Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith visits Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series

by Cheyenne Meyer:

Photo by The Texas Tribune

The third guest to visit the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker series was Evan Smith. Smith, the Chief Executive Officer, Editor-in-Chief, and Co-Founder of the digital news source The Texas Tribune visited Old Main on Weds, Feb. 25 to encourage students to endeavor into journalism, tech innovation and entrepreneurship. The Q&A session was facilitated by Professor Dale Blasingame.

Smith’s journalistic roots go far deeper than just the Tribune; he spent 18 years working in various leadership positions at Texas Monthly, but in 2009, he was growing bored. He then decided to take a leap of faith: to quit his job at Texas Monthly and launch a non-profit, non-partisan strictly digital newspaper, focused on providing Texans with information on “public policy, politics, government and statewide issues”.

“A fundamental ingredient in entrepreneurship is a willingness to take risks,” explained Smith, “and to not be afraid of failure. Caution is the thing that kills all awesome ideas. The joy for us [at the Tribune] has been throwing caution to the wind. We learn by doing, and if the things we do don’t work, we learn in failure.”

To get the Tribune off the ground in 2009, Smith and his team of designers, journalists and tech innovators started from the bottom. The website was essentially built in a matter of three weeks, according to Smith, with no focus groups, no research, and no feasibility studies – just the staff’s ideas of best practices for success.

“The best thing about building on an empty lot is that you can build upon the image in your head,” said Smith. “We made assumptions, and some were wrong. But we made more good decisions than bad ones. We did what we said we were going to do.”

Smith explained that the key word in journalism, especially in online news, is “iterate”. Content must be revised, updated and improved continuously to ensure that readers are getting accurate and up-to-date information.

“It’s not over when you publish it,” he said. “It’s just beginning.”

In the Tribune’s early stages, Smith and his team were unsure which direction to take: did they want to aggregate or create? Compete against other news sources? Churn out news quickly, or take their time and be thoughtful with content? But even in their uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, the Texas Tribune has found success.

“We’ve succeeded where others have failed because we are willing to not succeed at everything we do,” said Smith.

Photo by Jon Zmikly

Photo by Jon Zmikly

Blasingame then inquired about Smith’s biggest claims to fame: the viral success of the Tribune’s live stream coverage of the 2013 Wendy Davis filibuster.

“President Obama tweeted to his followers ‘Something is going on in Austin’,” said Smith. “And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a thing!’ We actually out-rated MSNBC that night, which it turns out isn’t such a hard thing to do.”

Though Smith’s title as CEO is perhaps the most important in the company, he praises the hard work and dedication of each member of his staff.

“It’s not ‘The Evan Show’, and thank God it isn’t,” he said. “The person at the top of the company has to realize he isn’t the smartest person in the company, and hire people who are smarter. I get to make the decisions, but I’m willing to delegate some decision-making responsibilities.”

As the Tribune continues to grow, Smith explained that his biggest fear is growing complacent. In order to take the next step, he hopes to focus on audience development and engagement.

When asked what qualities he is looking for when hiring journalists, Smith said he wants a “Swiss Army knife”: a person with a lot of different tools that can be deployed as needed. He encourages aspiring journalists to know how to shoot and edit video and audio, how to take good photographs, and basic programming skills (HTML, CSS).

“I also need someone who can write well, and tell a good story,” he said. “And the most important piece of the puzzle: someone who can think, and can work with minimal help.”

Smith also emphasized the importance of knowing a thing or two about data mapping and visualization.

Data journalism is a non-traditional but effective method of storytelling,” he said.

Though many students within the SJMC are told that journalism is a “dying field”, Smith claims this is just not true. He explained that journalism was never better, just different. He also explained that this generation of graduating students is the luckiest yet for many reasons.

“You’ve got easy access to tech and have the ability to create things you could never create before,” said Smith. “You were born into a world where using tech tools is second nature – you have USB ports in the side of your head. And the news business is changing, so all bets are off. All assumptions have been obliterated.”

But, he said, these opportunities can be easily wasted.

“You have to be willing to go out and do it,” said Smith. “Take the initiative!”

Smith left the audience with one final piece of advice, passed down to him from one of his predecessors at Texas Monthly.

“Show up,” he said. “Be present. Come to work every day wearing the uniform, swinging the bat. Be engaged in the work you do. Don’t waste the opportunities you are given. Show up!”

The SJMC would like to thank Smith for taking the time out of his busy schedule to visit the speaker series and share valuable advice with the mass communication students. The next guest in the series will be Nikki Rowling, the founder of Titan Music Group. Her Q&A will begin at 5 p.m. on Weds, Mar 11 in Old Main 320. For more information on Smith, Rowling or any of the other speakers in the series, please visit the TXST Digital website.

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One Response to Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith visits Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series

  1. Pingback: TXST Digital Media Entrepreneurship Speaker Series: Evan Smith | Web Design & Publishing

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