or useful to them into what they ultimately build themselves, because really, they need to build it themselves.
I always say anyone can do this. Anyone can do this. Every state has citizens who are not as engaged as they ought to be. Every state has elected officials who need to be covered. Look, what is the job of journalism? The job of journalism is … so I think about this. I have a son who’s now a freshman at the University of Texas in the Moody College of Communication. He wants to be a sports journalist, which I told him I could not oppose because it has the word journalism in it. I’m bored to death by the thought of being a sideline reporter on ESPN. I said to him, “You do you. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine.”
But he is going into journalism, he thinks eventually to do sports, and we had an unusually existential conversation one night at dinner, where he came down to dinner one night and said to me, as he was contemplating this decision to go to UT and to go to … he said, “What is journalism?” And it occurred to me, I’ve never been asked that question before.
And I said to him, “We search for the truth, and we tell people what we find.” That was the answer I came up with in the moment. Pretty good, you know? Flat-footed, we search for the truth, and we tell people what we find. Now, I’ve revised that in my mind. Really what I should’ve said was, we search for the truth, and we tell people what we find. Sometimes we search for the truth, and find it, and tell people the truth. Sometimes we search for the truth, and we don’t find it, and we tell people that we tried, and we couldn’t find it, and here’s why we couldn’t find it.
Sometimes journalism is about the destination, and sometimes it’s about the journey, right? But in reality, there are other things that we do in journalism. We hold people in power and taxpayer-funded institutions accountable, and we tee up for people in their busy lives the things that are important enough for them to stop and pay attention to, right? That’s also the job of journalism.
Well, in every single state, there is truth to be searched for. In every single state, there are people in power and institutions to be held accountable, in need of being held accountable. And in every state, there are busy people who need journalism to grab them by the lapels and say, “Stop, this is important enough for you to pay attention.”
So, I don’t ever think this is something that could’ve only happened here or that there are any elements in the makeup of The Texas Tribune that mean this can only succeed here. In Nevada, Jon Ralston has created, with a great team, The Nevada Independent in Las Vegas, which is doing an absolutely gangbusters, bang-up job of doing for Nevada what Nevada needs in the realm of public service journalism.
In Jackson, Mississippi, thanks to a very generous initial gift from Andy Lack, the president of NBC News, who is a native Mississippian, and many of his wealthy friends from childhood, who also put in money to start this organization, Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization, is doing a really great job of holding people in power and institutions in Mississippi accountable.
You have CalMatters in Sacramento, California; you’ve got The City now in New York City, a market that you would have to believe, isn’t there enough accountability journalism in New York City? Turns out, no, there isn’t. You’ve got these green shoots, these mushrooms after a rainstorm, popping up all over the country, and they’re doing it their way. They don’t have to do it our way.
I mean, literally, John Thornton, my partner, grew up in the restaurant business in Kansas, and we talked about this at the very beginning—we don’t franchise the restaurant. That’s not our job. I mean, people want to come; they want to come to our restaurant. They think it’s like a Chick-fil-A. Can you open a Chick-fil-A in my state Capitol? No, I can’t.
Erica Pelletreau: It doesn’t work that way.
Evan Smith: You want to come to my Chick-fil-A? Yes, the chicken is indeed delicious at my Chick-fil-A. But we’re not going to open your restaurant for you. We’re not going to give you our chicken. You get your own damn chicken.
Erica Pelletreau: Let me get you with one more question, and then I’ll see if we’ve got questions in the audience. Just, I want to hear a little more specific here; we’ve got an audience of communicators. So, I want to know what do you think the key elements are to a successful pitch? What are you going to pay attention to? What are you going to listen to? How do we grab your attention?
Evan Smith: I’d like to see us end the process of people pitching us stories by press release or by emails where it’s obviously a form, and they figure out how to get my name into the subject line. I mean, all that shit is just so transparently bad, please. You know, there is no generic pitch that works. Every news organization … let me just stick with the realm of news organizations, since you asked.
Erica Pelletreau: I did.
Evan Smith: Every news organization is different. Every market, every audience segment is different. The best and most successful pitches are the ones that are targeted specifically to a news organization, specifically to an audience. Anytime we get a pitch from an organization or from an individual that is off of our subject focus, well, we have a thing we want to pitch to every news organization in Texas. Oh, they’ve got the word Texas in their mind, so let’s get them on the list. They went to a media directory, and they pulled everybody with it.
