Before we published our first word at The Colorado Sun in 2018, we turned our gaze south for inspiration from The Texas Tribune.
The Tribune is a member-supported, digital, nonpartisan news organization that has changed the narrative about the news business. While legacy newspapers around the country shrink, consolidate and even disappear, the Tribune has proved that a newsroom can grow and prosper, driven by support from readers hungry for quality.
The Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecture
WHAT: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith will discuss the role of independent media in democracy and the future of local news.
WHEN: 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23
TICKETS: Tickets are free, but limited. Click here to get them while they last.
It recently marked its 10th anniversary, and it has become a dynamic national model and success story through its daily journalism, member engagement and popular Texas Tribune Festival, which draws national leaders from politics, journalism and other spheres to Austin every fall.
This week, The Sun is proud to partner with the University of Denver to bring Texas Tribune CEO and co-founder Evan Smith to Denver to talk about the Tribune, The Sun, journalism and why it matters to democracy itself. Tickets are free while they last.
Ahead of his visit, I asked Smith to answer a few questions.
Colorado Sun: What prompted you to start a news site, of all things, back at the start of the Great Recession? We both know there are easier ways to make a living.
Evan Smith: There was a need. I’d been the longtime editor of Texas Monthly, the great general interest magazine based in Austin, the state capital, and I’d watched with alarm the disappearance of venues for serious reporting — the shuttering of daily papers — and the precipitous decline in the number of reporters covering politics and public policy, covering our legislature. No different here than elsewhere, but everything’s bigger in Texas, right? Judging by our terrible voter turnout compared to other states, civic participation was at a low ebb. We connected those things — low-information citizens are disengaged citizens. We thought, Let’s change that.
Sun: A lot of smart people say newspapers made a mistake by giving their content away for free online for too long. Now they’re saying news outfits need paywalls to survive and many have gone that route. Like you, The Colorado Sun has ignored that prevailing wisdom and makes its stories free to readers. Why did you decide to skip a paywall, and how’s that working out?
Smith: You cannot accomplish a public service mission behind a paywall. You can’t say, We need more people to engage, more people to pay attention to the things that matter, we need to make our state better by making people smarter, and then immediately put up a barrier between the content you create and the audience you want to reach. The way you do this, the way you achieve this public good, is you make everything free and widely distribute it, and you find other ways to pay for your ability to make it free. You find rich people, or members, to foot the bill. You go to foundations, and you go to corporate underwriters. The money is out there. Free for everyone is part of the pitch — it’s what gets philanthropy to throw in. Free is a business model.
Sun: Clearly we’re big fans of the Tribune here at The Sun. Again, like you, we offer a premium politics newsletter (The Unaffiliated) aimed at insiders and others willing to pay a little each month to keep up-to-date on happenings at the statehouse. Why did you choose that route?
Smith: We acquired a successful paid newsletter at the beginning so we could give the insiders something extra — and make a few bucks along the way. At this point the amount of money we take in from the newsletter each year is not that much compared to our overall budget — about $150k against more than $10M in revenue last year — but it’s still something. It pays for a couple of reporting positions. To be clear, we have always been for more than just insiders. That’s just one of a whole bunch of audience segments we serve.
Sun: In your strategic plan, you say “Pure hearts, sweat and toil are necessary but insufficient ingredients” to your success. What do you mean by that?
Smith: I wish it were enough to work hard and have a good idea. Success is often about luck and timing, and about what other people do or don’t do, as much as it’s about your smarts and your sweat equity. This is a crapshoot. No guarantees. Stay humble. No one is more surprised than I am that we’ve made it this far after 10-plus years. There are still risks. I make a point of never saying we’ve succeeded. I say we’re succeed-ing. We’re still figuring it out.
Sun: I’m fishing a bit here, but what’s the view from afar about what’s happening in Colorado journalism and at The Colorado Sun?
Smith: We all admire what you’ve built. You’re really just getting started — based on the quality of your work and the relative newness of your model, you should have a long life but you have a long way to go. The journalism ecosystem in Colorado, as in a lot of places, seems to be kind of limping along. You’ve stepped up at a moment when your state needs you. We’re pulling for you. And we’re here to support you and help when we can. It’s a hang-separately-or-survive-together moment in the business of serious journalism.
Sun: How can people, companies and foundations help support quality journalism in Texas, Colorado and elsewhere, and why should they? I hear you don’t easily take “no” for an answer down in Texas when you go calling on potential sponsors.
Smith: I want to get people to yes. Often I do — not always. What I tell people of all net worths, big and small, and of all political stripes is: This is about democracy, not journalism. This is about creating more thoughtful and productive citizens by giving them the information that motivates them to participate civically — to pay attention, to take ownership of issues and to interact in a civil fashion, at election times and at all times, with their friends and neighbors. To listen to and talk to people they don’t agree with, which is something we’ve gotten away from doing in this country. This is about making all of our communities healthier by making them better informed. People who don’t usually give money to media or like media very much respond to that higher-level pitch.
Sun: I get asked this question all the time, and I’m sure you do, too. So here goes: Is there a future for print journalism? What’s that look like, in your view?
Smith: There’s a future, but it’s a different future. Newspapers aren’t going away, but there will be many more places to go to get information, news, what have you. There already are. It’s going to be both-and rather than either-or. The economics of the print journalism business are a challenge and will continue to be. The legacy costs are a millstone and will cause many print properties to make choices about the things they can and can’t cover. Communities will be worse for that — for lack of coverage by necessity on certain issues. But, no, I don’t think we’re looking at a totally newspaper-free world going forward.
Sun: We’re seeing all of these major changes across the news industry, with legacy newspapers shrinking and disappearing in some cases, corporate mergers and consolidations. But, like any new business owner, I’m an optimist. What gives you hope when you look across the landscape?
Smith: For 10 years we’ve witnessed what happens when you embrace a public service mission, do what you say you’re going to do, take your work seriously, and labor on behalf of your fellow citizens, who are legitimately grateful. There is certainly a need for this kind of important journalism, and there is money out there to pay for it — $80M later, we are the proof. I’ve said many times: Every community deserves a news organization that searches for the truth and tells people what it finds. Every community deserves a news organization that holds people in power and institutions accountable without regard to party or ideology. Every community deserves a news organization that tees up for people in their busy lives the things important enough for them to stop and pay attention to. We can do this — all of us, everywhere. I’ve never been more hopeful. You should be, too.