Q&A with Evan Smith: All About TribFest

Zoe McGhee • Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Zoe McGhee spoke with the CEO and Co-Founder of The Texas Tribune, Evan Smith, about TribFest.

TribFest is a multi-day online festival happening Sept. 20 - 25 featuring multiple high-profile and impactful speakers to discuss big topics in Texas involving public policy, politics, and current news.

Wanna come? Register here! Registration is discounted to $49 for students.

I'm just going to throw it back really quick to last year. It was hard for everyone, as I'm sure you know. How was TribFest during the pandemic? How did you guys adapt?

You know, all of us who are in journalism and say we're agents of change, I think are actually secretly afraid of change or resistant to change. And I certainly count myself among those people. And in fact, I may be at the top of the list. You know, I was all for publicly pivoting from in-person to virtual last year because we had no choice but to do that. There's no point in fighting it, living the reality based universe. But all the while, I wasn't sure that it was going to be a success. And I was anxious about it because I feel like at this point, the Tribune festival is a big part of what we do now.

It's only one event a year. We do a lot of other things over the course of the year. But 2019 was the last year we did an in-person festival. We had all these people and we had all these amazing speakers and it was just this scene downtown. And a reporter who was in town to participate in the festival pulled me aside at one point to say, ‘You know, you used to be a news organization with a festival. You’re rapidly becoming a festival with a news organization.’ And I thought, what an inflection point we were at where the festival started to be as important to the world in terms of the Tribune's identity, brand and mission as the journalism we produced every day.

So last year, I really was looking forward to having another in-person festival to build on that and instead here we were pivoting to virtual, smiling publicly about it and saying, ‘Yes, this is going to be great.’ But secretly, in my heart, I was nervous about whether we were missing an opportunity. In my experience, you can make anything successful if you work hard enough. We really worked enormously hard, maybe the hardest we've ever worked to make the virtual festival last year be as rewarding and compelling for somebody who attended as we had made those in-person festivals.

a screengrab of Joy Reid and Hillary Clinton at the texas tribune festival 2020
Joy Reid, MSNBC Anchor and host of "The Reidout" with Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 2020 Texas Tribune Festival. Photo courtesy of WorldStage.

And so over time, I became much more confident in our ability to do so. When it finally got to the month of September, we had literally thirty days of content. I was really psyched about the way we approached it because I came to believe that we were going to accomplish so much more, and reach more people, and have speakers who never would have been able or been inclined to come to Austin to participate in the event.

People, in fact, who we had asked repeatedly for many years in a row to come to Austin and turned us down, I discovered in the course of asking people to participate virtually, all their reasons for saying no went away. ‘Well I can’t come to Austin.’ Well, that's no longer a problem. ‘I can't do it on these days.’ Well, we’re pre-recording stuff so there's no schedule issues.

We got into the month of September and I have to tell you, I was just giddy. I was so excited about doing it. We learned a lot last year. We had a very big audience. We had what I thought was an amazing program. And then heading into this year, in some ways it was harder because there was so much uncertainty about what the world would look like in September. And in fact, it became clear to us as months kind of changed over in April to May, May to June, June to July, that we really could not count with certainty on being able to do a festival even as a hybrid, where some are in-person and some in virtual.

I desperately wanted us to at least get a toe back in the water on doing stuff. And when the city of Austin took the public health conditions to the worst of the five stages, stage five, we began to think that we can't really responsibly go out of the gate with an in-person event. So we're back to doing the virtual. We learned a lot in the last year about what it means to do virtual events. We became pretty good at it I think.

photo of open congress at 2019 tribfest
"Saturday at the Tribune Festival featured Open Congress — an opportunity for the public to attend free events held in multiple tents on Congress Avenue, where traffic was closed down for the day. Juan Figueroa for The Texas Tribune" Photo and caption courtesy of The Texas Tribune 2019 TribFest

In some ways, I wish we had made the decision at the beginning of the year, knowing what we know now, we're just going to go full on virtual. And in fact, that's where we started the year, and had done things a little bit different if we had done that. But honestly, we put an extraordinary program together again this year, even better than last year in terms of high-profile speakers, because the big subjects that mattered to me.

I mean there you are in Tyler, as I’m talking to you, and just down the street the governor signed within the last couple of minutes the changes to the election law. That’s a bill that's signed by the governor. We've had the abortion decision that the Supreme Court made, in essence, on the shadow docket upholding the bill that was passed by the legislature to ban procedure as early as six weeks. We had a critical race theory legislation that passed. We had the permit carry bill that passed. There is more to talk about this year in Texas than ever before.

The funny thing is, it's always the case that whenever news breaks, Texas is at the center of it. So as I think about this festival coming up in a couple of weeks, I think about the program that we put together. My feeling is there's never a better moment for us to be doing this than right now. There’s never more opportunity than right now.

There’s never more of a reason for somebody, a college student at UT Tyler, or just a regular old Texan somewhere in the state to engage with these issues. We're providing people with an opportunity to really be part of an amazing experience, to witness incredible conversations about things that affect all of us. I’m pretty psyched about it. I feel great about it, and I just want you to know.

I also saw that you have a really impressive and diverse lineup of speakers this year. I was wondering what went into the thought process to selecting each speaker this year?

Well, I want to be clear that your instinct about the diversity of the program, is diversity defined in every conceivable way that you could define it. Racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity, subject matter diversity, geographic diversity. Those things don't happen by accident.

Over time, we have learned at the very beginning to be intentional about building a program that does put in every single way possible, diversity on display. Representation on display. We don't make these decisions in a vacuum. We don't make them without thinking about how things have gone previously.

