Q&A with Evan Smith, Texas Tribune CEO

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

The Daily Texan: What do you think people need to understand about the state of the press in America and Texas?

Evan Smith: Well, the perspective I have comes after 30 years of doing this job. And obviously the business that I entered when I graduated from college is not the same business that exists today. Technology has driven a lot of change. We started the Texas Tribune in November of 2009, and at the time we started the Tribune, there were no tablets in existence. The first iPad came out in the spring of 2010. There was no Instagram, there was no Slack, there was no Snapchat. Many of the ways that people consume media did not exist at the time we started the Texas Tribune, and so just in the last eight years, the world we entered thinking “this is the new age of media” was, relatively speaking, a ways away from where it is right now. 

I’m actually quite bullish on everything in the press. I think this is a terrific time to be going into this business and doing this work. There is this view out in the world that somehow this business is contracting, and that journalism is somehow less than it used to be, when I think exactly the opposite of that is true. The barriers to entry in the business have been obliterated by access to technology. Anybody with a good idea on their first day out of college can create something every bit as important in reporting the news as media businesses that have been around for a long time. I think there are more opportunities for people to take control of their situation in the media business. 

DT: There’s such a diversity of viewpoints in terms of how people view and consume the news. How do you maintain neutrality and relationships in a credible, nonpartisan way?

ES: I think there are a lot of smart people in our organization who understand that whatever their individual perspective might be on a subject, the place for that perspective to be manifested is not in the work that they produce for us. We don’t editorialize on issues or campaigns. Our job is not to tell people what to think, our job is to tell people to think. That’s a distinction I make all the time: there are too many non-thinking people in this state. We have a terrible voter turnout problem in the state of Texas — I believe we are the worst in (terms of) voter turnout of any of the 50 states over the last four years. And if you look at the results of elections, not just over the last four years but many before that, we are a red state. 

But the real truth is that we’re neither a red state nor a nonvoting state, we’re a nonthinking state. For a lot of people, there are big issues that they don’t think about or care about every single day, but that undeniably affect them. Every person in the state is affected by public education, or higher education, or immigration policy or health care policy. But the problem is that most people don’t understand that the fights are even going on, let alone that they have stakes in the outcomes of those fights. People have checked out.

There are a lot of reasons for that. The media used to do a much better job of teeing up the things that were important enough for a lot of people in the state to pay attention to, and as the media has contracted with fewer news organizations, I think there’s organically less of that going on. But I also think that noncompetitive elections are part of the reason that people have checked out. People say that their vote doesn’t matter, and they’re right when the decision has already been made by the way we’ve drawn the districts. And we have a real problem right now in the state. 

And so to come back to your question about nonpartisanship, the best contribution we can make with our public service journalism is giving people the information that they otherwise lack in the hope that they take that information, process it, think about it and, in turn, become more productive and thoughtful citizens. And so I think the nonpartisan part is really not an issue for us; we’re not into swaying people one way or the other, to get a candidate defeated or a bill passed. Our job is really to get people more engaged, and then allow them to decide what they want to do with that.

DT: What final advice would you like to leave with students?

ES: It’s on you. You all have taken the baton from those of us who are getting older and have been doing this for a long time. It’s going to be your world, it’s going to be your problem to solve. And you all are so much smarter than we were at your age, and have so much more to offer us than we have to offer you. 

And this is the dirty little secret — we need you more than you need us. You practically have USB ports in the sides of your heads. All these new technologies and platforms are practically second nature to you. We’re adapting as we go, and some of us old people have actually gotten to be pretty good. But we’re never going to be as good as you are; you’re technologically so well-equipped to create the next great news organization or the next great media business or the next great platform that will allow people to connect and to be better engaged. And so it’s on you. You have the power and the responsibility to solve these problems. And I’m going to enjoy, in my old age, watching you do it.