Fires in Greece, fires out West, fires in the Arctic, record heat waves all around the world: in other words, it’s summer in the 21st century. This is the new normal. The Trump administration, however, is in complete denial and remains committed to environmental and climate policies that will make things far, far worse.
Which is exactly why we need tough and independent journalists to keep the pressure on politicians and policymakers and keep us informed—journalists like those at the award-winning InsideClimate News. (Sign up for their newsletter now!) We recently talked to Beth Daley, director of strategic development at InsideClimate News, about their mission and about the importance of investigative journalism in the “fake news” era.
What’s your role at InsideClimate News?
I used to be the environment reporter for the Boston Globe, for 14 years. I joined InsideClimate News about a year and a half ago to help manage it and do parts of the job that many journalists don't like to do with nonprofit news, which is raise money!
What kind of reporting does InsideClimate News do?
InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site that was created 11 years ago to provide essential reporting on climate, energy, and the environment. We have 17 staff members, soon to be 18 in September. I feel that we're the most reliable source for climate and environmental news, analyses, and investigations in the country.
Our publisher and founder, David Sassoon, had noticed something odd around 2007. There were many stories in the mainstream press about the impacts of climate change and what was happening to communities, but very little about who was at fault for it and who should be held accountable. So InsideClimate News began reporting on climate from an accountability perspective.
In 2013, our tiny staff of seven won the Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of a massive Canadian tar-sands oil spill in Michigan. That really put us on the map. In 2016 we received even more notice because of a series we wrote revealing that Exxon knew decades ago that global warming was caused by burning fossil fuels, yet then worked to discredit that truth. We were a Pulitzer finalist in public service for that investigation.
What’s the state of environmental/climate journalism, in your opinion?
Today some large newspapers on both coasts are building up their environment reporting desks again, in part because of the significant environmental protection rollbacks being proposed by the current administration. So, if you live on the East Coast or West Coast and read the New York Times or Washington Post, you might say to yourself, "Hey there's plenty climate and environmental coverage today." But if you go to the middle of the country and drive around little towns in the Midwest and in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, etc. what you find is a dearth of climate and environment reporting.
Are you working to do something about that?
We've launched a national environment reporting network to revive environmental journalism in the middle of the country. We just launched a Southeast hub in Kentucky, where we hired veteran environmental reporter James Bruggers to write regional stories and also begin a training and mentoring program with newsrooms throughout the Southeast. We're starting a Midwest hub soon and will be following that up with more hubs.
That kind of local coverage is critical. As the national conversation is punctuated with accusations of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” people still trust local journalism. They trust their local paper and their local radio and TV station to tell them important information. And an informed public is a critical pillar of our democracy.
Can you talk more about the effects of those “fake news” accusations?
“Fake news” is one of the biggest problems that we have right now. And it can be difficult to combat that at the national level because there's so much noise. It's so hard to distinguish real from fake. But on the local level, as I said, it's actually not true. All the research shows that people still read and trust what their local papers and news outlets have to say.
And if you think about it, the discussion is all national, but there's real political movement at the local level over issues like clean energy. Many important debates and policy decisions are happening in states and regional arenas and that's where local news outlets can really inform people about important issues.
InsideClimate News is a nonprofit. How does that work?
The aim of traditional for-profit newspapers and media companies is to make a profit and not necessarily invest all that profit back into the organization. Nonprofit news sites like InsideClimate News are completely different — any revenue we make goes back to produce more journalism.
At InsideClimate News, we’re thinking constantly of innovative ways to raise money to fund our investigative reporting, our environment reporting network, and even a high school summer environment journalism institute. We have foundations that support us, and we are very grateful for that. We have individual membership programs where people say, "Hey, I'll contribute 10 bucks a month, or 5 bucks a month because we believe in you." That's really helpful. We've also started corporate sponsorships, with The North Face, Seventh Generation, and Clif Bar, among others, supporting us.
Every nonprofit has to be scrappy, innovative, and entrepreneurial. So if you come up with a good idea, our founder is very supportive—it’s "OK, let’s get it done.” At legacy newspapers, with their layers of management, it can be hard to try something innovative or do something new, or even get stories into print very quickly. We just held our inaugural environmental journalism institute for high school students in Brooklyn—and we got it up and running super-quickly.
How do you think businesses can be part of the solution when it comes to climate change?
We all know businesses are an important part of the solution. They are on the front lines when it comes to changing their operations and supply chains and rallying their customers and employees in meaningful ways.
Yet, of course, there is always opportunity to do more. This political climate can make it hard to act, but you still see companies stepping up and trying to deal with climate in a way that makes sense for their business and protects the planet.
Speaking of the political climate, how do you reach people who may be tuning out the news, if only to preserve their sanity?
It’s something we think a lot about. We don’t want to just preach to the choir. We want to reach people on both sides of the aisle. We started a project with an incredibly talented writer named Meera Subramanian. It's called “Finding Middle Ground: Conversations Across America.” So we said, "Hey, Meera, go out around the country, go to places where climate impacts are clearly happening." She's been able to talk to people without the condescension, without the judgment, that often accompanies these types of conversations.
You really to begin to look at the issues in a new way, and then work very, very hard to get stories in front of audiences that may not see them very often.
What do you hope people do in response to the pieces you produce?
For our investigative series, we hope policy and decision makers read the articles and use them to inform their own decisions. But for our other stories, we want people to read them and spark conversations about environmental challenges—or solutions—we are facing on the planet and in their own backyards.
Sparking conversations always leads to something. Whether it's at a backyard fence, or in a forum, those conversations lead to people understanding each other more, realizing that they’re not so far apart, deciding to act for the betterment of society. And journalism is a critical pillar of that. Without journalism you have just advocacy or silence. There are no checks and balances on just advocacy. And silence doesn't help us move forward to improve our lives.