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Episode 1 ● Part 1

Evan Smith

Today’s media organizations need to think like technology companies

It’s all but impossible to speak about the Future of News without discussing technology. The two are inextricably intertwined, shaping and driving one another toward a future some lament, and that others, like Texas Tribune CEO, cofounder, and editor-in-chief Evan Smith, hail with optimism verging on glee. There is no denying that the news industry is not what it once was, that the very future of print is uncertain.

But this interview with Evan Smith tells another story as well—a narrative of increased access to storytelling tools, arming and, many would say, democratizing the process of disseminating news. The term “news” still carries the power that it always has, backed by a history of pushing social change and the kind of awareness and education requisite for a well-informed voting public.

About Evan
Editor / Ringmaster / Disruptive innovator / Journalist

Evan Smith is the co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, the nonprofit, nonpartisan news source that provides a tangible answer to the question on everyone’s mind: is there a financial model under which journalism can thrive? He is also host of the weekly television show “Overheard with Evan Smith” and former executive vice president at The Texas Monthly.

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The Interview

What is The Tribune?

We describe ourselves as a news organization but we’re really much more than that. We report the news, but we also build community around common interests. We go into big cities and small towns with elected officials, pull together hundreds of people, have a conversation about water, transportation, all that stuff. We’re creating more discussion, conversation—civil, important, bipartisan, nonpartisan around issues. To say that we’re reporting the news is, to borrow an old phrase, true but not accurate. Because it’s not all we’re doing, it doesn’t tell the full story. Were providing information, knowledge to people in various formats, to give them things to think about, talk about with their neighbors, around the dinner table, the gym locker room, the watercooler at the office. We want people to know, here is the state of public education, higher education, immigration, healthcare, down the list. With that knowledge you decide what needs to be done. Do you need to vote your elected official, with whom you disagree, out of office? Perhaps you need to give money to the elected official who represents you because you agree. Do you need to take up pitchforks and torches and storm the capitol?

So we’re a news organization, but also we’re the ones who light the torches. We’re the ones who provide the pitchforks. We’re the ones who actually connect the members of the mob, who didn’t know each other, by reporting on an issue that then becomes a catalyst for people to take action. We don’t care about the outcome. We had a stake in giving those people in those communities the information and knowledge they needed to then decide independently whether some action needed to be taken. We report, they decide. That would be a nice slogan for a news organization, wouldn’t it?

We give them the information they need, and then they go off and figure out whether something should be done about it. I would love to see the voter turnout in this state be a lot higher than it is. We puff our chests out all the time about Texas exceptionalism.

“We’re first at everything! We’re best at everything!” We’re pretty shitty at voter turnout. We’re the shittiest at voter turnout. It would be awesome if we improved upon that, and the way we improve upon that, first and foremost, is to give people the motivation to vote. And here are the currents we’re pushing against: distrust of public institutions and elected officials is at an all-time high. The media has basically defaulted on its responsibility to educate the public about the issues that they should be paying attention to, and we have created through redistricting so many noncompetitive elections that people around the state think: “Why should I vote? The game is rigged.” And they’re right. That’s a pretty big rock to push up a pretty steep hill, but it’s important that we do it because it’s the only way the state does anything, going forward, is if we get the public to say: “Wait a minute. This can be better. We can be better.”

However you define better. So to say we are a news organization is true but not accurate. Right?

How does the Texas Tribune exemplify this?

There are two interesting things happening on different tracks, heading in different directions. Dallas Morning News and the Austin American Statesman—two very good newspapers, big papers in Texas, arguably two of the three most important papers in Texas—have both announced that they are gonna have a bunch of buyouts and layoffs to completely upturn their staffing. The Statesman has stopped printing in Austin for the first time in its history; they are now taking their printing operations out of town, and they are gonna get rid of a bunch of people, they are gonna rehire some people in the area of digital publishing. Dallas Morning News announced they are gonna lay off more than 160 … and they are gonna shift their emphasis back over to digital publishing.The legacy media—and that is a pejorative phrase, I understand that, but I don’t mean it with any negative feelings, people who have been around for a long time, people who were printing ink on paper before there was any of this stuff—they are heading a very different direction.