I mean, come on. Don’t pitch me on your band’s new album. Maybe you missed the fact that we don’t do record reviews, right? I mean, that’s it. You know, I think that as much as anything, I love working with comms people—I really do. But as much as anything, it’s that personal relationship over time. I think if you forge a … you know, we talk a lot about … I mean, this is a whole other topic. We talk about the imperative right now in the media business of diversity.
Our audience should be as diverse as the state that we’re covering. Our newsroom should be as diverse as the state we’re covering, and the leadership of our organization should be as diverse as the state we’re covering. That’s just … it’s good practice, good for business. It will make our news organization better.
Erica Pelletreau: Is your newsroom like that?
Evan Smith: It’s getting there. We’ve put an intentional focus on it. We have enumerated, as part of our strategic plan a year ago, our goals for diversity in hiring. We have listed a whole bunch of strategies that we have now fully embraced. We’ve published our diversity statistics. We’ve raised money specifically for the purpose of investing in recruitment and retention, building a pipeline of candidates. I want to come back to that in a second, unconscious bias training, that whole gamut of things that every news organization should be doing.
We’ve hired 12 people over the last year. Nine have been from diverse backgrounds. The old Rooney Rule is not sufficient in hiring from a diversity standpoint. It’s not enough to simply say we’re going to have candidates in the finalist round who are from diverse backgrounds, no. And diversity, by the way, is a very broadly defined term. We believe that diversity not only is about race and ethnicity, but it’s also about physical disability; it’s about sexual orientation; it’s about geography.
I would like nothing more than to hire some reporters from rural parts of Texas, where Donald Trump got north of 80% of the vote. I think that we have to think about what diversity actually means in an organization like ours and then go at it with the same energy, and ambition, and focus that we go at our journalism. And we have done that over the last year, but in that whole conversation around diversity—this is where I was going with this—we talk about not just recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds when we have job openings, but recruiting candidates when we don’t, getting to know people not only when it’s opportunistic for us, but getting to know people and forging relationships over time.
I would say back on the comms thing, I would like to have relationships and have our reporters have relationships with comms people not just when they have a story they’re trying to unload on us or offload on us, but when they don’t. We have stopped having human relationships with people in the world, and we need to start doing more of that. We need to get to know people not just at the times when they’re pitching us something or when we need something, but when we don’t, and I think those personal relationships—ultimately, at all times, persistent relationships—are the ones that mostly bear fruit.
Erica Pelletreau: Yeah, not just in stories but in terms of relationships.
Evan Smith: Generally speaking, generally speaking.
Erica Pelletreau: So, just to open it up to you all, do we have anybody in the audience who wants to comment or chat with? Please. Could you just identify yourself? Name, organization, and then right to the question?
Steve Pratt: Sure. Steve Pratt from Impact Catalysts, class of 1985, as Evan knows.
Evan Smith: Lived next door to me. I was a freshman in college in the dorm of Hamilton College, and Steve was a junior, and he lived next door to me, and apparently I played The Police too loud.
Steve Pratt: Over and over again.
Evan Smith: Over and over.
Steve Pratt: So then …
Evan Smith: It’s his story.
Erica Pelletreau: Which album?
Steve Pratt: Synchronicity.
Evan Smith: I was going to say, I thought Zenyatta Mondatta, but that’s actually … I’m a little old now, and I’m beginning to get forgetful, so.
Steve Pratt: Synchronicity. Anyway, that’s not what my question was going to be about.
Evan Smith: Although we could spend 20 minutes on that.
Steve Pratt: We could, we could.
Erica Pelletreau: I’m sure we could, but let’s get to the question.
Steve Pratt: In a way, I’m going to take you to Bob Simon’s freshman philosophy class, but there are a few people in this room that are working with organizations that are trying to speak, and I hope listen, across so-called party lines, ideological lines, that sort of thing, and I think you’re talking about the fact that you don’t wear a uniform for a particular team, and you’re in this maybe now eggplant-colored state.
Evan Smith: It’s still a red state, sorry.
Steve Pratt: Yeah, all right. That’s why I said maybe. At any rate, I guess the question is, in those conversations, in the kind of journalism that you’re trying to do, does the truth still matter?
Evan Smith: It does, then.
Steve Pratt: Does the truth exist, and how do you deal with that in this partisan environment?
Evan Smith: I think it’s an enormous challenge to present to some people that there is such a thing as an objective truth. I absolutely think that we in the journalism business are struggling every single day with the fact that truth is not truth and facts are not facts in some segment of the world. I totally believe that. But it’s not as hard as it may appear to be on the outside. I think people get it.
