When plugging the Tribune across the state, Smith is fond of reminding audiences that personal engagement was the “first platform.” And even in a multiplatform world, face time is a major element of the Tribune’s growth strategy. Since its November launch, the Tribune has hosted nearly twenty on-the-record events—breakfast interviews, campus road shows, even a screening of a political documentary about humorist Kinky Friedman’s ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.
As the convener of such gatherings, the Tribune aspires to become a player in the political narrative rather than a mere reflector of that narrative, a high-visibility approach that runs counter to that of the state’s legacy news organizations. Thornton and Smith even hired a full-time director of events, Tanya Erlach, from The New Yorker. Plans are under way for an Ideas Festival modeled on The New Yorker Festival.
Most nonprofit news organizations host occasional member events, but few have been as aggressive from the outset as the Tribune, which sees events as a key part of its mission “to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.”
At most Tribune events, Smith is the emcee, ringmaster, and salesman. Always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, with hair neatly parted above squared-off, dark-framed glasses, Smith comfortably holds court with his guests and audience, dispensing rapid-fire questions and one-liners. As one young audience member tweeted during a late-April panel discussion: “Is it just me, or does Evan Smith look like a modern day version of a character from Mad Men? Dude’s intense.” Rudy England, an Austin-based political consultant who attended the Bill White event in March, says the early-morning TribLive sessions are more off the cuff than traditional political functions. Interview subjects seem to have their guard down. “It’s becoming Texas’s version of Meet the Press,” England says.
And the Tribune’s events make money, too, pulling in more than $150,000 so far through corporate sponsorships, according to Smith. Stories about and videos of all interviews are quickly posted on the site. Sometimes they’re even used by political opponents, as White found out in May when Perry’s campaign used a TribLive snippet to paint him as a tax-happy liberal. That suits the Texas Tribune just fine, as long as you spell its name right.
Risk and Reward
During his reelection campaign in late October, Governor Perry gave an animated stump speech to the Lake Travis Republican Women’s Club in Lakeway, Texas. At the time, the governor may not have fully appreciated that his twenty-two-minute address would soon be scrutinized and irreverently repurposed by the Tribune as part of its Stump Interrupted video series, which applies vh1-style pop-up bubble treatment to candidates’ campaign rhetoric. When Perry’s speech appeared on the Tribune in mid-November, it included a cheeky “Washington Tally” with a chiming bell and a graphic noting how many times (fifteen) he railed against the tyranny of Washington, D.C. The video also juxtaposed inconvenient facts against Perry’s oratory, such as a statistic showing that proportionally more Texans lack health insurance than any other state.
Stump Interrupted, which just won a national Murrow award, is the brainchild of multimedia editor Elise Hu. Smith was initially skeptical of the idea, thinking it might come across as juvenile, but ultimately he let Hu run with it. Hu took that as an early sign that the Tribune newsroom embraces a culture of risk-taking: “Instead of being in a place where I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over the hierarchies and bureaucracies that are in place,” she says, “here we can say, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s just go ahead and do it, and if it doesn’t work, let’s fix it.’ ”
In addition to things like Stump Interrupted, which is a product of the times as much as the technology, the Tribune has injected life into some more traditional newsroom pursuits. Its polls, for instance—including a jaw-dropper, headlined “Meet the Flintstones,” that found nearly one-third of Texans believe dinosaurs and humans lived on Earth at the same time—have raised eyebrows from El Paso to Galveston. And while it compiles the day’s top state news from other media outlets in its TribWire, it also aggregates tweets from elected officials.