Texas Tribune CEO shares media innovation journey with Medill MSJs

Evan Smith, guest speaker for Medill Fridays. (PHOTO/Olivia Obineme)

Medill alumnus Evan Smith encouraged a classroom of current journalism master’s students to see their futures in journalism in a different light.

Previously the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, Smith left that position in 2009 and partnered with a venture capitalist to start the nonprofit Texas Tribune as a solution for what they observed as a “serious disappearance of journalism.”

(PHOTO/Olivia Obineme)

“I worried about the fact that the public of Texas was checked out. Media stopped doing its job and I said we need to come up with a solution for this problem,” Smith said.

The co-founder and CEO of The Texas Tribune spoke to almost 60 first-quarter MSJ’s at University Hall August 11. His appearance was a component of the “Frameworks for Modern Journalism” class taught by Prof. Rich Gordon as a part of “Medill Fridays,” which offers a wide variety of events for Medill master’s students.

His talk particularly resonated with the second group of students in Medill’s Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship Specialization, who are learning what it takes to launch and build new publications and media products.

Smith discussed the state of journalism, especially in Texas, the problems the industry faced there, and the approaches used by The Texas Tribune to stay up to date.

He recalled that the number of reporters covering the state capital had drastically dropped since he moved to Texas in 1991. Newspaper editors told him stories from the state capital didn’t interest the public any more, he said. Smith thought otherwise: traditional media are “risk averse” and fear competition. As a result, the public suffers.

“The public is being deprived from the kind of information that in turn allows them to be thoughtful and productive citizens to engage and hold people in office to account. What if you create a news organization whose sole purpose is to do that and you fund it as a nonprofit?” he recalled asking.

The Texas Tribune caters to an all digital platform. (PHOTO/Olivia Obineme)

“We built a news organization that was digital — a website principally called TexasTribune.org, launched on November 3, 2009.” The Tribune started with a team of 17 — mostly young reporters — with no business plan and no track record, but, “like Thelma and Louise, we’re going to lock arms, jump off a cliff, and see what happens,” he told the students.

Eight years later, The Texas Tribune is standing strong with more than 70 people on staff, including more than 50 journalists. It has a five-person team that solely focuses on investigative journalism. The media organization is even a recipient of a many awards, including a 2016 Peabody Award for its work in partnership with ProPublica, an investigation of the threat to Houston’s inadequate preparation for hurricanes — a story that proved prescient when Hurricane Harvey struck the city just two weeks after Smith’s talk.

The Tribune specializes in data collection, delivery of online data and visualizations — covering everything from public office salaries to school performance.

“Unholstered: When Texas Police Pull the Trigger” is one of the Tribune’s many data-driven investigations. (PHOTO/Olivia Obineme)

The media organization shares its content freely with other media organizations — print, television and digital. Its email newsletter for sharing content goes out regularly to more than 200 media outlets. According to Smith, content by The Texas Tribune is republished in other publications and outlets every day.

“We also do more than 50 events a year,” Smith said. There’s no fluff, just straight talk conversations where public officials face their constituents and answer hard questions about the positions they take and the votes they cast.

“A public service mission cannot be accomplished behind a paywall,” Smith said. “We give everything we produce away for free.”

Although he said he’d do it at any cost, Smith admitted there are challenges to keeping all of the news coverage free, and as a nonprofit in this day and age, The Texas Tribune cannot depend on a single stream of revenue to survive.

“It was not clear to me we could even raise two cents when we started this and we have now raised more than $45 million,” Smith said.

Last year, according to its annual report, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and individual contributions brought in nearly $7 million for the organization. The Texas Tribune provides levels of membership, from $10 to $5,000 yearly amounts, with options of monthly donations. In addition, the nonprofit hosts The Texas Tribune Festival, which is an annual three-day ticketed “ideas conference” featuring 250 speakers, 10 tracks of content, and over 60 one-hour sessions. Last year’s event brought in a $1.4 million gross revenue and Smith expects that number to increase this year.

Smith shares The Texas Tribune mission statement. (PHOTO/ Olivia Obineme)

“It’s paying for journalism,” Smith said. “And it’s not like shitty paying journalism, like stuff we’re embarrassed we did. No, it’s like totally on mission.

“People are not paying for light fixtures, they are paying for product and mission. They are paying for journalism. Money comes in the door and goes back out as journalism, which is people, technology, and the work we produce,” he said.

The Texas Tribune is a growing media enterprise and Smith said there have definitely been many mistakes along the way.

During the Q&A, MIE student Harriet White asked how The Texas Tribune managed to build a business through multimedia and multi-platform narratives.

“The secret to our success is a combination of hard work, [a] good idea at the center of what you're trying to do, luck, and timing,” Smith said.

“I think our timing was perfect. People say, ‘You're starting a new journalism business at the bottom when everything is as bad as it can be. That’s the worst time to do this.’ I say that’s the best time to do this. It is in chaos that opportunity reveals itself.”