Like a lot of us, Evan Smith can’t do his favorite thing anymore, but it has nothing to do with the pandemic.
“When I was the editor of Texas Monthly, my favorite thing in the whole world was opening the boxes of magazines when they came back from the printer,” he said. “To see the first printed copies of the magazine, there was never anything as fun as doing that.”
Texas Monthly still exists, and thanks to a recent purchase by a civic-minded patron, the national magazine of Texas has found sure financial footing. Someone still gets to open those boxes every month and inhale the scents of paper and ink, which Evan recently called his favorite analogue experience.
The reason Evan no longer gets to open those boxes is that in 2009 he left the magazine to co-found the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan all-digital dynamo that has succeeded as the journalism industry is experiencing what Duke University professor Philip Napoli has called a “market failure,” which Evan, who also hosts PBS’ long-running Overheard with Evan Smith, attributes to “zigging when everybody else is zagging.”
The news media should be booming, and when measured strictly by demand it is.
Pew Research found in April that 87% of Americans were dialed into the news on COVID-19, and while the pandemic has exacerbated existing divisions within society, it has brought Americans together over the news. Pew reported that 56% of Americans turned to national news as their main source of COVID-19 news, with an additional 34% using it to supplement. For two months, ABC’s World News Tonight was the most-watched television show in America, entertainment or news. The most-watched show on CBS wasn’t Survivor but CBS Evening News. CNN has its best ratings in 40 years.
At the local level, more people were turning into their local news broadcasts than were paying attention to the President of the United States or the coronavirus task force.
For the first time, millennials watched local TV news, which enjoying its highest ratings in years. Facebook traffic to news sites rose 50%, and news sites are seeing traffic double, even quadruple in places.
During the pandemic, the news media has been umbrellas in a rainstorm, but they are still getting soaked. This surge in demand has done little to arrest journalism’s business decline. Between 2008 and 2019, newspaper newsroom jobs were slashed 51% from about 71,000 workers to 35,000. And during the pandemic, an estimated 36,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have lost their jobs or had their pay cut. The news business is in shambles.
Over roughly the same period, the Texas Tribune has grown, moving office space twice to accommodate a growing staff of journalists who now make up the largest statehouse bureau not just in Austin but anywhere in the United States. And while the Tribune has won a ton of awards, including a Peabody and several Edward R. Murrow recognitions, the lessons Evan shared in a recent conversation apply to anyone contemplating a digital transformation in other industries as well.
First, legacies are great for athletes and artists, not for industries. This has been a hard lesson for journalism to learn: Don’t hang onto a business model ill-suited to a digital future. Don’t retrofit; tear down to the foundation, and build only what is necessary:
“We started an organization in 2009 with the express purpose of not replicating the problems of the legacy media,” said Evan. “We do not have enormous physical plant in the way of printing presses or huge costs that many legacy media organizations do. Remember that I was the editor of Texas Monthly for many years. Not wishing my friends there any ill, but the business of having to print a glossy magazine with expensive paper and four-color printing and luscious photography is the last business I would want to be in right now. There’s a lot of value to that if you’re the consumer. But the cost of producing that is something I can’t fathom.”
Next, technology doesn’t replace human talent, it augments it. You have to invest in both:
“These days we wanted to reduce our costs essentially to people and technology and then just go do journalism,” he said. “We’re going to invest in people, invest in the systems necessary to produce and distribute the journalism. And then we’re just going to let our freak flags fly. We’re not going to waste time and money on unnecessary stuff.
Third, just because you’re reinventing the wheel, don’t think that makes you an expert in building a motor from scratch.
“We decided when we started the Tribune to build our own content management system from scratch and to build our own contacts and records management CRM system from scratch because even though there were things available to us off the shelf, we thought Nope, we’re going to start this organization from the ground up,” said Evan, who has since switched to Salesforce. “It was a stupid ******* decision. I mean, there was just no reason for us to put that burden on us and in some ways we’re still extricating ourselves from that decision 11 years later.”
Transition completely out of legacy systems. Invest equally in technology and people. Don’t build what you can buy off the shelf. These principles of digital transformation have allowed the Texas Tribune to thrive while their news brethren struggle to survive and can provide guidance to organizations in other industries facing similar challenges.