Trent Seibert, the founder and editor of The Texas Monitor and my friend for 10 years, died this week at his home in Houston, apparently of natural causes. He was 47.
“Trent was funny, friendly, sharp, and a terrific reporter who was dedicated to the kind of kick-ass watchdog journalism that is critical these days, to our country and to the whole planet,” Texas Monitor managing editor Gayle Reaves said late Wednesday. “That’s what he was known for, and what he encouraged in others. We are going to miss him terribly, and our thoughts go out to his family and friends.”
Seibert was also persuasive. He described to friends how he could talk his way into a job interview anywhere.
“I used to apply for jobs just to spend time in cities that I was curious about,” he once said. “These were my vacations.”
All he had to do, he said, was send a resume, talk with the editor by phone, and the plane ticket was his.
Born in Maine and raised in New Jersey, the award-winning editor and reporter worked at The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Before launching Texas Monitor in 2017, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13.
A decade ago, Seibert also founded and edited Texas Watchdog, a groundbreaking news group that paved the way for The Texas Monitor. His journalistic pedigree was built on a relentless passion for rooting out the bad guys in government, and it only took a few minutes for his listeners to catch the fever.
“Trent was one of the few really great investigative journalists,” said communications consultant and former KTRK-TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino. “So few people have this passion for journalism. It was like his oxygen, he consumed it. He was an ally in the fight for truth.”
As late as Monday afternoon, Seibert was on the phone to reporters here, planning stories and talking about the future of watchdog journalism.
“The state needs operations like Texas Monitor. Otherwise, people are going to get away with fleecing the taxpayers,” he told me last week.
Seibert had few hobbies. He lived in an apartment near the University of Houston with his cat Frankie, a former stray, read history books, and listened to comedy podcasts.
His calling was journalism and he dove in shortly after graduating from Stockton College in New Jersey with a degree in that discipline. For 22 years, Seibert fought city hall and, unlike many of us, he sometimes beat it.
Seibert exposed a corrupt lottery system in New Jersey, traveled on assignment to Pakistan in 2001 to cover the War on Terror and never let the serious stuff get in the way of, say, an immersive report from a Colorado nudist colony he wrote for the Denver Post in 2000:
“Surrounded by scores of naked club members of all ages and shapes, I slipped off my tan shorts, blue button-down shirt and green boxers,” he reported. “What was left was just skin, tan only from the neck up and pale from the neck down, looking like the No. 2 pencil I used to take standardized tests in elementary school.”
Among his many reporting coups was the national story he helped break while working for the Tennessee Center for Policy Research in 2007.
“Last night, Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, collected an Oscar for best documentary feature, but the Tennessee Center for Policy Research has found that Gore deserves a gold statue for hypocrisy,” the story read. “Gore’s mansion, located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service.”
When Seibert came to Houston in 2008, he was bent on helping plug the hole in government coverage created by corporate owners’ slashing of newsroom staffs. Veteran reporters were being cut loose, public records requests were on the wane, and, as he saw it, the whole idea of the press keeping public officials in check was going out the door.
Seibert’s response was to found Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit online news service staffed by four reporters and a couple of editors. Along with co-founder and partner Lee Ann O’Neal, he was a masterful promoter of a new journalism model, spreading the word of this upstart news organization that ended up getting incumbent legislators defeated, exposing mail-in ballot fraud long before others began to talk about it, unearthing open records violations and unsettling any official who got a call from a Texas Watchdog reporter.
He traveled the country as an ambassador for watchdog journalism, giving seminars to any group that would have him on how to investigate your local elected official and preaching about the importance of following the money.
“He called it the pirate ship, like we were getting away with something and having fun doing journalism rather than working for a regular daily,” O’Neal said.
When Texas Watchdog ran out of money in 2012, Seibert told the Houston Press, “If I had the answer on how to fund quality journalism, I would be talking to you from my Learjet as bikini models pour me champagne, but instead I’m talking with you over my shitty cell phone.”
He headed to San Diego, where he joined the investigations team at the San Diego Union-Tribune. The ink was barely dry on his contract before he was on CNN talking about his series of stories from women accusing San Diego Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment. The stories predated #MeToo by four years and pushed Filner from office.
Seibert came back to Houston and landed on the investigative team at KTRK, the local ABC affiliate. He delighted in uncovering ineptitude and ethical conflicts at city hall, documenting the city’s failed inspector general office, covering the bribery trial of former Houston ISD trustee Larry Marshall and exposing several incidents of police brutality.
When the opportunity to organize another online watchdog operation came, though, Seibert left the security of corporate journalism again to start The Texas Monitor.
“This is what I love doing, and I can’t believe that we can get paid to uncover public officials doing bad things,” he told me on numerous occasions. Just last month his reporting played a key role in the indictment of Darian Ward, former press secretary for Mayor Sylvester Turner, for her failure to produce public records.
Seibert was a potential witness in the case. Most reporters resist getting on the stand.
“But this is one time I won’t fight at all,” he said. “For once, it’s not so bad to be part of the story, if we can make sure public officials are honest.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].