Pubcasters can follow example of Texas Tribune, says editor-in-chief

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ADDISON, Texas — More than one-third of the roughly 300 attendees at the annual National Educational Telecommunications Association’s professional development conference this week are first-timers, making for one of the most crowded Newcomers Welcome sessions in years.

And those newbies have plenty of sessions to choose from at the conference, which runs through Wednesday at the Hotel InterContinental in this Dallas suburb. Topics include development, collaborations, marketing, community engagement, FCC regulations, education, promotion — one session even analyzes the “complex, arcane” structure of the public broadcasting system.

Evan Smith

Smith

The conference opened Monday with keynote speaker Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, addressing the power of public conversation.

The nonprofit newsroom in Austin, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in two weeks, was “invented more or less on the fly,” Smith said, as newspapers in the state withered. Its staff of some 30 reporters is providing not only news but knowledge, he added: “A smarter Texas equals a better Texas.”

A big part of how the Tribune does that is by producing public events that feature interviews with newsmakers or interesting speakers. Since April 2012, the newsroom has sponsored 135 events all over the state. Corporate sponsors pay for lunch for the crowds, which often number 200 to 300 even in small communities, he said.

A weekly breakfast interview series when the legislature is in session draws between 150 and 200 attendees, Smith said. Other events with elected officials take place on college campuses around the state. Daylong symposia with 20 or more speakers often attract 400 participants.

And the annual Texas Tribune Festival, now in its fourth year, features 200 speakers over three days with 10 tracks of content: energy, environment, health care, higher education, immigration, justice, open government, public education, special events and public transportation. It’s modeled on the Aspen Ideas Festival produced by the Aspen Institute think tank in Colorado.

This September the Texas Tribune Festival brought in 3,000 attendees and generated $160,000 in ticket sales and $540,000 in sponsorships.

Altogether, the events constitute 25 percent of the Tribune’s annual revenue, Smith said.

“All this is possible for any organization,” he added, noting that many public broadcasting stations have larger staffs than the Tribune’s.

Smith said stations are already “the public square” in many communities; they must now also convene vital conversations. “You have the trust of your community, because you are nonpartisan,” he said. “We can be instruments of detente. We can be the ones to cut through what is destroying political discourse in this country,” that people with opposing viewpoints refuse to talk to one another.

“We can get people to put down their arms and talk about what is important to everyone,” Smith said. “And that’s a very valuable function.”

The Texas Tribune also will be the subject of a deeper dive in a Tuesday session, as participants use it as a case study for new financial models in “The State of Journalism in Public Media.”