4 Questions For Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith

The Texas Tribune, a new Texas-based non-profit journalism Web site, will launch tomorrow — one year before the state’s 2010 general election, which includes the gubernatorial race, among others. There has been a lot of talk about the project since longtime Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith left his day job to launch the Tribune, and even though it will cover only Texas political and policy news, we here at FishbowlNY are fascinated by the prospect of non-profit journalism no matter where its based.

The project is was founded by Texas-based venture capitalist John Thornton. Smith, who believed in Thornton’s vision from the beginning, was helping to look for a suitable editor-in-chief for the site before realizing that he would make the perfect leader. “It was sort of like Dick Cheney helping George Bush find a vice president,” Smith said. The team went on to hire a staff of eleven reporters, plucked from the top echelons of Texas’ political journalism world.

“We hired the best reporters away from for-profit journalism in Texas,” Smith said. “We put together our fantasy football list, and we got everybody we wanted.”

The Texas Tribune (www.texastribune.org) will be unlike any other non-profit journalism organization. In addition to traditional news reporting, there will be columns, blogs aggregating content from other news sources, original audio and original video content, all available for free for newspapers, radio and television stations to use. There will also be 80 gigabytes of public information, like data about Texas’ elected officials, that the Tribune assembled into databases for the public to access. “I’m kind of amazed that in just a couple of months we’ve been able to build this with a relatively small staff,” Smith said.

As he prepared to reveal The Texas Tribune to the world, Smith took a minute to talk to FBNY about his reason for leaving Texas Monthly to start the new project, how he’s worked to fund it and what the reaction from the Texas journalism community has been so far.

FishbowlNY: Why did you decide to leave Texas Monthly and launch The Texas Tribune?

Evan Smith: I was at Texas Monthly for more than 17 years. I was editor from July 2000 until September 2008, when I was promoted to president and editor-in-chief, which took me away from overseeing the day to day of the magazine, and I started to get a good view of how the media industry was changing. I had been at that company for almost all of my professional life, almost 18 years of 22 years in the business, and I’m in my early 40’s so it was almost half my life, period. But one day I woke up and thought, I’ve done all that I can do.

In January 2007, I began starting to think about succession. I knew that I would leave in no fewer than two years but no more than five, so I wanted to begin planning. Then this spring we won the National Magazine Award and I took it as a sign from above. I thought, this is a good time to go, take a victory lap, leave while you’re still feeling good about it but don’t stay longer than you are fully committed to. I wanted to leave when the magazine was doing good and we were feeling good and I could just peel off and move on.

FBNY: How are you funding the project?

ES: We’ve raised $3.6 million so far, and we’re still going. $1.1 million came from foundations, including $500,000 from the Houston Endowment, which is scrupulously nonpartisan. $250,000 came from Knight Foundation. And $2.6 million has come from individuals and corporations. But it’s actually $1.6 million on top of $1 million that John [Thornton] and his wife put in to seed the project. We have three levels of donors — the individual level is everything from $50 to $5,000, and we have 1,050 of those, as of today. (Ed note: As of November 2, it’s jumped to 1,233 individual donors.) The average donation is $94. And since we’re launching on November 3, these donors have nothing to go on other than faith in what we’re doing. Expectations are pretty high.

But we think that we’re going to be cash flow positive within the third year. You don’t do anything great without taking a certain amount of risk and being ambitious. We’re unashamed to take a risk.

FBNY: How does the Texas for-profit journalism community feel about The Texas Tribune?

ES: The state’s biggest newspapers have been somewhat resentful of what we’re doing. We have positioned ourselves as filling in certain gaps in their political coverage, by providing them with free access to our content. But they say, what gaps in coverage? They don’t know why we would present ourselves as a solution to something that they don’t think exists. But it’s not us versus them. We’re hitting them we’re they ain’t. The biggest guys may never work with us, but pretty much everyone else is saying free is a good price. And part of that is because of the reporters. They know our reporters, they’ve competed with them for years, and we’re presenting an opportunity to run all their content for free.

FBNY: Do you think that the big papers are upset that you stole their best reporters?

ES: I think some of those editors forget that everyone came from somewhere else. Did you come to your jobs from some immaculate conception? Do you deny the right of these young reporters to assess their opportunities and pick their best options? Given the current economic climate and state of the industry right now, the acceptable level of risk is different than it was years ago. Our reporters saw an opportunity to stay in the industry and launch a new, exciting project.

Earlier: Nonprofit Online News Startup Texas Tribune Receives $750K In Grants