A Smarter Texas: Evan Smith, Texas Tribune CEO
February 22, 2017
BOB SCHIEFFER: Our guest today is Evan Smith. He broke new ground in journalism in 2009, when he resigned as editor of Texas Monthly, the hugely successful and critically acclaimed magazine, and went on to co-found the Texas Tribune, which is an online, nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization which has become a hugely influential journalistic organization in a state where newspaper after newspaper has been forced to cut staff and reduce coverage.
Evan, welcome to the podcast. Tell our listeners first exactly what the Texas Tribune is and why did you launch it?
EVAN SMITH: Well, thanks, Bob. The Tribune is very simply a means to keep the people of the state of Texas –27 million now going to 54 million in 2050, a big and fast-growing and dynamically changing state – better aware of the politics and policy decisions of the capital that affect all of them. This is a state, as you said, that has seen coverage of politics and policy over the last 10 to 15 years cut back. We’ve lost newspapers. We’ve lost reporters. And as a result of that, the people of the state are less informed about what’s going on at the capital.
Now, I can draw a dotted line, and not a straight line, from there to the fact that we have the worst voter turnout in the country but, Bob, you and I both know that when people are less aware of the issues that affect them, they’re less inclined in turn out. They are less motivated to turn out to vote. So we have a terribly disengaged state. And through journalism, we’re trying to solve that problem.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Tell me how the Texas Tribune is funded? Where do you get money? And how does that work?
MR. SMITH: So we’re a nonprofit, which means that we’re a 501(c)(3) organization. We consider ourselves to be an organization that exists in the public interests. Like a lot of other charitable organizations, we think we’re improving life in the community we live in. And so we made the decision to be nonprofit partly as a pragmatic decision. We didn’t think this was something that could succeed as a for-profit business. We’re just covering politics and public policy. And if you can make a buck off of that, Bob, the for-profit media guys wouldn’t have cut back coverage of this stuff, right? If this could have been doing as a for-profit they would have been doing it.
But honestly, from a mission standpoint, what we’re doing is trying to make our community better and healthier, like a lot of other nonprofits do. So think of us like a public media organization, more than as a traditional charity – like an NPR or PBS station. Those are nonprofits and they do robust journalism of different kinds. And they raise money from individuals and foundations and corporations. So we’re sitting here today at the beginning of what is our eighth year in business. And in eight years of business, or seven and change going into the eighth year, we have raised more than $41 million from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Individuals are rich people. And we have a lot of those in the state of Texas. More millionaires and billionaires than any other state. But we also get a lot of gifts from regular folks who are appreciative of the work we’re doing and send us 10 bucks or 50 bucks or 100 bucks because they value us the way they might value their local NPR or PBS station. A lot of foundations in Texas give us money to support our good work, but we also get a lot of support from national foundations like Gates and Ford and Knight.
And then the biggest percentage overall of the money we raise comes from corporate underwriting, again, much like you might hear about on NPR or see on PBS, companies that believe that a healthy state is a better state. And they see the value in the work that we do, even if they may not agree with everything that we report on. And so they support us as well. More than $41 million in a little bit more than seven years. Bob, I wouldn’t have believed it if you had told me at the beginning that we’d be where we are today.
MR. SCHIEFFER: That is astonishing. I want to talk about – a little bit about the void that Texas Tribune fills, because it certainly does.
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: When I left Texas for Washington in 1969, all of the metropolitan newspapers were home-owned. Now they are all owned by out-of-state chains, except for the Dallas News. The Dallas News, in those days, was owned by Belo. But of course, it was a Dallas-based company.
MR. SMITH: Right.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Some of those newspapers now are simply a shell of once they once were. Does the Tribune try to do the reporting that a lot of them used to do? Is that your main mission?
