Ten years ago, on November 3, 2009, the Texas Tribune launched as a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital news organization dedicated solely to the coverage of Texas politics and public policy. In a column celebrating the Tribune’s anniversary, CEO and cofounder Evan Smith admits he had almost immediate misgivings: “Had we made the worst professional decisions of our lives, leaving good jobs at an admittedly precarious moment for our employers and our industry, but for this? Untested, unchaperoned, unlikely to succeed,” Smith writes. ”A startup digital news org devoted to covering politics and policy? Zzzzzz. Get real.”
What began with seventeen reporters now employs more than seventy journalists with bureaus in Washington, D.C., on the Texas-Mexico border, and in Dallas. The Tribune produces dozens of on-the-record events each year, including the Texas Tribune Festival, which launched in 2011, and featured 450 speakers this year, including Nancy Pelosi, Julián Castro, and Ted Cruz. Although the Tribune has always given its content away for free—to readers on its own site and to print, radio, and television news organizations throughout the state and nationally—Smith’s anniversary column says the Tribune is in its seventh year in the black, taking in $10 million against $9.7 million in expenses, with a total haul to date at nearly $76 million.
Smith became the Tribune’s most public face after nearly eighteen years at Texas Monthly, stepping down in August 2009 as the magazine’s president and editor in chief. He had previously served as editor for more than eight years, during which Texas Monthly was nominated for sixteen National Magazine Awards and twice was awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Smith also hosts Overheard with Evan Smith, a weekly half-hour interview program that airs on PBS stations around the country. On the podcast, we talk about the Tribune’s nonpartisan mission in these divided times, the future of print journalism, the implications of growing distrust of the media, and how he nervously sweet-talked Nancy Pelosi into talking about President Trump’s impeachment at this year’s Trib Fest—while Willie Nelson was hovering in the background.
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Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. Smith says he’s surprised—but also not surprised—that former Texas governor and U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry may have played a pivotal role in the Ukraine controversy at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
“It’s kind of amazing. It’s delicious. It’s also why there’s a Texas Monthly and why there’s a Texas Tribune, because there’s always a Texas connection to everything, right? Even our big scandals nationally that could completely unmake a presidency have a Texas connection at the center of them. I was probably more amazed that he had managed to get through the first three years with his head down. He was possibly the least scandalous cabinet member, the guy least in the news, but he made up for lost time, didn’t he? But I always liked him. He was really fun to know when he was here. I have the luxury of not having to care about the politics of it. The tip of my spear is blunted as far as partisanship and liking people or not liking people on the issues or on the merits. I enjoyed knowing him. He was always game. I haven’t interviewed Greg Abbott one time since he was elected governor in 2014. I think he probably doesn’t like me and doesn’t like the media. I have lost exactly zero minutes of sleep over it. Let me be very clear about that. Perry was always much more willing to engage.”
2. Reflecting on the Tribune’s ten-year run, Smith doesn’t deny that a 2013 livestream from the Texas Capitol of Sen. Wendy Davis’s eleven-hour filibuster of abortion legislation was a turning point for the site. By the end of the night, close to two hundred thousand people from more than 187 countries were up past midnight watching the coverage.
“We’d been livestreaming the legislature for a couple of different sessions. The 2011 session came and went. We livestreamed it, and nobody cared about that. We livestreamed the 2013 session and largely nobody cares until the filibuster. And then all of a sudden, we outdraw MSNBC in the ratings that night globally. More people were on our site than watching them. There have been moments over the ten years—four or five moments—where it was like, ‘Oh, okay. That was big.’ What happens is we spike, and then it resets. But the plateau it resets to is a higher plateau, and that’s how the business has grown because there’s this extraordinary interest all of a sudden. But when we reset to a normal pace, the more normal pace is higher. We pick up people, we pick up donors, our visibility out in the world is that much greater. But the Davis one was certainly one where we just happened to be the right place at the right time. And we were the only ones doing that. And then President Obama, or Obama for America, tweeted that night that something special is happening in Texas. It was a crazy night, and it was a defining moment for us, but we’ve fortunately had a lot of defining moments.”
3. Is Senator John Cornyn’s 2020 reelection bid likely to become a big national story like 2018’s Cruz/O’Rourke matchup? Smith says a year out is far too early to make predictions, but he’s got theories.
“My theory of the case, this far out, is that Cornyn’s fate is entirely tied to the Republican party’s fate nationally. If the whole thing comes down around everybody’s ankles, Cornyn is going to be a casualty of that. But failing a complete collapse, Cornyn probably wins by a narrower margin. Cornyn ran for reelection last time in 2014 and won by 26 points. Typically, over the last 25 years since the last time a Democrat was elected statewide in 1994, the margin has been fifteen to twenty points. Cornyn way over-performed relative to the average margin, Republican or Democrat. Cruz won by 2.6 percent. Beto got the margin down by 90 percent from 2014 to 2018, and I think that’s an indication to me at least of where the upside is for Cornyn. And the downside is that Cruz is more likely to excite people but also make people really mad, so the opportunity for somebody to run against Cruz is greater. One of the things you hear people talking about the Senate races is Cornyn is not Cruz, so the Republicans are fine, right? And that’s another way of saying, well Cornyn has less risk embedded in him cause he’s more of a milquetoast kind of guy, relatively speaking, than Cruz, and in the political universe he doesn’t excite people in one direction or another as much. But from the perspective of that race and the Democrats at this point is, I’m not sure that a year out I thought Beto would be Beto. I don’t know that I would have imagined that O’Rourke would get the margin down to 2.6, so there’s still time for a Democrat to emerge who is as articulate and empathetic and charismatic as Beto was. But that’s a pretty hard mark to hit.”