Texas Tribune founder returns to Medill


Chelsea Sherlock/The Daily Northwestern

Evan Smith shares the lessons he learned as CEO and editor in chief of The Texas Tribune. Smith was the last speaker for the Medill School of Journalism's Crain Lecture Series.

Chelsea Sherlock, Reporter

The co-founder of The Texas Tribune, a Northwestern alumnus, reflected on the unique challenges of working for a nonprofit news organization just days before its third anniversary.

At Thursday’s event, part of the Crain Lecture Series, Evan Smith (Medill ’88) spoke to about 70 people about the lessons he has learned as chief executive officer and editor in chief of the media organization.

Smith said he started The Texas Tribune after becoming “bored” as editor in chief of Texas Monthly and seeing a need for more information about state politics and news. The Texas Tribune allows its content to be read for free through private donations, corporate sponsors and advertisers to provide greater access to news, he explained. Other publications can also use their content for free as long as they attribute it, he said.

“We made the decision when we launched that we were going to give our content away to anyone who wanted it,” Smith said.“The point is to get public information out in the world unfiltered.”

Smith said the organization aims to be a “big box store for civic engagement.” A hallmark of the publication is its data section, Smith said, and one section lists all the elected officials in Texas, complete with their contact information and financial forms. On election nights, the organization monitors all races, publishing results as they are available.

The publication, which has 35 employees, is on track to raise $15 million by the end of this year, $6 million more than projections for the publication’s three-year mark, Smith said. The Texas Tribune hosts fundraising events as part of public outreach, including the corporate-sponsored Texas Tribune Festival. He said it also hosts speaking events and discussions at colleges in Texas.

“That is my job,” Smith said. “I pay for journalism.”

Smith said every major Texas politician reads The Tribune. Many companies donate or advertise because of the publication’s unique readership, he said. The household income for 52 percent of readers is greater than $100,000, and 98 percent are registered to vote, he explained.

Part of his presentation outlined 10 key lessons from his experiences. One of the things he said he discovered was that the best patrons for The Texas Tribune tend to be people who have donated to politics rather than philanthropies. Another pillar includes viewing The Texas Tribune as a technology company, which he says is key for any publication.

Smith said a colleague told him that he was “a pale blue flame” for The Texas Tribune: a sort of figurehead for the organization, providing the inspiration. He said he has embraced this philosophy in his leadership.

“The person who leads an organization has to be the person to move it forward,” Smith said.

Lecture attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions and chat with Smith at the end.

Medill senior Minjae Park spent his Journalism Residency reporting for The Texas Tribune and attended Thursday’s event. He said one thing that sets The Texas Tribune apart from other publications is the enthusiasm of the staff.

“Obviously The Texas Tribune has shown the potential for good journalism to be done, and people are buying into that,” Park said.

Smith is very involved in the Northwestern community and serves on the Medill Board of Advisers. Former Medill Dean John Lavine said Smith is “very much part of the DNA of Medill.”