Q&A with Evan Smith, CEO & Editor-In-Chief of The Texas Tribune

At the Association for Women in Communications (AWC) – Austin Chapter’s 39th Annual Banner Brunch on April 28, Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, will be honored with the Outstanding Austin Communicator award. 

Each year at Banner Brunch, AWC Austin and more than 200 Austin communicators raise a glass to honor AWC Austin’s 2012 Award Winners and give scholarships to deserving female communications majors. The Outstanding Austin Communicator Awards is reserved for communicators who have made their mark on the communications industry with their bodies of work.

Smith has certainly made his mark. After an award-winning 18-year career at Texas Monthly, he co-founded The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization. Less than three years later, the publication has become one of the most highly regarded news organizations in Texas, has formed a partnership with The New York Times and is set to break even by the end of the year. 

Last week, I sat down with Smith to discuss the communications industry today,The Texas Tribune’s mission to be a source of innovation for journalist and its public interest obligation that drives every story:

     Q. This is the era of the citizen journalist. How can professional communicators differentiate themselves to make a living as a writer when there is so much competition from those doing it for free?

     A. I think anybody can call oneself a journalist and anybody can say he or she wants to play alongside the professionals. The reality is that what professional journalism has that citizen journalism doesn’t is a commitment to standards and to ethics. There’s some training involved – that doesn’t mean that by virtue of being trained you’re not a better journalist – but there are still rules of the road. And as much as we’re willing to welcome people from all over into the tent, at the end of the day this is not a job or a profession for the faint of heart or for the kind of person who thinks, “I’m going to go my own way”. 

     The fact is, there is still a real benefit to being a professional communicator or a professional journalist and to understand the obligations and responsibilities that come along with that awesome power. We all tell the stories of Texas in this state or tell the stories of Austin. And in doing so, we’re obligated to be thorough, fair and accurate, we’re obligated to stick to the facts, we’re obligated to make certain that we treat people the way we want to be treated ourselves, and that we honor the highest ideals of our profession. And I think if we welcome people into the tent who don’t necessarily appreciate those obligations or have experience in doing this, there is danger. And so we’re always careful to make sure that anybody we call a communicator or a journalist understands that there are responsibilities.

     Q. The vision of The Texas Tribune is to “serve the journalism community as a source of innovation.” An interview with Editor Emily Ramshaw said that The Texas Tribune is “preparing for the next incarnation of journalism.” What does that mean?

     A. Journalism as a profession is no different than other professions outside of the media business. You know, the fact is it’s a tough economy. It’s a tough world to do the kind of work that we’re all used to doing before. There are fewer resources available and fewer obvious places to go and get those resources, so you’ve got to innovate. You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got be creative in the way you think about your content model and how you reach people. There’s more stuff out there than there has ever been in our lifetimes to fill fewer hours for pure leisure. And so the competition is greater, so we have to work much harder to innovate on the content side to get people’s attention and to keep it. 

     But on the economic model side, especially given the state of the economy and the fact that the media business has been in such profound decline over the last 10 or 15 years, you’ve got to go looking in new places for money. You’ve got to be willing to entertain new ways of getting people’s money, either on the consumer side or on the corporate partner side. So, what Emily said back then continues to be our mantra today. We want to be a source of innovation. We want to be a place where others who are thinking about the future of this business come and they go “well, they’re actually doing a pretty good job at this. Maybe we should do what they’re doing.” We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying to figure what some of the right answers going forward may be.

     Q. Why did you decide to make The Texas Tribune a non-profit publication?

     A. Well, it’s not that we’re not greedy – I think that if we thought we could have made a profit off of this we would have. But as you contemplate the idea that the media business is not a place to be spending a whole lot of time trying to make a buck these days – if you take that off the table, the fact is whether or not there is a sufficient free-market economic model to support this kind of journalism. This kind of journalism has to exist regardless. It’s an essential component of a properly functioning democracy. It’s too important to be left to the free market because the free market is concerned about many other things. 

     But the public interest obligation that we have, if we take the notion for a for-profit off the table and simply say we’re doing this for the benefit of the public – all the money that comes in the door goes right back out the door in the form of reporters’ salaries and technology. We’re not here to make a buck. I think that reinforces the idea that we’re a public service and a public-interested organization. And so once we came very quickly around to the idea that the way to do this was as a non-profit, we’ve never looked back.

To read more of my interview with Evan Smith, such as best practices, his dedication to making Texas a better place and why he thinks now is the best time ever to be in the communications industry, check out the AWC Austin blog. 

The 39th Annual Banner Brunch will be held Saturday April 28 at the Hyatt Regency Austin from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets for the event, click here. Hurry – tickets sales end soon!