MR. SMITH: Oh, that was the point before we even started was not to replace – because you can’t replace those guys – but to supplement what those guys are still doing. Now, look, Bob, one of the things that’s happened since we started the Tribune is that, you know, a paper that you know very well, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, completely pulled up stakes from the capital. There is no Fort Worth Star-Telegram bureau in Austin, has not been for years. Think about that. Fort Worth is a – you know, the 16th largest city in the country. It’s one of six Texas cities, and the top 20 in population. They have absolutely no coverage at the capital, no bureau.
But another thing that’s happened, just in the time I’ve lived in Texas – and, you know, I’ve only lived in Texas, Bob, 25 years. Compared to you I’m not really a Texan, right? Since I’ve been in Texas, the Dallas Times Herald went away, the San Antonio Light went away, the Houston Post went away. I mean, there have been a lot of newspapers that used to exist in Texas. I remember your old colleague Dan Rather saying that when he was at the capital as a young reporter he was a reporter for, like, the number three radio station in Houston, at the capital. Can you imagine broadcast outlets from around the state having people stationed at the capital, let alone the number-three news station in Houston?
I mean, you know, the idea that there was this kind of coverage long ago, we’ve romanticized a little bit. I don’t know that we remember it exactly as it was. But certainly the number of reporters at the capital has cut down. I think it’s about a third of what it was 20 years ago. And so if you think about that, yes, the Tribune exists to fill in that void, or to fill in that ditch. And we have a lot of reporters here at the Tribune, and a high percentage of the press corps overall at the moment is Tribune reporters. And we can do a lot. We can’t do everything, but we can do as much as we possibly can, and we make our content available to as many people as possible. And so we can solve the problem, to the degree that we can. And we’re trying everything.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, that brings up an interesting point. I want to get back to the who’s sitting up in the press gallery now at the state capitol.
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: But who do you make your information available to? Is it for just any news organization that wants it?
MR. SMITH: It’s to anybody who wants it. You know, so the Tribune is free. I’ve taken the position – I’ve taken many positions on the question of what our mission is. But maybe one of the most important ones is that you cannot accomplish a public service mission behind a paywall. It has that pesky word “public” in it, public service. And that means the public has to get at it. And the public may not have the means or the inclination to pay for it, but that doesn’t mean that the work you’re doing is not still important.
So we have taken as a core principle for the entirety of the Tribune’s existence that we’re going to give this content away to anybody who wants it – not only by making it available to the public on our website, but giving it every day to editors at newspapers or assignment editors at TV and radio stations around the state for free – kind of like a free Associated Press wire, or a free news wire. They can take one thing or they can take many things, or they can take everything. They can take it once a week or they can take it every day – doesn’t make a difference.
And the reason is – and I know these statistics from when we started seven years ago. I suspect they’re not materially different today. When we started in 2009, there were 5 million paid newspaper readers in the state of Texas. Of those, half, 2.5 million, were in the five big cities – Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio. And those were the only papers, coincidentally, that had any coverage – significant coverage of the capital. Now, the El Paso paper has one reporter in Austin. And the combined Lubbock and Amarillo paper until recently had a reporter in Austin. But basically, outside the five big cities, they’re relying on the AP. They’re having to pay for that content. And it’s not specific to their markets.
We are trying to give content to places that have never had coverage other than off the rack or off the shelf. So we give it away, because if those papers could afford to have this kind of coverage, as I said earlier, they’d be doing it. So our stuff runs in places like Waco, Tyler, Marshal, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Harlingen – you know, B- and C-level communities, population-wise, but still very important in their own way. The people of Waco or the people of Tyler have the same one vote that I do in Austin. They’re no less Texans than we are here in the big cities. And yet, they have no access to the kind of information that the big-city residents do, by virtue of the fact that they happen to be geographically lucky, right?
So we give it away. And we give it away proudly. We give it away for free. And we make that part of our pitch to our donors. We say, by giving us this support you’re not only making it possible for us to produce this journalism, but it has a multiplier effect, or a repeater effect. That content will not only appear in the Tribune, but it will also appear in, on average, about a couple dozen papers over the course of a week, or it’ll appear on a dozen and a half TV or radio stations.
