When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.
The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.
“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.
One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”
The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.
If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.
Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.
“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”
If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.
Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.
“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”
Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.
Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.