Texas Tribune co-founder Evan Smith visits UM

Evan Smith, digital news pioneer, arrived at the University of Miami Feb. 26 with a blue dress shirt, dark green tie and the idea that journalism is a form of positive public service.

“Just because you can’t make a buck off of it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make communities better, smarter and healthier,” said Smith, CEO and Co-founder of the Texas Tribune. “It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t motivate civic participation.”

Smith is approaching the tenth anniversary of the Texas Tribune’s founding in 2009. According to him, the online nonprofit news organization focuses on a unique kind of journalism, one he referred to as “public service journalism.” The goal of this brand of journalism is to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and to inform the public about the issues most relevant to them, Smith said.

Leanne Perez, a senior who attended Smith’s talk, said she hoped to gain a better idea of the Texas Tribune’s accomplishments and what implications they might have on the rest of the journalism industry.

“I would like to have a better idea of where journalism is going in the future,” said Perez, a journalism major.

Aside from reporting, the Texas Tribune is known for its data journalism. The organization scavenges sprawling public databases, compiling information and presenting it online in a way that the public can easily understand and use. Smith said the databases it compiles are all available to anyone who can find them, but they are often hard to discover because “the public doesn’t know they have access to them.”

Laurent St. Louis, a UM graduate school alum, said he expected to hear more about the Texas Tribune’s data journalism and visualization but that he thought the talk was nonetheless insightful and included important points.

“[Smith] said that ‘We are in the United State of confirmation bias,’” said St. Louis, who earned his master’s degree in public health in 2016. “He’s talking about how it’s good to have people who you don’t agree with around you and to see the differing points of view on specific issues.”

One of the ways in which the Texas Tribune fosters the kind of dialogue St. Louis discussed is through holding public events. Smith explained that these events, of which there are dozens annually, aim to close the gap between elected officials and their constituents. He said these events are a way to spark meaningful discussion and political progress.

“We believe in the power of the public convening,” he said.

Smith stressed the importance of journalism in today’s world. Although Smith said that journalists today face many obstacles, including officials’ condemnation, public distrust and disengagement, he said he believes “there has never been a better time” to enter the field.

“Journalism is the act of searching for the truth and telling people what you found,” Smith said.