And by doing that, we’re ensuring that people all over this enormous state – as I said, fast growing and dynamically changing, are at least up to speed on the big fights over school choice or, you know, nondiscrimination ordinances, or transportation foundation, or, sanctuary cities, because everybody in this state has a stake in the outcomes of these fights. Most people just don’t know about them.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Evan, when the Texas legislature opens this year, what newspapers from around the state will be in the press gallery? What numbers of reporters will be there to cover the legislature?
MR. SMITH: Well, you know, this is a little bit like the department stores at the holidays. There’s seasonal help, right? So, you know, one of the things we’ve said all along is we don’t believe in seasonal help. You know, the other news organizations to a large degree – not all of them – they staff up heavily. In fact, as we sit here today the legislature gavels in tomorrow. And the legislature in Texas, if people don’t know, is only in session for 140 days every two years. So we’re about to go into that every-other-year crush. So, in advance of this, like in advance of Christmas, you get seasonable help hired.
Well, when the session is over, when Christmas is over, they lay all the elves off, right? We don’t lay off elves. We have no elves. We only have full-time people. So the composition of the press corps in the session is not exactly what it is all the time. But it’s probably – you know, it’s probably upwards of 100. And it’s from – and it’s largely concentrated, as I said, in the big cities. One of the interesting phenomena over the last couple years is you’ve seen a lot of the veteran reporters, Bob, people whose names you would know from your time in Texas and from your familiarity with Texas from a distance, those people have largely passed the baton to younger people.
So you don’t really have a lot of institutional memory in the press corps. You also don’t have a lot of people who know the players or know the rules of the game as well as some of those who had been here back in the day. So, you know, the dynamic is not a whole lot different in other state capitals, I suspect. Texas is not unique in that suspect.
MR. SCHIEFFER: When the legislature adjourns then you cut back. Who’s in the press gallery then? Texas Tribune, the Associated Press?
MR. SMITH: It’s largely us. There’s a couple reporters and the AP, the Dallas Morning News, and the combined Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express bureaus will still have a bunch of people. The first papers – San Antonio and Houston – are combined. The Austin Statesman still has some reporters. And, you know, there are a handful of broadcast – a very small handful of broadcast reporters who are on the scene. But, you know, the Tribune has been at any point over the last seven years between a third and half of the working press corps at the capital.
And, you know, I believed in the Howell Rainesian sense in flooding the zone when we started. We grew very quickly. We hired a bunch of reporters. And we have upwards of 30 people in our newsroom who are dedicated to covering various aspects of this stuff. They may be traditional beat reporters, they may be investigative reporters, they may be data reporters, they may be multimedia reporters. But they’re all byline contributors to the Tribune. We just have the ability, since all we do is public policy, politics, and state government, to keep our focus on that, to grow our numbers under that umbrella. We don’t have to do sports. We don’t have to do culture. That’s allowed us to be a large percentage of the press corps.
I want to be sure I say this, I think the other members of the press corps still working, at the Dallas News particularly, I think, and in other respects at the other papers, do a really good job and we root for them. This is not a competitive environment. I think we’re all brothers and sisters in arms. But it’s been decimated, relative to the history of the press corps that you and I knew back in the day.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You said earlier that you thought that the lack of information, the lack of journalistic product, as it were, is one of the reasons that Texas had a low vote turnout this last time.
MR. SMITH: Oh, I think it’s one of the absolute reasons. And in fact, if you go back over – and these numbers, different people will give you different versions of these numbers. I’ll give you the versions that we quote all the time. In 2010, Texas was 51st out of 50 in voter turnout. And you think to yourself, how can that be – 51st out of 50? As a percentage of our eligible to vote population, we turned out worse than the other 49 states and Washington, D.C. In 2012, we had crept all the way up to 48th. In 2014, we were back down to 49 th. And by my understanding of the numbers from 2016, we crept up to 46th. But net, net, net, net over those four election cycles we have the worst voter turnout of any state in the country as a percentage of our eligible to vote population.
