T-Squared: 2022 will be my last year as The Texas Tribune’s CEO

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith backstage at the final keynote event of the 2018 Texas Tribune Festival at the Long Center on Sept. 29, 2018. (Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune, Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune)

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My first official day on staff at Texas Monthly, my last employer, was Jan. 2, 1992, which means I’ve just passed 30 years in journalism in Texas. I’ve kept close watch over the Capitol for 15 legislative sessions — long enough to remember when the party controlling all of state government was the other party. I’ll turn 56 this year, which hardly seems possible, and my kids are older than some members of the press corps. Of course this is my 13th year running The Texas Tribune, a truly incredible org that I feel luckier each day to have had the chance to help bring into the world. This year will also be my last as its CEO.

**It’s time.** With so much gratitude and so much emotion, I announced this morning that I intend to step down from this most enviable of all jobs no later than Dec. 31. Like so many during the crazy two years of the pandemic, I feel my battery slowly draining — in my favorite film analogy, the boulder is catching up to Indiana Jones — so I’ve encouraged our board to begin the process of identifying my successor. After months of discussion, they’re ready to rev up a national search with the help of a respected recruiting firm they’ve selected. I’ve committed to remaining in place while they do and to assisting with the transition once the lucky duck in is place — and for some time after. At the board’s request, I’ve agreed to stick around through the end of 2023 as a senior adviser to my replacement. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.

It would be impossible to tick off all the extraordinary things the Tribune has done in the last decade-plus, but I’ll call out a few. Our reporting on Hurricane Harvey, both in the run-up and during. Our sustained focus on the humanitarian crisis at the border. Our comprehensive, people-centered, news-you-can-use approach to telling the stories of the awful two years that just passed — of the pandemic, the economic downturn, the reckoning over systemic racism, the winter storm and the never-ending 87th Legislature. Our relentless banging of the drum on voting rights and voter suppression. Our consistent lifting up of public education reporting. Our wall-to-wall coverage of candidates, campaigns and elections at a time when politics and politicians have gotten nastier and more media-averse. Our signature commitment to data journalism. Every single column our co-founder and executive editor Ross Ramsey has ever written — even the one in which he killed Earl Weaver. Our amazing editorial events around the state, and most especially 11 memorable, transformational Texas Tribune Festivals. Our innovative, resilient business model. The free sharing of our content, and of the lessons we’ve learned and the best practices we’ve developed. It’s a record of accomplishment that anyone in this business would be proud of. It’s one I’m immensely proud of. I’ll always think back on these 13 years as the absolute high point in my career.

Believe me when I say that my decision to depart is for the best not only for me, but for the Tribune. What I told our board members is undeniably true: Sentimentality and nostalgia are enemies of progress, and I’m nothing if not sentimental and nostalgic. I’ve always been a vocal proponent of change, publicly and privately, but if I’m honest about it, I have founder’s disease: I’m wedded too much to the way we’ve always done things. I’m captive to the origin story, the tales of those early years, the you-had-to-be-there anecdotes about our journey from upstart startup to established org. I can’t quite break free, and the march of change — the pace, the trajectory — doesn’t entirely sit well with me. Yet change we must. Evolve we must. Grow we must. I’ve concluded that the only way for us to change, evolve, grow is with someone in charge who isn’t a keeper of the flame. I may have built this thing, but I can’t and shouldn’t be an obstacle to the rebuilding of this thing. Nor should I be an obstacle to the new generation, a generation more representative of the Texas of today, getting a chance to lead.

There’s no way for me to quantify my debt to our founder, John Thornton, who changed my life when he finally persuaded me, after many months of resisting, to join him in his selfless effort to save what he called “capital-J journalism.” He does not get nearly the credit he deserves for choosing to make the world better when he did not have to. There’s no way for me to adequately acknowledge the importance of Ross’ role in propelling our vision for this place forward. Had he not grabbed my hand, “Thelma and Louise”-style, and driven off the cliff with me, none of us — none of this — would be here. There’s no way for me to say thanks often or loudly enough to several iterations of our board, which gave me the latitude to run the Tribune as I saw fit — even though it was unclear I could run more than my mouth at the start. It’s a rare thing in nonprofit governance to have 100% support from your bosses at all times. Every single board member who’s ever volunteered to serve has enabled our best efforts on behalf of Texas.

The biggest thanks goes to you: our readers, our fans, our supporters. All of you have been on my mind, in my sights and in my plans this whole time. Everything I’ve done I’ve done for you — my friends and neighbors, my fellow Texans — and I couldn’t have done it without you. You’re my motivation and my inspiration. What a joy it’s been to work on your behalf.

I don’t know what I’m going to do after I step down. I’ve had two jobs in 30 years. I’ve never been out of work for a day during that period. It will be good to have the time and bandwidth to think hard about what’s next. What I know for sure is that there will be a next. Another thing I know for sure is that I’ll be rooting loudest and hardest for every one of my colleagues. I believe in them more than ever. I will bleed yellow and black until the end. And I believe in public interest journalism more than ever.

There’s a newspaper convention dating back to a long-gone era that you put -30- at the bottom of a story when it’s ready to be set in type. It signifies completion. 2022 will be my own personal -30- for 30. It will be a real honor to spend the last year of these three decades in your service.

Disclosure: Texas Monthly has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.