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Texas Tribune Editor Sewell Chan on Covering Uvalde and the Power of Journalism

Innovators 2022: The Tribune leader talks about his team’s extraordinary coverage of the Texas school shooting and why civilized debate is good for democracy

Sewell Chan was only seven months into his job as Editor in Chief at The Texas Tribune last May when 19 children and two adults were killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas’ Uvalde County. 

Immediately, Chan and his staff had to figure out how they would cover the tragedy, given that the Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan politics and policy website focused primarily on government goings-on in Austin. “We really had to scramble,” Chan told TheWrap. “We had journalists in Uvalde who had never really even covered local murders before. And now suddenly, they’re covering such a horrific crime, a horrific massacre and tragedy.” 

Under Chan’s leadership, The Texas Tribune ended up producing some of the most extraordinary coverage to come out of the tragedy. Reporters on the ground gave a voice to the devastated community and held the police accountable for its unconscionable mistakes. It was a master stroke in accomplishing great things with limited resources, which is part of what makes the Tribune a model for nonprofit news organizations in an era of fractured media playing to a deeply polarized country. 

Financed by donors and members, the Tribune tirelessly covers the entire state of Texas (population: 30 million) with a newsroom of 55 reporters — 40% of whom are people of color. For Chan, who previously worked at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, running a nonprofit news outlet means creating rigorously reported information that is not behind paywalls and is passionately “pro-democracy.”

“We are doing our work because we ultimately believe that high-quality news information that is told fairly and with professional rigor and ethics ultimately leads to a more engaged citizenry, which leads to a healthier democracy,” he said.

And because we live in such a polarized time, Chan often finds himself having to re-explain the mission of the paper. Last month, for instance, Twitter came down on him, hard, for inviting Senator Ted Cruz to speak at the Texas Tribune Festival. “I get that it is unpopular for us to host extremely conservative guests at some of our events. Because especially in Austin, a lot of audiences are pretty liberal,” Chan said. “But the fact is that there was extreme interest in Ted Cruz. There’s tons of interest by Texans in engaging with their leaders.”

It all goes back to keeping the citizenry engaged. “To me, the question is, do we want a space where people can still come together, even if they vehemently disagree?” he said. “And as angry as things are right now, I still believe that having people come together and at least try to engage, at least try to come together in good faith and a spirit of civility, that still is, to me, more important than ever.”

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