In the meantime I just got back from São Paulo Brazil. I had to speak at an international journalism conference, investigative journalism conference, called Abraji—tenth anniversary of this conference, big conference. They wanted to know what the Texas Tribune is doing and how we’ve made this economic and content model work.

We in the digital first media end of things are all of a sudden the shiny new object. We’re the thing everybody wants to emulate. How are you doing this? What are the decision-making points that go into how you operate? How are you making this work from an economic standpoint? This is a strange thing. When we started this thing I didn’t know that we would last five minutes, let alone five months, let alone five years. I didn’t know we would raise $31, let alone as I sit here now 31 million dollars and counting.

We have the most reporters covering a state capital of any news organization for profit or nonprofit in the whole country. We have more reporters covering the capitol in Austin than the New York Times has covering the capitol in Albany, than the LA Times has covering the capitol in Sacramento, than the Chicago Tribune has covering the capitol in Springfield.

How is that possible? As I say those words I disbelieve them, but they are, in fact, true and the reason is we started out with a mission [and] we have not veered one day, one inch from that mission. We knew who we were on day one, we know what we are almost six years in. That clarity makes everything possible, because you get up in the morning not asking yourself “do I do this or don’t I do this.”

When you know what you are and you know what you’re not, everything is easier. The fact we chose to focus in a narrow vertical on politics and public policy, state government, made it so that we could just gun the engine on those things—flood the zone. And it’s allowed us to succeed where others have not, and succeed beyond what our expectations were and what everybody else’s have been. It’s an amazing turn of events.

I make no assumptions about how long we can make this run last. Every time I talk about how successful we’ve been, I worry that I’m jinxing it. But I will tell you that it’s it’s hopeful for me to be able to say “look how well we’ve done, look how successful we’ve been, and look at what we’ve built, and look at what we’re continuing to build.” It’s kind of great.

Is Texas an anomaly?

It is factor although not necessarily in the way you’d think. I ran Texas Monthly for many years; I was editor and then editor-in-chief, I’d been there for almost 18 years. One of the interesting things about that magazine, which is not only known in Texas but is known nationally and internationally, is the way that views its markets.Texas is this massive state with all these people, and yet the magazine institutionally views Texas less as a state than a city where Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth are the neighborhoods. The idea is that Texas is different in that it is more intimate despite its size. People in Texas self identify as Texans first, not as Austinites, or Houstonians or Dallasites. They think of themselves as Texans. That cohesiveness, that connective tissue, means [that when] something happens in Lubbock, and you live in Lampasas, you care about it. If something happens in Harlingen and you live in El Paso, you care about it. That makes it possible to think of Texas as a market, from a commercial standpoint, from a business standpoint, but also from an editorial standpoint.California, by contrast, is three markets. San Diego folks hate LA folks, LA folks hate Bay Area folks. It’s three states and you couldn’t do this in California. You can do it in Texas. Texas is more like a city; San Francisco, LA, and San Diego are like their own states. April Hinkle and I came here with this idea that you can sell Texas as a market. That was something that we brought into the mix that I think would’ve been different if somebody else had come in and been part of the leadership team. That was one of the key aspects to making this work from the beginning, was not thinking of Texas as a series of markets but thinking of it as one market.

If it’s not portable to California, is it portable anywhere else?

I get asked this question every single day. I was asked it yesterday. Of course I’m always encouraging when people ask whether this can be replicated, can you clone this, or can you take the Tribune and scratch off the Texas, and write another state’s name right there. Anybody can do anything, and I’m encouraging of anybody who is a news entrepreneur, go off and create and figure out what makes the most sense. What we built was for Texas. The product is designed of Texas. You cannot take this product and bring it over to your state, because some aspects of it, things that we made happen at the beginning, the decisions we made, were designed with Texas in mind. Every state is different. Certainly on the business model end of it, if you’re going to raise money from individuals and foundations and corporations as we have, it helps to have rich people, deep-pocketed foundations, and big corporations. We have the most millionaires and billionaires of any state in the country. In fact I think the last Forbes 400 we had 41 Texans on the list, more than any other state. There’s probably another 41 who don’t allow their information to be widely enough known that they’re on the list, so we have just billionaires coming out of our ears in this state, and more millionaires than any other state. We’re, I think, number one in Fortune 1000 companies, were number three in Fortune 500 companies.