You know, some people appear on the program year after year because they're great speakers and they contribute so much to the diversity of our program. But sometimes we look back at the previous year and think, you know, we didn't exactly do that the way we should have knowing what we know now.

So as we go forward, building the program, we've got to be better at bringing a certain group into the conversation or a certain kind of person into the mix. Most years we do a pretty good job of getting it right, but we're no different than anybody else. We're not perfect. We don't get it right every single year, so we strive to be better next year.

This is the most diverse program in every way you can define diversity that we've ever put out. And I think that's because we've learned from the experience of previous years. We also know who to ask. The nice thing about Texas is that there are a whole bunch of different kinds of people who are in the middle of these big discussions. If you ask them, they're almost always willing to participate.

Who are you most excited to interview or watch speak this year?

Well, I ordinarily do a lot more sessions myself as an interviewer than I'm doing this year. So I'm kind of excited especially in the festival just to be able to sit back and watch how this plays out.

a gif of all the speakers for tribfest 2021
Important speakers involved with The 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Gif courtesy of The Texas Tribune

I think obviously at the national level, we've got some really interesting people participating, whether it's the Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the longtime Southern Baptist Convention leader, Russell Moore, talking about the state of religion and the state of the church in society. Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers, who is, you know, maybe the most important, if not one of the most important technology leaders of my lifetime and your lifetime, whose work has changed all of our lives, by creating Dell Computer in the mid-80s.

Senator Amy Klobuchar on the Democratic side and Senator John Cornyn on the Republican side talking about the work that they're doing in Congress that affects not just Texas, but every place in this country. Nicole Hannah Jones, the creator of the 1619 project, won a Pulitzer Prize for that project in The New York Times, who has become herself the subject of a big fight over what can and can't be taught in schools.

So all of these things really interest me. I think I can find something good and valuable in every single one of the more than 60 sessions that we have at the festival. That's really the point. This is not a case where we build a program and some things are good for some people and other things are good for other people. But there's something good for everybody in every session.

There's something to be learned in every session. Your own thoughts about an issue are going to be confronted and challenged every single session. This is not about reaffirming the views already in your head. It's about giving you reason to question whether you're thinking the right thing about an issue. We have, of course, always a mix of national and state voices. We have a mix of people from Congress and our legislature.

We have, you know, people on the left and people on the right, people in the middle. We have people from backgrounds that seem very familiar to all of us and people who come from very different and interesting backgrounds who can teach us new things. I mean, I just think it's really about a range of perspectives and it's about giving people a 360 degree view of issues in the news and the headlines.

And by the way, it's not just about things in the headlines, but it's also about a certain number of things that you, as the average person may not know about, but ultimately come to understand as really important. So we believe our job is to inform, engage, and educate with this festival, just as we do with our journalists.

Going off of that, why do you think TribFest would be beneficial to young journalists, especially college students, trying to gain their footing?

Well, to my mind, the thing about the world of journalism and what has changed is that when I was your age, when I was coming out of school and getting into the business, the business was one thing.

And today it’s many things and live events, real time journalism, where you sit up on a stage in front of an audience with somebody in power, somebody in an important position or an influential position and ask the hard questions on the record. That is absolutely what journalism is in part today.

nikole hannah-jones and errin haines at 2019 tribfest
"Nikole Hannah-Jones (right) speaks with Errin Haines during a one-on-one panel at the Paramount Theatre. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune" Photo and caption courtesy of The Texas Tribune 2019 TribFest.

That was not necessarily the case when I got out of school thirty-five years ago. I think from the perspective of a young person coming out of school and thinking about going into journalism, getting a sense of what is required by the industry today, what the industry expects of you, that's really valuable.

If you're a college student who is about to be a grown a** person out in the world, a citizen, a voter, a Texan, an American, being able to understand the issues that you as an individual are going to be confronted by, and you will have an opportunity, if you so choose to impact with the work that you do out in the world.

That is hugely important. I think of the Tribune as preparing people for thoughtful citizenship in the 21st century. That includes and probably especially applies to young people coming out of school who are taking the baton from all of us in my generation.

You all are the ones who are going to solve the problems that we created. You're going to fix all the stuff that we broke. So I think it's really important for you to get a chance, you and yours, to get a chance to see how these issues are discussed and to understand the challenges and the opportunities that you'll confront when you get out of school.

Kind of going back to your personal experience with TribFest, do you have any favorite or funny Tribfest memories or stories?

I do remember when Alex Jones of Infowars was an uninvited guest at TribFest. I believe this was in 2018. I was backstage with then minority leader of the U.S. House, Nancy Pelosi. She was not yet speaker then. That was the year that the Democrats ultimately won back control of the majority of the House and she became speaker again.

evan smith and nancy pelosi talking backstage at the 2019 tribfest
"U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith backstage at the Paramount Theatre during the Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 28, 2019." Photo and caption courtesy of The Texas Tribune 2019 TribFest.

But she was simply the minority leader at that time. She had been in TribFest once before and she would actually come to TribFest again the following year. But she was backstage at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin, and I was backstage greeting her. Somebody came up and whispered in my ear that Alex Jones was on Congress Avenue with a bullhorn yelling at people.

I thought to myself, I'm going to go out and tackle the guy. The world needs a hero. By the time I got out there, actually, the police had subdued Alex Jones, and so my skills were not needed. I remember that same year Amy Klobuchar was there for the first time on Congress Avenue under a tent. It was pouring down rain. And I remember thinking, ‘We'r