You know, look, we just had … again, our big ideas festival was this weekend, and we had Chris Hayes interviewing Ted Cruz on stage, which I thought beforehand and thought during was the sort of perfect stunt casting to have the two of them up there on stage. What are they arguing about in the conversation? Whether climate science is a thing. They’re still talking about that. In fact, they were fighting about it on Twitter today, actually, referencing their conversation at our festival, that specific subject.
We live in a state where there are some conversations, that are in the sort of 5% of the country that believes X, we are in that 5% of the country. The trick here is to listen to everybody and to understand where they’re coming from, not to agree with them, not to embrace them, not to sign on to their view of the world necessarily, at the expense of the other view, which may or may not be the overwhelming majority view.
I believe in real balance, not false equivalency. It is not, I believe this; you believe that; let’s leave it there. I think you try to get to understand where people are coming from and why and present that fairly thoroughly and accurately and give them a fair hearing, even if you believe what they believe is unbelievable. I think it’s about coming back to this idea of having human relationships, about how you treat people. We treat everybody with respect and kindness, and back to the very first, with an open mind.
And that is how we get Republicans and Democrats equally to come to our events. I said before we came up here today, we had both Nancy Pelosi and Jim Jordan at The Texas Tribune festival. Other than actual Congress, that may be the only place that they were in the same event all year long. There’s room for both views of the world, whatever you may personally or I may personally think of it, and our journalism is infused with this idea that we’re not going to write anybody or any point of view completely off. We’re going to listen to both sides; we’re going to talk to all sides. We’re going to listen to all sides. We’re going to talk to all sides. And we’re going to try to present a rounded view of the points of view of people.
That has benefited us enormously as journalists because people trust us; they talk to us. If you look at our donor wall, we disclose every dollar donated to The Texas Tribune, in as close to real time as possible—have for years and years. We must be the most transparent news organization in the country as it relates to who funds us. You see the most Republican Republicans and the most Democratic Democrats on our donor wall side by side, people who agree on nothing else but the value of the journalism that we produce.
It is about the way you approach people of all sides. That’s about the best answer I can give. Yeah, there’s definitely people who don’t believe in facts in the world, and there’s definitely people who question whether the truth is the truth, but we keep our focus straight ahead—don’t get distracted by them.
Tim Smart: All right. Tim Smart with the Regulatory Assistance Project in Montpelier, Vermont. Thanks for the Vermont shout-out by the way.
Evan Smith: Well, you know, I think Vermont Digger is one of the great examples of nonprofit journalism being done on a small footprint but significantly punching above its weight.
Tim Smart: Yeah, they’re excellent. And I’m actually speaking on behalf of … I’m actually on the board of a nonprofit biweekly newspaper based in Montpelier, not Vermont Digger, but The Bridge, and they’re more of a community paper, city paper that really covers the statehouse as much. But one of the things we’re always struggling with, since it’s been around for 26 years, is fundraising. I mean, we have a very small community. I think you can fit everybody in Montpelier in this room, and I’m not kidding. And there’s like 20 people with a decent amount of money that help fund us.
But we’re always looking for other avenues to get everybody in Montpelier to kind of chip in and make sure that The Bridge remains successful. I was wondering if you have any unique ideas that have worked for you that maybe I could think about bringing back to Vermont.
Evan Smith: Well, let me step back from your question and give you a sense of how exactly we get to our annual revenue number as a percentage, and then let’s talk about where there might be opportunities for you. So, we’ll do about $10.2 million in revenue this budget year, which our fiscal year and our calendar year are the same. So, in this calendar year, fiscal year, about $10.2 million in revenue.
A little more than $2 million of that will be major individual gifts, gifts of $5,000 or more—rich people. You do have rich people in Vermont. You may not have enough rich people or enough rich people who are inclined to support this kind of work to give you $2 million, but you have some rich people, and they have the same public-spirited orientation, one hopes, as people do in Texas.
Erica Pelletreau: Are they all Texan?
Evan Smith: Say it again?
Erica Pelletreau: Are they all Texan?
Evan Smith: Are all the rich people who support us Texans? Most are, not all, but most are. We’ll do about $2.4 … a little more than $2.4 million in foundation support this year. Family foundations are counted in with the major individual givers, on top of institutional philanthropy. That’s some Texans, but a whole bunch not. We get Meadows, and Mitchell, Brown, Houston Endowment, Stillwater, TLL Temple—bunch of the Texas … I mean, pretty much the Texas foundations all support us to some degree.
