Coffee With Impact: The Texas Tribune brings an entrepreneurial spirit to the newsroom

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In the nearly 10 years since the Texas Tribune was founded as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, digital news organization covering Texas politics and policy, it has quadrupled its staff—now 80 people—and established the largest statehouse news bureau in the country.

Based in Austin, the Tribune also hosts more than 50 events annually, including its signature Texas Tribune Festival, which brings together leading figures in politics, policy and journalism to discuss the state’s most pressing issues.

Texas Tribune CEO and cofounder Evan Smith recently spoke with Community Impact Newspaper CEO John Garrett for the company’s “Coffee With Impact” series, which features local entrepreneurs.

Working in the news industry today is different than it was when Smith was at Texas Monthly, where he worked for 18 years.

“Every day we walk into work and confront three problems: public distrust, extraordinary scrutiny of our processes like never before…, and official condemnation,” Smith said.

To address these concerns, Smith said the Tribune practices “radical transparency” when it comes to  its reporting methods as well as its funding, which comes from donors, members and corporate sponsors.

“People make an assumption that we are susceptible to having the independence of our journalism T-boned by the people who financially support us,” Smith said.

Donors and members play no role in guiding the Tribune’s work, and the organization routinely publishes stories covering its funders, who are always disclosed as such.

This transparency carries over to its news stories, too.

“Journalism, by definition, is the act of searching for the truth and telling people what you found,” Smith said. “Sometimes we tell people the truth that we found, but sometimes we don’t find the truth and the story is that we searched for the truth and we didn’t find it.”

Despite the Tribune’s openness about its processes, Smith still encounters people who are skeptical about the organization’s commitment to nonpartisan journalism.

“People think it’s like veggie chorizo—an oxymoron,” he said.

“We are very careful not to wear the uniform of either team,” Smith said, while also acknowledging that, at the Tribune, nonpartisan does not mean non-thinking.

“We are biased in favor of the truth. There are, contrary to what you may have heard, objective facts,” he said.

As with all news outlets, the Tribune is tasked with presenting these facts without alienating readers on either side of the aisle.

“I think your brand is much stronger than you fully appreciate or understand,” Smith told Garrett, citing the trust Community Impact Newspaper has built with its readers by delivering useful news to communities that are often underserved by larger news outlets.

The Tribune and Community Impact Newspaper are reporting partners, which is indicative of the Tribune’s ethos.

“We have no competition; we only have current and future collaborators,” Smith said. “We either hang separately or survive together in this business.”

Earlier this month, the Tribune released its strategic plan, which charts how the organization will double its membership and diversify its staff, among other goals, by 2025.

“Our job in the the media is to reflect the community we serve,” Smith said. “We cannot tell the stories of Texas in our newsroom, from our newsroom, unless our newsroom adequately reflects the Texas we tell stories to.”

The plan lays out internal policies around diversity in hiring and increasing recruiting dollars to reach candidates of color.

At nine years old, the Tribune is more flexible and amenable to change, Smith said, than more established media organizations that have been around for decades.

“You’ve got to be ambitious to an extreme degree in everything that you do and give yourself permission not to succeed, and be okay with that,” Smith said.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her reporting focuses include employment and economic development. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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