Meet Evan Smith: Outstanding Austin Communicator

By: Danielle Urban

At the AWC Austin Banner Brunch on April 28, Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, will be honored with the Outstanding Austin Communicator award. This award recognizes Austin-area communicators who have made their marks with their bodies of work, with an emphasis on achievement, community service and promotion of the field of communications.

Evan SmithFrom nearly 18 years at Texas Monthly, where he led the magazine to 16 National Magazine Award nominations, to co-founding The Texas Tribune, which has become one of the most highly-regarded Texas news publications in less than three years, Smith has unquestionably put his stamp on Texas media. As founding co-chair of the Texas Film Hall of Fame and a member of multiple Austin-area boards and non-profit organizations, Smith’s commitment to the Austin community is equally as extensive. He is also host of “Overheard with Evan Smith”, which airs on PBS stations nationally.

Last week, Smith sat down with AWC Austin to share best practices, his dedication to making Texas a better place and why now is the best time ever to be in the communications industry.

AWC: You’ve spent most of your career supporting institutions that are about Texas. Why Texas?
ES:
Well, I got to Texas because I believed in Texas Monthly as an institution and a magazine. It’s one I read even though I had never lived in Texas before; when I got here it was a magazine I knew very well. In fact, I came to work for Texas Monthly because I admired it so much, the kind of work that it did.

Sam Houston wasn’t born here. You know, the fact is you go back in the history of this state and there are a lot of people who left other places to make their lives here. And I’ve certainly found Texas to be extremely welcoming – both my wife and I are not from here but we’ve lived in Texas longer than we’ve lived any place else – and we don’t want to leave. We’ve loved living in Austin and we’ve loved living in Texas. Our kids are native Texans, our friends are here, our lives are here. And so, supporting the idea of Texas through supporting Texas institutions feels entirely natural because even if you’re not from Texas technically, you can be of Texas. And I’m proud to say I am of Texas.

AWC: Within three years you’ve developed a partnership with The New York Times and are set to break even in revenue by 2013. A vision in founding The Texas Tribune was to “build the next great public media brand in the United States.”  What does that vision look like?
ES:
Well, you know public media is really a way of saying that we’re not obligated to shareholders, we’re not obligated to investors – we’re obligated to the people who we serve: the public. In our case, we’re obligated to Texas. We have no bias except for Texas and we have no obligation to anyone but to Texans. The people who support us philanthropically – individuals and corporations and foundations – do so because they know that the distillation of our mission is smarter Texans equal a better Texas. We’re trying to educate more people about the things that matter in this state: public education and higher education, immigration, energy, healthcare, criminal justice, transportation – topics that matter to every single Texan. But the number of places that give them the good information – reliable, fact-based, non-partisan information – that they need to make good choices at election times and at all times, to be more productive citizens – that number of sources has declined. The number of people devoted to telling the stories of those big subjects to people like us have declined.

And so, I think the point here is to serve the public to give them the information they need to be more thoughtful, productive and engaged citizens. The efforts that we’ve undertaken over these two and half years to build The Texas Tribune have really just been in that direction. We’ve had very little mission creep. We know what we’re here to do and not here to do. So we don’t feel the need to cover things that don’t fall into that public interest bucket. There are still many-a-places in the world to go to get high school and college sports, traffic and “I’m on your street” and all that kind of stuff – what we do are the things we think just matter to everybody.  And that fulfills, we think, our public service obligation, our public interest obligation. And it certainly, I think, buttresses our claim to be serving the public and not anybody else. And so, as we build this public media brand, it is always with an eye on the end user – who are we serving? Who are we benefitting? How are we making Texas a better place?

AWC: What’s the importance of bringing face-to-face conversations back to journalism?
ES:
This is a huge part of what we do. Before there was video and audio, before there was blogging and tweeting and Facebooking and all that, people got in a room and talked to each other, as quaint as that seems. Real time was the original platform. And there was a time in this state when there was a public conversation that took place on a regular basis about the priorities of our community and about the priorities of Texas. The hard work of democracy is when you get people in a room who disagree, then work out their differences and solve a big problem or deal with big challenges for the benefit of everybody. That’s how it used to be.

It’s unfortunately not really that way anymore. Not as often as it needs to be. And so our point in putting public conversation at the forefront of what we do, through all the events we do around Texas, is you get people in a room who don’t necessarily agree, but you talk in a very serious way about the challenges we face and the opportunity to solve those problems – and it’s amazing what happens. It’s exactly what it was supposed to be. People start talking and they find that they’ve got more in common than they think. Problems get solved, and we go forward.

AWC: What’s your advice for communicators in Austin wanting to make a difference in their industry?
ES:
I think it’s important that everybody these days appreciate that technology has revolutionized the communications business and there’s no going back. And so anybody who thinks, “Well you know, I’m only going to do this one thing. I’m only going to be a writer. I’m not going to get myself comfortable with audio or video. I’m not going to use social media to help promote the work I do or myself. I’m not going to build my individual brand through those things. I’m not going to learn how in the most rudimentary way to edit video or edit audio and post those kinds of things online. I’m not going to try to use the tools that are available to any communicator today. I’m going to stick to the way I was trained. I’m going to do this one way.” You can’t do that anymore.

Every journalist, every communicator today is like a Swiss army knife. You’ve got to have a toothpick and a nail file and a screwdriver and a pair of scissors. You’ve got to be available to any institution you’re going to work for or work with. You’ve got to be able to show them that you’ve got all these tools like a Swiss army knife. These days, as communicators, we’ve all got to be much more versatile, much more agile about the work that we do. And if we’re not, then we’re kidding ourselves. You’ve got to look forward, always point forward. And in this business, that requires that you be as comfortable with, as conversant in everything that is new and different about our business, and keep up.

AWC: What is the future of the communications industry?
ES:
A lot of people think this is a pessimistic time for people in the communications business. Especially for kids coming out of college – that it’s a terrible time to go to school to learn this trade, or this profession, and to go into magazines, or newspapers or some other form of communication.

I have the exact opposite point of view – I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our business. It’s because the barriers to entry have been obliterated. Anybody coming out of school on day one with a computer and an idea can be as important as The New York Times. There is no longer this hierarchy that you have to ascend through; there are no longer these mountains you have to scale to have an impact in this business. Everything has been leveled. It has been the democratization of communications – because of the barriers to entry being removed, the availability of technology, the lowering of costs. Anybody can do this. I have never been more optimistic. News entrepreneurs, communications entrepreneurs have a very bright future and anyone who tells you otherwise just doesn’t matter.

Please join AWC Austin in celebrating Evan and other Banner Brunch award winners on Saturday, April 28, from 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. For more information and to register, visit www.BannerBrunch.com.

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