But our largest annual institutional giver is the Gates Foundation. Right behind the Gates Foundation, our second largest is Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy. Those are both not Texas philanthropies. We have enjoyed support in the past, not in the current calendar year, from the Knight Foundation, although Knight will support us through the NewsMatch program. I mean, a direct grant from the Knight Foundation, not this year, but Knight is one of our largest all-time supporters.
Lumina in Indianapolis has supported us. Hewlett in Menlo Park has supported us. Ford obviously is not based in Texas but has supported us, so we have some outside of Texas. I bring this up because there are foundations supporting journalism, and there are foundations supporting the extent to which journalism is strengthening democracy. So there are foundations that just support journalism for journalism’s sake, but then there are foundations that support this larger idea.
Any of the foundations I just named are potentially … I mean, it’s reach—you’ve got to get them to pay attention to you and to make a gift, got to get invited in some cases even to apply, but there’s no reason why you can’t be applying to those sorts of foundations in the same way that we and others in the news business apply for support.
We’ll do this year on corporate support. I’m going to say somewhere between $3.7 … and the exact number I don’t have right in my head, but somewhere between $3.7 and $4 million of our revenue will be through the support of corporations, businesses, not just the JPMorgans, AT&Ts, Walmarts of the world, but also all the way down to a sole practitioner with a half-time secretary in his shingle-out law firm on Congress Avenue here in Austin. We find a way in for every potential business, corporate, supporter to support us.
That support comes through a whole bunch of different doors. It comes through the community relations door, the aspect of the business where they support charitable causes, and we’re a (c)(3); we’re a charitable cause, right, so there may be support we get through that. We may get support through the marketing and advertising door based on the awesome audience we’ve built over the years, growing every year, and very attractive. Just, if you were buying a for-profit audience of this kind, you would pay through the nose to get it. So it might be that the corporation supports us simply to get in front of our audience.
And then we get a bunch of support through the government relations door, the lobbying and trade association route, those kinds of dollars, because the audience of The Texas Tribune includes every elected official, every decision-maker, every influencer in Texas who reads us first and reads us all day long. And so, if you want to get in front of those folks, this is a pretty efficient way to do it, much like General Mills or Archer Daniels Midland advertising on the press—it’s not the largest audience, but it’s the right audience. It’s a rifle-shot audience.
You have businesses in the state of Vermont that theoretically want to reach the really awesome people reading what you’re producing, for similar reasons. And again, up and down the list of corporate support, from big companies in the state of Vermont to law firms and telecommunications companies and banks. Those people all potentially support you.
But I would say in your case, based on what you’re saying, the biggest opportunity may be a robust membership program, where people in the community say, “We value the work that you’re producing and see it as additive to what we’re getting otherwise, and so we’re going to put in five bucks a month, or 35 bucks a year, or what have you, to support you, because like public radio and public television, we see the public good in the work you produce. And even though it’s available for us to consume for free, we understand that there’s a cost of producing it, and so we’re going to meet that value proposition halfway, and we’re going to throw a couple bucks in a tip jar.”
We’ll do a little bit more than $1 million in membership all in this year, and we have a lot of upside on membership, quite frankly, in Texas, given as many people as there are. That’s the smallest percentage of our revenue of the big lion’s share of our revenue, and I think that in your case, you have an opportunity, certainly, as small as Vermont is notwithstanding, to generate significant money in membership every year if you’re thoughtful about it and if you approach that with the same level of energy as your journalism.
Erica Pelletreau: So, I want to build on that question a little bit because I appreciate that you’re coming at this from where you are in Vermont, and this is the Texas example. But we here are a network, and we are a network of communicators for social good. We’re some foundation people; we’re NGO people. We all, like, our orientation is good, and to get to know each other, to be able to rely on each other, to be able to help each other out, we’re a network. So, how do you think about your network?
Evan Smith: Well, we are big believers in collaboration, if you’re talking about that, whether it’s on the business side or the editorial side. My statement from the very beginning about the work we were going to do was we have no competitors. We only have current and future collaborators. We want to work with everybody. This is a “hang separately or survive together” time in our business—in our business and in the business of communications broadly.
We are better together. We learn from one another, and there are things that we can’t do alone or you can’t do alone but are enabled by thoughtful collaboration. One plus one equals more than two. That is the case on the content side, but it is also the case on the business side. One of the things I’ve been most hopeful about in our business over the last 10 years, by which I mean the nonprofit journalism business, is that organizations have risen up: News Revenue Hub. The INN is another example. I can name a bunch of these that are there to provide that kind of network framework for organizations that don’t have the resources, or the capacity, or the bandwidth back home to do that and to succeed at that themselves.