Now, there’s a couple reasons for that. I think that the greatest cancer on the democracy that we all live under right now is redistricting, gerrymandering. We have profoundly non-competitive elections in the state of Texas. And again, not alone in Texas. Other states have the same thing. But we have made it so that our elections in the fall effectively do not matter. I can tell you on the day after our primary or primary run-off of the 300-odd elections that may be on the ballot in an even-numbered November, I can tell all but four or five with certainty how they’re going to come out. And so the public looks at these elections in the fall and they go: The system is rigged. Why would I bother to turn out? My vote doesn’t make a difference. And you know what? Basically, they’re right. So that’s a main reason why voter turnout is low.
But I would also say that the media has a large share of the responsibility for this, because the job of the media in some respects over time has been to tee-up for busy people the things that are important enough for them to pay attention to, whether it's their family lives that are keeping them from paying as much attention as they might want to, or their work lives, or whatever else. The media’s job has been to say, look, stop what you’re doing, this is important. This affects you and this affects your community. When you have fewer reporters and fewer papers, and not much of an appetite for covering this stuff even among those papers and reporters that are left, because this is not a particularly sexy or commercial enterprise, then the media has not done its job to inform the public about what’s important, and then the public checks out.
I think that there is absolutely a reason why, in a state with paltry coverage of this stuff to say the least, there is also paltry interest among voters. So I think that, you know, this goes back to the public service pitch that we make in our mission. We say to the – to the donors who support us, and to the people in the state of Texas who may not write us a check but generally are on the Tribune team – they read, and they attend our events, and they do all the other things that we do – we say to those people, look, if you want to distill our mission it is that a smarter Texas is a better Texas, however you define smarter, however you define better.
Being nonpartisan allows us to say we don’t care what choices people make specifically, but we do care that they make choices. We do not tell people what to think. We absolutely tell them to think. That has been the job of the media over time. The media has not done a good enough job of late, and I think we’re seeing civic participation fall as a result.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me bring in Andrew Schwartz now.
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: Evan, hi. Thank you for doing this.
One of the constant things we’re looking at in this podcast is, you know, democracies depend on reliable news for the healthy dynamic of connecting citizens to representatives, and you’ve touched on that, you know, clearly here. What do we do as a news industry to help ensure a healthy and viable, truthful news industry? And how do we promote it, and yet keep it independent of government?
MR. SMITH: Well, I think for one thing we’re – you know, I’m not going to tell other news organizations how to do what they do. I’m not real big on editorializing on issues or endorsing candidates or campaigns. I don’t like thumbs on the scale. I think it gives people a reason to suspect you. And I’ve always thought it was overblown to say that just because The New York Times editorial page is, quote, “liberal,” or The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is, quote, “conservative,” that conservatives should suspect whether The New York Times’ news reporting is liberal or whether The Wall Street Journal’s news reporting is conservative. I think they’re conflating the two functions. But nonetheless, the existence of an ideological basis on the editorial page gives them license, basically, to conflate it.
I just think we stay out of that completely. We stick with facts only. We do the reporting. We give you the information that you need to be more thoughtful, productive and engaged as a citizen. And I think one of the ways that you – that you don’t stumble over the tripwire of fake news of late is that you stick to the facts; you know, that you just are very careful about providing a balanced, even perspective on an issue or on an event, you make sure that both sides are reflected – not false equivalency, but real balance. And then you just let people make a decision at that point about an issue or an individual or a campaign or what have you.
Look, I think there’s a lot of talk today, and there is appropriately a lot of talk, about what accountability journalism means. There’s a lot of talk over our shoulders about whether we did, as an industry, a good enough job in the last campaign to hold candidates and particularly the winner of the presidential election accountable. And there’s concern about whether we’re going to be in a position to hold the president, once he is the president, and his administration accountable. And I say we have no choice but to do that. Our job, first and foremost, on behalf of the people we serve – our constituents – is to make certain that we separate truth from fiction, that we hold people in power to account.
