The Texas Tribune Festival, which draws leaders in politics, media and government, will celebrate its 12th year this fall with a return to in-person events.
Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith tells Texas Standard this year’s festival will be a chance to mine the “embarrassment of riches” that is Texas politics, and explore how the state is at the center of so much political change in the country. Listen to the interview with Smith in the audio player above or read the transcript to learn more, including about Smith’s upcoming retirement from the Tribune.
The interview has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: This will be the first in-person Trib Fest since 2019, is that right?
Evan Smith: The funny thing is that that was our most successful, biggest attendance, the speaker’s best, best program. And we had such high hopes for the 2020 festival, which was our 10th. We thought we will just knock the cover off the ball, and then, of course, the pandemic hit. And so we got delayed a couple of years. But we’re going to come back better than ever. Bigger, bigger names, more fun. It’s going to be great.
This is great timing because Texas is at the center of national discourse. What themes do you have in mind for the festival?
It’s an embarrassment of riches. Texas is always the center of the news universe in good ways and bad ways. Simultaneously, the fire hose of news has been turned up to the highest setting for the last couple of years, so we certainly have a lot to talk about.
If you think about just the work of the last Legislature: abortion; voting; what can and can’t be taught in schools; who can and can’t play school sports; what books should and should not be on the shelves of libraries, and not just school libraries; there’s a ton to say about the economy – actually, the economy is in pretty good shape right now, although the rich get richer and the poor get poorer during the pandemic; we’re talking about the possibility of a $20 billion or $25 billion surplus heading into the next legislative session.
There are so many things to talk about in Texas, but of course you layer on top of that everything going on in the world, what’s happening in Ukraine, the national debate over so many significant issues, I think you’re going to have really more to choose from than you’ll have space for at this event. This is a good problem to have if you’re in the events business, but I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about.
This is the early stages of festival planning, but do you have any guest names to announce?
We’re not going to announce names until probably, at the earliest, [when] tickets go on sale in May, and I think at the earliest we’ll hear some names at that point. [We] like to dribble them out, big drama, you know, in terms of who’s coming.
But I can tell you that this year we’ve made a real effort to prioritize all entrees and no side dishes – all big names; the moment demands it. And as you say, Texas is at the center of so many national and international conversations that I think people are desperate to come back.
And I will also say that we’ve heard from a lot of people just in the last couple of days since we announced that we’re going to be back in person for sure. People are desperate to get back in a room and be witness to and participate in these kinds of meaningful conversations. And I think the best thing that we can do for our democracy right now is to put people in the room, have them discuss, in a very civil way, big ideas with people they agree with and very importantly, with people they don’t agree with. That’s the thing that’s been missing, and that’s the thing we’re going to bring back to the conversation.
You announced that 2022 will be your last year as CEO of The Texas Tribune. How are you feeling about this being your last year of Trib Fest with that title? What’s next?
I’m feeling great about it. And actually, one of the ways that I’ve said to people, I want you to come to this festival, was by appealing to them on the grounds that this is my last one. I’m putting the screws to you.
First of all, I feel great about that. Second of all, I’m not done saving the world; I’ll just be done doing this. The world still needs a lot of saving, and I think I’ll probably save the world through journalism. Stay tuned for exactly what that looks like. I’ve loved being at The Texas Tribune more than anything in the world. I love it as much in the 13th year as I did on the first day, but it’s time for somebody else to run it. It’s a successful thing, and the festival is a successful thing, and I can’t wait to hand it off to the next amazing CEO.