How can storytelling impact climate change? Can shifting the way we talk about the environment actually make a difference in how we take care of it? The founders of Ensia, a print and online magazine published by the Institute on the Environment and the University of Minnesota, are banking on it.
By combining high-end design, data visualization, engaging videos, compelling storytelling, expert op-eds, and strong reporting and writing, Ensia aims to succeed where many others have failed: To spark environmental conversations and solutions versus ongoing debates.
The publication celebrated its one-year anniversary last month with 750,000 page views, and its video, "A Song of Our Warming Planet," which uniquely turned dry data into powerful, artful sound, has been viewed more than 145,000 times in nearly 160 countries.
What does this mean about how we want understand important information, and our planet?
What was Ensia's goal when it launched last year?
When we launched Ensia, we looked around at other environmental publications in the media, and what we saw was a lot of coverage of a lot of the "doom and gloom" side of the environment. And we thought, "If people can't envision what the solutions are, how are we going to move closer to achieving those solutions?"
And so with launching Ensia, our goal has been to really focus on showcasing solutions to environmental problems, from large scale issues like climate change to smaller scale like water pollution or bringing alternative energy to your community.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for science educators and communicators when it comes to general public understanding of climate change or environmental issues?
No, I'm serious. It's just not knowing. It could be not knowing there is a problem to not knowing there's a way to solve the problem. So how do we create more awareness of not only the issues and the problems but also the opportunities? There's an amazing upside to developing cleaner forms of energy. And there's an amazing upside to purifying water and being able to reuse it rather than drawing down aquifers.
I don't say "ignorance" in a bad way. I think people want to know more about these issues and they want to know about what's possible.
The conversation about these issues is so politically charged. How do you shift that conversation and make it about solutions?
That's unfortunate that the environment has become so politicized. It's almost seen as a Democratic issue. For us, it's really showing how the environment impacts all of us, whether we're an individual or head of a large corporation.
We're all dependent upon the environment for the air that we breathe and the water we drink. But more and more companies are realizing their growth is constrained by availability to resources. So it's about how do we shift the conversation from being a Democratic of Republican issue to this is a conversation about how we all live our lives now.
Given that, how do you know when you have a good story that can reach everybody?
I think a good story for us is when people read the story and say, "I haven't thought about that issue in that way before." An example of that, we did an opinion piece that said, "Instead of looking at organic agriculture versus GMO, what if we looked at it in a way we've never looked at before?" We know what an issues is. But we don't often talk about what's possible. For us, the stories that we really like are the ones that might have a surprising way of looking at things.
How do you know when a story is successful?
We look at page views and shares per story, of course, but I find it way more interesting to think about the qualitative impact. So, how did we change the conversation around a topic?
We published a piece late last year on the issue of palm oil and whether there was a way to make it more sustainable. That was right around the time that more and more people were starting to become more concerned about palm oil. And we saw earlier this year that a number of companies have come out and said, "We're committed to sustainable palm oil." Now I know our one story didn't flip that decision. But it's being part of that larger narrative that's important.
That brings me to my questions about funding, academic freedom, and conflicts of interest. There's been lots of controversy around Cargill for example, and its palm oil production and contributing deforestation. Yet Cargill has funding ties to the U of M—there's a building named after the company. And with cuts in state funding, universities increasingly rely on private funding from businesses and organizations.
Does funding ever impact your reporting and editorial direction?
We've been really fortunate that a portion of our funding comes from the Institute on the Environment, where we're housed at the University of Minnesota, another big portion comes from foundations around the country, and the third piece is from private individuals. We really haven't received corporate support for Ensia, but it's a conversation that we have: "What would happen if that opportunity presented itself?" And I don't know that we have a solid answer for that yet.
What we've said is that we really do have a firewall between the editorial side and where the money is coming from. We have disclaimers on the website saying that Ensia is supported by the University of Minnesota, but opinions expressed are those of the contributors. And it's the same thing with private organizations and individuals: We've told them, "We appreciate you support, but you're not going to have a say in what we cover." And that seems to have worked pretty well with everybody so far.
With your second year coming up, how have your goals changed and how would you measure success?
There are a few ways we're looking at it in the next year: One, looking for environmental issues that people aren't really talking about yet. So, what's going to be the fracking of 2014 or 2015? Or what are those stories going to be that we're going to need expertise on or discussion around?
The other unique goal is, How do we get this content out to other media partners? We give away our content for free, because we want people to know about these issues. So we're looking how to connect to other media partners to bring these conversations to broader audiences.
As far as new and broader audiences to climate issues, what stories are resonating with them and why?
People are still really interested and concerned about the palm oil debate. I see more and more people concerned about illegal wildlife poaching around the world. There was a recent study that said elephants could be extinct in Africa in 10 years, so that's really starting to get people's attention. Sustainable agriculture is a hot topic with people—how do we feed the world sustainably is really an ongoing conversation.
We're also starting to see this discussion taking place, this idea of the old way of doing conservation versus this new way. The old way being that we just protected land and different species around the world, versus a new way where people ask, "Do we start to engage partners that maybe we're a little uncomfortable with?" Where maybe it's a corporate partner or someone like that, so there's a bit of tension bubbling up around old versus new ways of conservation that we're starting to see.
I found it interesting when you look outside of the choir of people that you usually do and ask, "Who are these new partners or people that we can work with to make this happen?" Looking for new ways or new solutions, that's really the exciting part.