Now, you know, the old lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink thing here applies. If the public decides that failing all of that they still – or let me say it a different way. If the public decides that they don’t care about the separation of truth and fiction, or they don’t care about people being held to account, they’re willing to accept the situation regardless of all of that – I mean, what was this campaign, after all, but one in which the separation of truth from fiction ultimately may not have mattered as much as it mattered in the past? We saw a lot of things about the relationship between journalism and accountability of public officials fall down on the road to this election in a way that we had never seen it before, and I think a lot of us in the business are scratching our heads saying, well, what is the right role for all of us?
So I don’t worry too much about fake news, Andrew, because I know that we only produce real news. And our job in producing it and in reporting it and in presenting it is to ensure that people have confidence in the work behind the scenes so that they don’t begin to doubt what our basis for doing it is.
MR. SCHWARTZ: But do you worry that we’re seeing a blurred line between what’s fake and what’s truthful? Because we keep seeing over and over statistics that show that, you know, 83 percent of adults are getting their news, you know, directed from Facebook, and you know, a certain percentage of those – a high percentage of those believe that fake news is real news and so forth, and people are seeing – are picking and choosing what sources to use. Do you see the lines blurring between what’s real and what’s not?
MR. SMITH: Well, I see the lines blurring in two ways. Yes, I absolutely see the lines blurring in the way that you describe, and it concerns me enormously. But honestly, I’m not really sure what we can do about it except do our jobs and make certain that the credibility of our work and our journalism and our brands is unimpeachable. The only way that you can counter this stuff is by doing the absolute best job you possibly can of doing what you should be doing because I’m not really sure beyond that that we have any way to counter this stuff except to point out when things that are reported are not true, and to put all of our time, energy and effort into doing the absolute best and most credible work we can.
I am as concerned, Andrew, in the realm of blurring of lines, about fake news organizations as I am about fake news. The definition of who is a journalist and what is journalism today, offline from some post that may show up algorithmically in my Facebook feed, is almost of greater concern.
And here in Texas, to bring it back to our world, there are a lot of so-called news organizations that apply for media credentials at our Capitol when a legislative session goes in, as one is about to go in here, and they want to be treated no differently than the traditional news organizations because they say: “we have a website, we report things,” in quotes. But they’re not journalists. They don’t have standards. They don’t have ethics. They have an agenda. They have an ax to grind. They’re working on behalf of some idea or some person. And so the result is that the public is confused not only about what news is legitimate, but what news gatherers are legitimate.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So what do you do about that? Should they be credentialed?
MR. SMITH: Bob, I don’t – you know, I don’t know, Bob. I mean, I really think it’s a concern because, you know, what we don’t want to do is to have some state-run body that says this person is a journalist and that person is not a journalist. I suspect especially now that wouldn’t work out too well for all of us, right?
MR. SCHIEFFER: Yeah.
MR. SMITH: But you know, again, I think you can – you know, as the kids say, you do you. I think you have to go with your work as your concern, your focus, do the very best job you can, be as credible as you possibly can.
Look, I’m very proud of the work that a number of news organizations did during this campaign despite all the noise, despite all the crap that we had to endure over the course of this campaign, the attacks on the media that happened all through the campaign and continue to this very second. I thought The Washington Post and The New York Times – although the Post more than the Times – did extraordinary work. You know, I have a picture of David Fahrenthold in my house the way that I suspect some Texans have a picture of the Virgin of the Guadalupe in their house, right – (laughter) – The Washington Post reporter who was principally on the Trump Foundation beat, but did other reporting as well. The kinds of journalists who do extraordinary work and the kinds of organizations that do extraordinary work should be celebrated. We should be celebrating them and we should be holding them up as the example. And the hope is that in doing so you’re going to crowd out those who have an agenda or don’t have the same ethics or standards as the good guys.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me – (laughs) – I couldn’t agree more on David Fahrenthold. I think he is without question the reporter of the year, and I think –
MR. SMITH: Yep.
