by Anne Bruno
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
CEO and Co-founder, The Texas Tribune
Smith, who’d already made a name for himself in magazine journalism on the East Coast, arrived in Austin in December 1991 to take a position as senior editor at Texas Monthly. Within a decade, he’d been named editor, and when he left the magazine after nearly 18 years, he held the post of president and editor-in-chief.
Get Smith going and he can easily riff on anything from national politics to which Mexican restaurants serve the best beans with no lard (Smith has been a vegetarian for 34 years). But it is, without a doubt, his ability to listen that has gotten Smith to where he is today. Over the past couple of years, with more people than ever paying close attention to politics, Smith’s and the Texas Tribune’s influence has increased both in Texas and well beyond its borders.
Anne Bruno: You’re a New Yorker by birth, but nearly everything on your résumé for the past 27 years starts with “Texas.”
Evan Smith: It’s not a fatal condition in Austin, being from somewhere else. I say all the time that being a former resident of New York and living here is kind of like being an alcoholic, because you’re always recovering.
AB: When you left Texas Monthly to start the Texas Tribune, did you have a pretty good idea about how it would go?
ES: It was a gamble from the first day in 2009, when we started. I wouldn’t have been surprised on the first day if it had lasted nine days or nine weeks or nine months. The assumption we made going into it, and it was a pretty big one, was that people cared enough about politics and public policy that they’d want to read about it and we’d be able to build a business around it. And we’ve done what we set out to do. This week we’re celebrating our ninth year.
We’re in every newspaper in Texas … on any given day of the week you’ll see our stories in print, on television and radio. And the relationships we have with other outlets, like the Washington Post and Time magazine — where we’ll have a cover story on the border in the next few weeks — allows us to reach more people all the time. Right now is a hard time to be running a media business, and we really take nothing for granted. Some days I feel like Indiana Jones outrunning the boulder.
AB: Tell me about the difference between running a nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom like the Texas Tribune and one that answers to shareholders.
ES: The biggest difference is that we have a mission and everything we do is driven by it. Our job is not to resell eyeballs to advertisers or do stupid things to get clicks. We cover public policy, politics and state government, and our job is to inform and educate and engage with our audience. The mission is what separates us — we’re not in a transactional business. If we do what we say we’re going to do and live by our mission, then we’ve accomplished what we need to accomplish.
We’re nonpartisan because we don’t believe it’s the job of journalists to wear the uniform of any team … we keep our thumbs off the scale. I’m very quick to add, though, that nonpartisan doesn’t mean nonthinking. When BS needs to be called out, we call it what it is.
AB: It feels like the annual Tribune Festival has blown up in terms of high-level speakers as well as the number of people attending. How did it go from appealing to a fairly narrow segment of people to drawing a wider audience?
ES: For one thing, when we started, we were not living in a woke nation — we are now. Today, everybody is agitated and animated and vibrating about politics in a way they weren’t nine years ago, or even three years ago. What’s happened over the last few years that’s been different is that Trump has made everybody stand up and pay attention, whatever side you’re on, for him or against him. So we’ve seen extraordinary growth in our audience — event attendance, site traffic, everything.
Attendance at this year’s Tribune Festival went up more than 50 percent over last year. I think that’s entirely about people coming around to the idea that this stuff — I mean politics and journalism — matters. People are paying attention and saying they don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore and let somebody else decide for them. More people are voting, more people are advocating for themselves and their communities. I’m heartened to see that. Texas loves to be number one at everything except voting, where we’re usually dead last.
AB: Going back to the beginning, anything in particular you remember about Austin circa 1991?
ES: If you wanted to see an art house movie, I remember you had to get to the Village theater fast, before the movie left. Also, back then, it was hard to get good pizza, falafel, bagels or Chinese food in Austin. That last one is still debatable.