There are people out there who are in the business of helping organizations like this one or individuals like this gentleman think about how they can access some of the strategies and tactics that have been deployed successfully by big organizations. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for you there, and there are people who should be stepping forward to support you if you ask, and even if you don’t ask, I think. The network exists. It’s in place. What else?
Erica Pelletreau: Anything else?
Norris West: Yes, hi. Yes, oh, there we go. Hi, Evan, Norris West with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
Evan Smith: Hi, Norris. We love you, Norris.
Erica Pelletreau: We do love Norris.
Norris West: Right back at you.
Evan Smith: Good.
Norris West: I want to follow up, and by the way, I’m also on the board, along with Erica, of ComNet. But I want to follow up on the question about facts. Thinking about this, of course, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is playing in my mind, so I want to frame it with that: entitled to your own opinion but not to their own facts. But I wanted to know what your view is on what The Texas Tribune thinks about public officials who tell what some people may call a mistruth, other people may call a lie.
Evan Smith: No, it’s a lie, and I think we should call it a lie. Nonpartisan is not non-thinking. When bullshit needs to be called, we call bullshit. I am absolutely unambiguous about that. I mean, I really am. I really am. I had this long conversation with Dean Baquet last year about the decision that they made to use the word lie in headlines—you know the cable news chyrons that now have the word lie in them. If somebody lies, call it a lie. You’re doing a disservice to the people you serve if you pussyfoot around it. Norris, do you agree with that?
Norris West: Absolutely.
Evan Smith: Good. I mean, facts, they’re facts. The one that I’ve often cited, and it’s not only one, and I’m not picking on the president in this case, although he is also a target-rich environment as it relates to this subject, is he’s … I mean, the 500th time I’ve heard him say, “I’ve won the votes of women in 2016.” No, you won the votes of white women in 2016. It is a material difference. Hillary Clinton won the votes of women in 2016. I mean, that’s just an easily provable falsehood lie.
And every time a person in elected office says something that is factually untrue, it is a disservice to the people who are in our constituency and in their constituency not to call them out for that. They should be better than that.
Erica Pelletreau: I would double down on that. Fran, you had a question?
Fran Smith: Yeah, hi. I’m Fran Smith. I’m an independent writer and editor working with nonprofits and foundations. I came out of newspapers, and I came out of a newspaper that had a robust state bureau and sent reporters up to Sacramento routinely to cover the state, and it’s heartbreaking what’s happened to state coverage in the country.
I’m curious, to go back to what you said in the beginning, re-engaging people who had checked out. You talked about how policymakers and politicians are all reading The Texas Tribune. How do you know you’ve accomplished the goal of re-engaging the people who weren’t engaged?
Evan Smith: It’s an excellent question. You should always ask people like me about impact: How do you measure impact? How do you know that you’ve done the job? Well, let me begin by telling you how I don’t measure impact. I don’t measure impact by people who have been defeated from office or elected to office, bills that have not passed or passed, because we don’t endorse candidates; we don’t editorialize on issues. We’re not in the business of putting pelts on the wall.
So, I would not judge us through some quantifiable set of outcomes that we call for because we don’t call for outcomes, but I’ll measure our impact in a couple of ways. First of all, and obviously, we can’t take the credit for this, but I think the timing of it is probably not entirely coincidental. Texas has been near the bottom or at the bottom of voter turnout among the 50 states, as I said, for every election cycle before 2018, going back for as long as I can remember. Texas was 41st in voter turnout last time.
Now, it says something about Texas that the good news is we’re 41st, but it is good news. We had presidential-year turnout at the midterm election year last time. And you want to blame Beto; I blame us. I mean, honestly, I think that all of us, not just the Tribune, but all of us together locked arms, intentionally working to get people to may more attention by providing them with the kind of information that they need. I think it is starting to have an effect, and I think the people are beginning to be a little bit more aware.
Now, we watch our state government as much as or more than anybody else, and in the course of that, when we report on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, or the Texas Facilities Commission, or the Texas Transportation Commission and malfeasance at the top or shenanigans by people in those positions, and then we reported on it, and those people step away. I guess that’s the kind of impact, and again, we’re not in the business of putting pelts on the wall. Sometimes pelts materialize.
Our job is simply to put those facts out there and then let the chips fall, let the public decide the degree to which they are outraged. I think all change in all of our communities really comes from the ground up rather than the top down, and that change is occasioned by or catalyzed by public education in the form of the journalism that we and others do, providing them with the kind of information that they need to take ownership of the things that affect them, and that includes waste, fraud, and abuse in government—corruption.
