On Tuesday night, as the Texas state senate entered the final hours of a legislative special session and Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered a draconian abortion bill, 180,000 people watched it all on a dramatic livestream provided by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Texas Tribune. Yesterday I called up Evan Smith, editor in chief and CEO of the four-year-old news organization, to ask about their big night and for some #realtalk about how they make nonpartisan political media sexy to news consumers.
Were you gearing up for this to be a big national news story?
We’ve been doing this all session. We’re all really strung out, we’re all really burned out. The last day finally comes, and this all blows up. You understand from a journalistic standpoint that this was like Wimbledon, the Super Bowl, Christmas, and my bar mitzvah all in one. But it was also draining. We’re walking around today like World War Z zombies.
So you were surprised.
Look, we’ve been at this almost four years. We’re digital-first. We’ve been operating as an online news organization, availing ourselves of the opportunities that 21st-century technology presents. Yet even almost four years in, I’m amazed at how the modern world visits itself upon hidebound institutions and everything changes.
There was a speaker of the Texas House who, 10 years ago during the 2003 session, was accused of a similar heavy-handed tactics. No one was paying attention, in part because no one had the means to be engaged because there was no Twitter, there was no YouTube, really. There was no use of technology to marshal and organize and build community and connect people.
Unlike Tuesday, which was a veritable social media explosion.
This was a truly transformational moment in Texas politics. We hadn’t considered the possibility that by the transmission of this livestream it would become the national and international story that it did.
It made Wendy Davis a star. She gained 80,000 Twitter followers.
Wendy Davis is the first Democrat to emerge from what has been a dormant—if not dead—party for 20 years. Not since Ann Richards in 1990 has a Texas Democrat been the national and international icon that Wendy Davis now is. It may amount to nothing politically for her, it may amount to nothing politically for Texas. But you really saw something yesterday, and I think technology was the reason.
The livestream thing itself is interesting. We specifically sought permission from the legislature in 2013 to jack into their feed and present the livestream on an ongoing basis for free to people who access our site. The cable companies had permission, but of course you had to pay to watch. We said, we think we can do this better.
Everyone was watching your feed on Tuesday.
I think it says something about the degree to which people are willing to be engaged. We started four years ago in response to what we believed to be the decline in coverage of serious issues by media in Texas. The fact that those papers and TV and radio stations were not covering this as aggressively as they did before meant that people were not engaged on these issues. In 2010 Texas had the lowest voter turnout of the 50 states and DC. This is a state in which people are simply not paying attention. So we started to try to rectify that. We provide reliable, nonpartisan information about the issues that are in play, information that gives people a reason to shake their fist or give a thumbs up.
Have you seen any of the chatter about how the country’s biggest news outlets really whiffed on this story?
That’s totally unfair. Nobody in traditional media had any idea this was going to be the story it was. Their resources are invested elsewhere.
I love that your mission is to cover Texas politics and policy “with verve.”
The false assumption is that this stuff has to be boring. It doesn’t. Technology provides a way to make this stuff much more dynamic. Our success is not going to be tied to the content we produced, but the ways we present that content. You’ve got to give people multiple ways in, talk to them on devices they rely on, and on platforms they embrace. You have to go to them rather than waiting for them to come to you, and you have to do it in a way that recognizes that not everybody consumes media in the same way.
We cover politics the way that ESPN covers sports. We cover the players, we cover the game, we cover the culture. We don’t just provide you with box scores. The narrative, the drama, the throughline is so crucial to what we do. So from the perspective of last night, you have a woman who by 19 years old was married and divorced and had a young daughter and was living in a trailer park. She took a paralegal course, went to Texas Christian University, graduated first in her class, then went to Harvard Law School and graduated with honors. She is a folk hero because her personal story is so great.
Does providing the livestream runs counter to that narrative-focused approach, though? I mean, it’s a straight feed from the senate chamber—just raw information, not a carefully crafted story.
I would actually say it’s the best reality show going. It inherently has its own narrative. There are some times where you need the art of crafting a narrative. Then there are times when you go, “This thing just writes itself.” The Texas legislature just writes itself.
So you just get out of the way.
There are very few bipartisan issues in Texas these days. and there are very few things the left and right agree on. They both agree that they’re not being told the full story, that the press is filtering the info that they’re getting. One of the things about a livestream is it’s completely nonpartisan. Watch it unfold and draw your own conclusions.
Did you see a wave of donations because so many people watched the livestream?
Let me read you some statistics. As of this afternoon, we have received 419 membership signups—and 99 percent of those were new members—from people in 35 states. We’ve received $23,571 as of this afternoon. They’re donating through our site and through Google Donate, which is a feature of the YouTube channel we have. The average gift is $56.
I mean, there were more than 182,000 people on our YouTube livestream at one point. This has been a win for us in just about every single way.