If you’re gonna swing at the ball, it helps to have balls to swing at. If you do the Idaho Tribune or the Vermont Tribune you’re gonna have much less of a base of wealth and net worth to draw on than you are in Texas. I think that’s a precondition at least to success at this scale. Nobody has to do it at this scale; my whole point to people is you don’t need 34 or whatever the number of reporters is—I lose track, I need people to wear name tags at this point. You don’t need that many.

We started out with 11 reporters. Eleven full-time on day one. You don’t need 11 reporters on day one. I think you probably need more than just one or two, but you don’t need 11 and you certainly don’t need this many today. You can do this different—scale it down, scale down the expense of doing it, raise less money, but you gotta have money to raise. That’s a big thing.

But here’s the biggest piece of it: Texas drives the national conversation on just about every issue. We have the most uninsured people of any state. We have the most contiguous miles with the Mexican border of any state. We create the most jobs of any state. We produce the most crude oil of any state. We’ve added 1,000 people to the state’s population a day each of the last two years. We have the five fastest growing cities. We have the five fastest growing big cities. We have the five fastest growing small cities. Second highest public ed enrollment, second highest higher ed enrollment. I could go on. We sue the federal government more times than anybody else in the country.

Everything that happens here affects the rest of the country. Everything that happens elsewhere in the country disproportionately affects Texas because of Texas’ size. If you like the politics of the state, you probably think, “What starts here changes world, cool.” If you don’t like the politics of the state, you think, “What starts here deranges the world.” We affect everybody else’s stuff.

And, not incidentally, there are five people who grew up in Texas running for president in this next cycle. Texas is disproportionately important to the rest of the country and to the rest of the world. You could not ask for better material. This stuff practically writes itself. Now fortunately it doesn’t actually write itself, which is why you need us, but it practically writes itself. Do you have Rick Perry and Ted Cruz and Michael Quinn Sullivan, Wallace Hall, and Cecile Richards, and Wendy Davis, and Louis Gomert, and go down the list. Sid Miller, George P. Bush, George W. Bush, George HW, go down the list. Do you have those people in Vermont? In Idaho? Maybe you do. They’re not going to be as interesting as the people in Texas. Do you have most uninsured people, the most contiguous miles of the Mexican border? No. The material here is much more interesting, and richer, and propels an organization like this forward. I just don’t know that you can have that or do that some other place.

What a fascinating circus.

That’s funny that you say that. At the beginning of all this, Ross Ramsey, one of our co-founders, was the editor of Texas Weekly, the most respected journalist at the capitol. One of the things we did when I went to hire Ross originally and to acquire Texas Weekly at the start of this, was to go up to the capital, talk to members of the legislature, elected officials, staff members, lobbyists, people who’ve lived in this world, and I asked the old fairytale question: Who’s the fairest of them all? Who is the one person in the press corps, who if they call you, you think “I may not like what they’re calling about, but I know that they’re gonna ask fair questions, they’re gonna treat me fairly, they’re doing journalism. They’re not doing bullshit, they’re doing journalism.”And it was Ross. So Ross comes aboard. We’re getting close to the beginning, and you know Ross is a serious journalist, done this political stuff for a long time, and I’ve been editor and editor-in-chief, and kind of run things. I’m a journalist, do a lot of interviews, I do a different kind of journalism but I’m sort of running stuff. So somebody said to Ross, “I know what your job is gonna be at this new thing, what’s Evan’s job gonna be?”Ross said, “PT Barnum, speaking of the circus.” And that’s kind of right, actually. I don’t take any offense to that. There’s something to that. My job is to be the ringmaster. My job is to stand in front of the audience and to shout what were doing, and to entertain a little bit, but mostly to be the one who is the through line that runs the whole thing together. It is a circus. Could you ask for a bigger circus than the Texas legislature? Every hundred and forty days the clowns come through town; it’s the best free entertainment in the world.

