SXSW: How the Texas Tribune is proving that free can be a business model

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The Cannabusiness track of South by Southwest 2019 drew huge crowds during the second half of the festival, but no one was going to mistake Evan Smith for a weed entrepreneur or enthusiast, as he stood in front of a crowd at the JW Marriott on Wednesday in a suit and tie. But he was quick to admit that he did look a bit like a narc.

“I’ve spoken at South by before and I should know better than to look like the guy that flushes everyone’s weed down the toilet,” he said. “But that’s my brand.”

Smith is the CEO of the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, digital news publication that focuses on reporting on Texas. And a lot of that is policy. After 10 years, they employ more state capitol reporters than The New York Times does in Albany.

The Tribune, which is now a $10-million-a-year operation, defies every traditional print media stereotype. It doesn’t cover the arts. Nor does it cover sports. Smith insists that he has no competitors, merely publications who have collaborated with the Tribune in the past, and others who will collaborate with the Tribune in the future. The goal of coverage is to fill in the gaps where others are not able.

Its staff focuses on hot-button issues in the state that affect everyone from El Paso to Abilene to Houston. Revenue comes in from donors – both big corporations and individual readers – and special events. Everything is given to Texas newspapers and television stations for free, so long as they credit the Tribune. Free is the Tribune’s business model, Smith said, and so is its nonpartisan stance.

“We find not playing for either team is liberating. The only uniform we wear is the uniform of Texas, and it’s easy to be nonpartisan when you hate everybody,” Smith said. “Look, we all have personal opinions, but the point is check that shit at the door.”

Admittedly, Smith is unsure if the nonprofit business model could thrive anywhere in the U.S. But he looks to Mississippi Today as another group that’s successfully putting out free, nonpartisan content to residents.

In New England, VTDigger and InDepthNH.org have made waves in their respective states as far as investigative reporting goes. But geographically, the Tribune benefits from being in one of the largest states in the union with many residents working one of the most lucrative industries there is – oil and gas.

And Smith insists that media organizations should never underestimate the power of a group of passionate individuals who care about good coverage. He’s seen it in Texas. “Everyone is proud of where they’re from,” he said.

Smith started the Tribune after he left Texas Monthly, a magazine which he had been a part of for 12 years. He saw a serious lack of media coverage in the parts of Texas that were outside of the four major cities – Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio – and that lack of coverage turned into low civic awareness and a lack of turnout at the polls.

“Texas loves to puff its chest out and talk about how it’s the best at everything,” Smith said. “There is nothing exceptional about shitty voter turnout.” The Tribune hopes to change that.

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