MR. SCHIEFFER: – the story that he wrote about his investigation of the Trump – the Trump charities is –
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
MR. SCHIEFFER: If we were going to give people – teach a course in college on how to be a reporter, I think the first thing I would do is just say read this story that David Fahrenthold wrote and do whatever he did. I think that would be the short –
MR. SMITH: Right. That is absolutely going to be taught. It is going to be taught in journalism schools, I think, for some time. And I think David, as an example of somebody who didn’t get distracted or didn’t get drawn in or dragged down into the much but did his job, you know, we all are susceptible to being dragged down or distracted, and I think David is a model of discipline.
MR. SCHIEFFER: It was just an extraordinary job.
Before we let you know, Evan, let’s talk just a little bit of politics right quick. Is Texas going to be a purple state next time?
MR. SMITH: Not in my lifetime. I mean, I have to tell you I think this whole idea that there’s somehow going to be this massive shift politically, the Democrats don’t have their acts together here. You know, I’ve got friends who are Democrats and friends who are Republicans, and my friends who are Democrats don’t like when I say it, but it’s true. The Democrats don’t have their act together. They don’t have candidates. They don’t have an infrastructure to run successful campaigns.
Bob, the last time a Democrat was elected statewide in Texas was 1994. I have people working for me at the Tribune who were not alive – who’ve never lived in the state of Texas, have not been on this earth since a Democrat was elected. I mean, they’ve only known a state in which only Republicans got elected statewide.
You know, demographically Texas is changing in a way that suggests the state should be a pickoff for the Democrats. And that’s said every two years or four years, but at the end of the day the people who would have to show up to vote to make that happen don’t show up to vote.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well –
MR. SMITH: Trump only won – Trump only won Texas by nine points, Bob. That was a very narrow margin relative to the recent history of this state. The last Republican to win Texas by a single-digit margin was Bob Dole in ’96 against Bill Clinton. But this is Trump, not trend. I think we get out of this crazy election cycle, go back to 2018 and 2020, and it returns to a double-digit lead for Republicans and Democrats can’t scale that mountain.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You alluded to this without saying it directly, so I will just say it. When you say those who should have shown up didn’t show up, you’re talking basically about the Hispanic vote, are you not, which continues to underperform.
MR. SMITH: Yeah, the Hispanic vote as a percentage of the population in Texas – the Hispanic community, eligible-to-vote Hispanics turn out at a much lower rate than African-Americans and especially Anglos. But I have to tell you that it’s not only Hispanics. Hispanics are not going to solve the problem for the Democratic Party. Democrats need white liberals to turn out.
The reality is that – here let me give you an example, Bob, that will be familiar to you as somebody who knows Texas better than anybody. In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain in Harris County, which is one of the largest counties in the country, home to Houston, which is the number one population city in the state of Texas and fourth in the country in population. Barack Obama beat John McCain by about 17,000 votes. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Harris County by fewer than 1,000 votes, almost lost Harris County. In 2016, Hillary Clinton – who lost the state of Texas by nine points – beat Donald Trump in Harris County by more than 160,000 votes. The fact is that Texas is a rapidly urbanizing city, and Hillary Clinton won four of the five big urban counties, all but Tarrant – Fort Worth. She won Dallas, Harris, Travis and Bexar, and yet still lost the state of Texas by nine points.
What she and what the Democrats needed to do in this election was not just turn out Democrats of color, they needed to turn out Democrats. So to put the responsibility – because clearly the Hispanic community and the African-American community in those big cities did turn out and the big counties did turn out. But the problem is the white population. Democrats have lost whites here the way they’ve lost whites a lot of other places. And unless white Democrats turn out, the Hispanic community will not be able to carry the Democrats over the line.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Evan Smith, who probably knows more about Texas politics right now than any other single person I know. Evan, really a pleasure, and congratulations on The Texas Tribune. You really are making a difference in helping people to understand Texas, Texas government, and Texas politics. Thanks so much for joining us.
MR. SMITH: Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Andrew. Happy to be with you.
MR. SCHIEFFER: For Andrew Schwartz, this is Bob Schieffer. Thanks for listening.