But the thing is, it’s our circus, and that gets back to this question: Texas. Even our circuses are bigger, right? Because it’s ours, we love it, and because it’s ours, we cover it. And it may be a circus, but that’s the best possible circus you could ask for.

You called yourself “entrepreneur” earlier. That normally doesn’t go with “nonprofit.”

I have to disagree. I think today there are a lot of nonprofit entrepreneurs, because there are a lot of business models that need disruption. Some of that disruption has come on the for-profit side: Uber, Tesla, go down the list of companies that have existed in the disruption space for a couple years so much that we now accept them as establishment, but they’re not. But there’s also a nonprofit version of that, and I think if the for-profit model does not work to provide something that is essentially a public good, and journalism in the public interest is a public good if it’s anything, then you come up with a new model. If the old model’s not working.Roy Spence—the great S at GSD&M, the wonderful advertising agency here at Austin and in Texas—long ago told me a story about Southwest Airlines and 7-Up, two brands that were struggling to compete with the big boys. And he likened their experience to being on a ladder, and they were on a lower rung of the ladder and they were trying to get up the ladder. He said to them, or said at some point about them, “if you don’t like the ladder you’re on, build another ladder.” I always thought about that.

So what we really do with the nonprofit space, not just we here at the Tribune, but the entrepreneurs who live on the nonprofit end of this, is we’re building another ladder. The for-profit model does not allow for this kind of work to live in the world and be adequately funded. If that is the case you build another ladder. And we went into this building another ladder.

So we said we’ll build the nonprofit and it wasn’t like we had to persuade ourselves or anybody else that there was a public interest in this. Educating the public about the issues that affect everybody in the state, and getting them by doing so to be more thoughtful and productive and engaged citizens, to give them the means to make better choices at election times, and at all times, to make the state smarter or to make the state better is in the public’s interest .

For us to take that educational mission, that engagement mission as our mission, was totally compatible with being 501(c)(3), a nonprofit, and raising money from the kind of people who support things that exist in the public’s interest. It wasn’t even a question for us.
And let me tell you a funny story. We made a decision in the first six months that we were going to bring in some political fundraisers to help us think about raising money. It occurred to us that if you have two people, Evan and Andrew and Evan gives $1,000 to the museum and Andrew gives $1,000 to Rick Perry or Bill White, which of us is likeliest to give $1,000 to the Tribune?

Andrew. Because the attributes that go into the decision to give to politics are probably more aligned with the kind of person who gives to a news organization of the sort that we are, rather than somebody who simply gives money to any nonprofit, any museum, or what-have-you. So we said, “Let’s get some political fundraisers in so we can talk to them about the kind of people we should be prospecting from.”

It was a very good experience. A woman came in who had raised money on behalf of John McCain in Texas in ’08, and a woman came who raised money on behalf of Barack Obama. So we had the two people who ran fundraising in the Texas presidentials in ’08. They talked to us about their lists, and about the things that motivated people to give. It was very instructive.

At some point the Republican fundraiser said to me: “Now let me just tell you, cause you’re nonpartisan and you wanna raise money from a nonpartisan or bipartisan group of people, when you talk to Democrats, talk about journalism. When you talk to Republicans talk about Texas. Because Republicans will hear journalism and think liberal.”

I thought, “That’s interesting.” Made sense. It’s a broad brush, but there was a germ of truth to that. We talk about making Texas a better place through the work we do. We don’t talk about the media, we talk about Texas. In fact, the distillation of our longform mission is smarter Texans equal a better Texas. And we say that with the knowledge that different people define “better” differently. But however you define “better,” we could agree, that a smarter state and a more engaged state is a better state. Even if the people who are smarter and more engaged make choices you disagree with, getting more people to participate in this democracy of ours is a good thing.