But I’m going to give you an existential answer, actually. I had a conversation a few years ago. Mark Strama is right over there. Mark Strama is a former state representative from Austin who was an exemplary public official when he was in the legislature, and he’s a great guy beyond that. Mark worked for a former state senator, now our Harris County commissioner, named Rodney Ellis, a longtime elected official in the state of Texas. And back when Rodney Ellis was in the state senate—this was four or five years ago—I was having a conversation with Rodney Ellis about some issue that we were covering or was in play in the Capitol, and quite honestly, it was a complex issue, and I wasn’t 100% sure that I understood what he was saying in that conversation, and I was kind of beginning to … my brain was beginning to shut down.
And at the end of this conversation, he said, “And that’s the Tribune effect.” And I went, wait a minute. Stop. What did you just say? He said, “That’s the Tribune effect.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “You’ve never heard that phrase before?” I said no. He said, “You don’t know what the Tribune effect is?” I said, “No, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He said, “OK, let me tell you about that.”
He said, “Before you all started in ’09, before you sent all these reporters up to the Capitol, we could get away with anything up here. We could say one thing on one day and then the exact opposite thing on the next day. We could say we were going to vote one way and then vote the other way. We could say we were going to fund this and then instead fund something else, and there was no accountability. There were no consequences. We could get away with anything.”
He said, “Since you have sent all these young reporters up here, I know that within two seconds of doing something different from what I promised, all your reporters are going to be crawling up my ass.” He said, “You’ve changed behavior at the Capitol. Because you’ve invested in accountability journalism, we know that we can’t get away with anything. That’s the Tribune effect.” And I went …
Audience: By the way, knowing Rodney, that wasn’t a compliment.
Evan Smith: It may not have been a compliment to him. It sure as hell was taken as a compliment by me. And so, I thought, I’m good with that, the Tribune effect. That’s the impact in some ways. You know, we have a lot of different jobs in journalism. Our job is to inform and engage. Our job is to search for the truth and tell people what we find—I told you that before. But our job is also to make sure that the people in office know that they no longer live in a time when there are no consequences and that if they do things they should not do, we will call them out. We will call bullshit when bullshit needs to be called. If they’re hypocrites, we’ll call that out.
But I want to also say that when they do good, we should report on that also, and we had a pretty good legislative session this last five months, January to May of this year, in which, among other things, they invested almost $12 billion in public education. It was long overdue. Voters told them they’d better do it, that they were coming for them in the next elections, but they did it.
Our job is to report on the good and the bad and to hold people accountable. That, in some respect, is a form of impact that I’m willing to own.
Erica Pelletreau: You guys, I hate to do this, but we have to wrap.
Evan Smith: Can we take … we have 45 seconds. Can I take one last question?
Erica Pelletreau: One last question?
Evan Smith: Brother Strama?
Mark Strama: Thanks. I want to come back to what Norris was asking about. You told the great story about when you went on the road, and you had Boone Day, and you raised money from both sides of the spectrum. As you know, I’ve been doing some fundraising in the nonprofit journalism space. I’ve been surprised how many people ask me the question, where are you going to be on the political spectrum? And I say, “We’re going to index toward truth,” with some of the same language you used.
Evan Smith: Yeah, and is that a turnoff or a turn-on?
Mark Strama: Here is my question for you. It depends on who you’re talking to. But what I’ve been told is that that mere statement, index toward truth, is going to turn some funders away, and what I want to know is …
Evan Smith: Has it been my experience?
Mark Strama: That’s what I want to know.
Evan Smith: It has not been my experience.
Erica Pelletreau: That’s an interesting question.
Evan Smith: My answer to the question of where you’re going to be on the spectrum is not on the spectrum. The whole left-right construct is just irrelevant, right? We’re reporting on the facts—here’s what happened. There’s no left or right. Facts aren’t left or right, sorry, not to you, to them. That doesn’t even enter into our conversation. On most days, liberals are mad at us and conservatives are mad at us at the same time, and I think that means we’re doing our job.
But what we’re not focused on is left or right. We’re focused on the facts. We’re focused on what happened, and I have not found that to be an impediment to raising money to support the important work we do—quite the opposite. It’s been the thing that’s enabled the good work that we do.
Erica Pelletreau: Thank you, Evan. Thanks to all of you.
Evan Smith: Thank you all. I appreciate it.