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T-Squared: The Texas Tribune Festival is going virtual

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If you’ve ever been to The Texas Tribune Festival, you know how much time and thought we put into the program, the speakers and the audience experience.

This year, our 10th TribFest, we were counting on our biggest crowd yet. We’d talk about the 2020 elections, the 2021 legislative session and the big issues of the day — education, health care, the economy — with the most interesting and most diverse array of marquee names we’ve wrangled to date. We’d curate a provocative weekend full of interviews, panel discussions and podcast recordings, with fun surprises and time for schmoozing. And we’d be back in the best spot in Texas for an event like this: in downtown Austin, in the shadow of the state Capitol.

Ah, well. That’s what we were thinking in “the before,” those months in the run-up to the coronavirus outbreak. Here in “the during,” everything is upturned: all plans, all ambitions, all conventional business and behavior. Along with everyone else, we’re both frozen in place and scrambling to make sense of this new reality. At some point we’ll be in “the after” — let’s hope it’s as soon as possible — but who knows when that will be? Who knows which of those plans and how much of that business and behavior will unfreeze, and how quickly?

That uncertainty — the inability to predict an end to the pandemic and a return to something that resembles normal — has required us to make what we believe is the absolute right decision about #TribFest2020: We’re taking it virtual. Same time frame, same grand vision and meticulous execution, only digital.

We did not arrive here without a lot of deliberation and some regret. For so many, gathering with friends and colleagues at the Tribune Festival is a high point in a busy year. For all of us at the Tribune, the Festival perfectly encapsulates our public service mission: to get Texans more informed, more engaged, better acquainted with ideas and people they disagree with. It’s an energetic couple of days, and the social aspects of it — the shared experiences and casual encounters — are a big part of why it works. It’s fun and meaningful to be in the civil company of the elected officials, public intellectuals and media stars whose work impacts our lives.

But there were too many unknowns. Would people be safe and comfortable attending? Would speakers be ready to travel to participate (and would their employers give their blessing)? Would the economy be in rebound mode, with sponsors and ticket-buyers able and willing to spend again? Would the hospitality industry be fully functioning? Would public health experts permit such an event to take place? Would the city of Austin? Would the state of Texas? And what if we’re facing a second wave of the virus?

Under these circumstances, we could not, with any confidence, proceed with an in-person event in late September. And so the show must go online.

The conversations we were planning are, if anything, more important now. How will the coronavirus and its aftermath affect the election cycle, the Legislature, education, health care and the economy — not to mention immigration, energy, criminal justice and (lest we forget) redistricting? How will the way we live and work be different — for a while, or forever? Most critically: What are we learning from this?

Taking the Festival online will be complicated, but as a tech-forward news organization, we’re up to the challenge. We’re going to spend the next few weeks reimagining the event, and we’ll tell you all about it on June 1, our new on-sale date for tickets. It’s going to be amazing. We’re energized by the possibilities of a virtual ideas festival — and especially by the opportunity to do what The Texas Tribune has always done: innovate, and lead by example.