Are you a news company or a technology company?

Generally speaking, any media company that is not also a technology company today is missing out and is probably not gonna be around very long. We self-define as a news organization, we also self-define as a technology organization because there’s no delivering the news without distribution across platforms across devices.There are organizations that have been more forward thinking about the world and ones that have been less so. You gotta be a technology company as well as media company these days to succeed. That was never a question going into it. Look, we used to call data journalism “computer-assisted reporting” back in the quaint old days of, like, 2005. What does it mean? It means that you go get these massive sets of data, whether it’s spreadsheets and charts and so on, or lists of this or that, you figure out how to take that data and put them into a usable, sortable, searchable, accessible format for the average person. They are the fuel that propels journalism forward, so journalism happens using data as its guts. Or sometimes data is its own journalism without needing a story around it, basically data can be its own thing.

My proposal is that we stop calling data journalism data journalism, and let’s just call everything journalism because that’s what it is. It’s journalism. There’s different kinds journalism, why are we ghettoizing data journalism? Data journalism is now a thing. If you go to any newsroom in the country, what you find is four, five, six data reporters—people who exist to acquire, clean up, and present in searchable, sortable fashion, working alone or in tandem with traditional journalists.

What is data journalism but the logical extension of that emphasis on or desire for nonnarrative storytelling? That’s really all it is. Some storytellers do it in longform and some do it in short form. I’m an interviewer; my particular weapon of choice is the interview. That’s storytelling. It’s nonnarrative storytelling, but storytelling. Data journalism is just another weapon in the arsenal, another particular type of weapon in the arsenal. When we started doing it, it was a bit of a boutique, and now everybody is doing it. Now if you don’t have it you’re dead. Back when we started six years ago, it was like, “wow they’re emphasizing this.” I don’t think anybody questions it now.

Does the Shale Life piece fit into that?

The Shale Life project is a little different. That’s not really data journalism, that’s actually, frankly, a little more conventional. Really it is sort of the multipart series you used to read in newspapers 10 to 15 years ago done differently, admittedly, using technology and using different skills. People come to me: “I want to be a writer.” What kind? “I wanna just write. That’s all I wanna do.” You don’t wanna shoot video on your phone and edit it and post it? “No.” You don’t want to record audio on your phone and post it… “No.” You don’t want to do any basic HTML? “No.” Don’t wanna do data? “No.” You don’t want to do social media? “No.”Here is what you do. Go to Home Depot, buy bunch of wood, build a time machine, and go back to Esquire in 1964. Cause that’s the last time that anybody did that job. Only a slight exaggeration. Today people come to work for me, and come to work for organizations like this, they’re not meat cleavers, they’re Swiss Army knives.

Anybody who comes into journalism today, has got to be a Swiss Army knife. Has got to have have basic competency at those things. That’s the way the business has transitioned. When I look at multipart projects that used to be these multipart series ink on paper in newspapers, and now they are these multimedia extravaganzas, it’s in part fueled by the fact that we have a bunch of Swiss Army knives and not meat cleavers.

Do you have any advice for your 18-year-old self?

The 18-year-old I was is not any 18-year-old I would encounter now. If fact, I encounter a lot of 18-year-olds. I speak on a lot of college campuses about the Tribune, about politics, and bring elected officials on college campuses all over the country and all over the world. And we talk about the big issues of the day: education, healthcare, immigration, all that. Back in the day when I was 18, there was no technology all over me, all around me. I had much less access to information and I had much less access to disseminating my own thoughts. Eighteen is the new 28, right? The kids on college campuses today are much more sophisticated about the world, in large part because they have much better access to technology. This is a generation that has grown up essentially with USB ports in the sides of their heads. They’ve only known a world with filesharing and G chatting and social media, and all the things that we now take for granted. It is first nature, second nature as it were, to them, they’re first-generation.This is all moving very quickly. The 18-year-old me would’ve had no way to get traction in this world, so there’d be no way to advise that me, knowing what I know now, because the kids I advise now are so far past anything I ever would’ve been at age 18.

And by the way, it is one of the reasons I’m optimistic about journalism. The kids who are coming out of college today are so much better prepared to create the next great thing on Day One. The barriers to entry have been obliterated. Cheap and easy access to technology means a kid coming out of any college in the country—not just Harvard and Yale, but Texas State, Texas Tech, doesn’t matter—on day one out of college can create something in his dorm room or in his apartment and be every bit as important as a national or international media organization.

Those kids are so valuable when I’m hiring; they don’t understand this, but we need them more than they need us. They actually have the upper hand, they have the power in the relationship. And I think the 18-year-old me today would be so much better off because I would’ve had access to all the stuff and I’d be in a different position. I wouldn’t even need the 49-year-old me to tell me anything.

What is the future of news?

The future of news is personalized. The future of news is digitized. The future of news is the consumer controls the conversation, not the provider. There was a moment in April of ’09 when I needed to decide whether I was going to do this. I was the editor of Texas Monthly. I’d been wrestling for close to 18 months with this opportunity to figure out whether the Tribune was the right opportunity for me or not, and whether this can succeed. I had my doubts. My doubts began to be diminished over time but I just couldn’t get my hands around this idea of a virtual news organization.All I knew all my life was ink on paper. So I’m home one night and I’m watching one of those MSNBC programs, Hardball, let’s say it’s Hardball because I really don’t remember. The segment ended they’d go to a commercial, and instead of going to the commercial, they go to an interstitial that is a branded screen MSNBC logo. Maybe this has been the case before, but I hadn’t seen it, or hadn’t noticed it. MSNBC logo, and then beneath MSNBC logo there’s an illustration of a computer screen, of a television screen, and of a cell phone.

Computer, TV, cell phone. I paused the TV and I stared at it. I said, “what are they doing here?” And I went, “Oh! They used to be a TV network, and now they’re a content company. They used to produce television programs that you watched on a television at the hour that they aired it, take it or leave it. Now they air the television program at a particular hour, but I could watch it at six in the morning or six at night, fully clothed or fully undressed. I can watch it in my house, I can watch it on my phone, I can watch it on my computer. I can take a segment, a piece of the show, and just take that and email it to a friend or post it on social media. It’s platform agnostic; device agnostic. They’re not a TV network, they’re a content company.”

That was the future of news for me right there. That was my aha moment. I went, “Okay, we’re content companies now. We’re not media companies or news organizations, we’re content companies.” So I went in to Texas Monthly’s office the next morning and I said, “I want to see a logo that would have a TV screen and a cell phone and a computer. I want us to begin to visualize this place as a content company.”

The problem with a legacy news organization or a media company like Texas Monthly—no picking on them—is they’re like steamships. You wanna turn a steamship, it takes a long time, it’s complicated, you got to go slow. And I realized I wanted to be the captain of a cigarette boat. I wanted to be going so fast and taking turns at such a sharp angle that I was at risk of tipping over. I wanted to wake up in the morning, decide to do something, and by 11 o’clock it was done. I didn’t want to committee everything to death anymore. I didn’t want to be told no. I wanted to be told yes.

The future of news is a “yes” future and not a “no” future. The future news is a cigarette boat future and not a steamship future. The future of news is more supple and nimble and flexible. The future of news is fail fast and no recriminations. The future of news is learning from failure like the old cliché says. The future of news is trying things in service to greatness, and if they don’t work, peace. The future of news is about experimentation and iteration. The future of news is not when it’s published it’s done, it’s when it’s published it’s just beginning.

The future of news is now. All the stuff that we never imagined is now, and I think six years from now, all the stuff that doesn’t exist now, all the ways to connect people, to distribute content, to reach people, to build audience, to deepen impact—it boggles the mind what can happen in six years.

It’s fun to do this now. The future is now.

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