Todd Reubold: Journalism vs. Research Communications
BOB LALASZ: This is Science + Story. I’m Bob Lalasz. On today’s show what’s the first thing research communications could do to improve? Maybe, says my guest, start by trying to actually be interesting.
TODD REUBOLD: Well, I think the most important thing — I probably get, I don’t know, half-a-dozen to two-dozen pitches from, you know, academic institutions, think tanks, and others around the country each day, and most of the time I just read a couple sentences and I delete it right away. Because the problem is that we’re still sending out press releases like it’s 2000 or 2005. And the world has changed so much now that I think that a lot of research communicators really need to think like journalists and think, you know, pitch me an idea, pitch me why I should care, why our readers should care about this topic, and then tell me who your expert is who can talk about it rather than focusing so much on here’s this great researcher on this new paper that came out. I don’t have time for that, frankly. I just want to know why should people care about this particular issue. And so I think that’s a big change that I’d love to see happen.
BOB: That’s Todd Reubold, whose career has uniquely positioned him to understand both what researchers hate about journalists and what about researchers makes journalists pull their hair out. Todd was for a long time the director of communications with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Then he went from communicator to journalist. He became the founding publisher of the Institute’s incredibly successful magazine Ensia. Ensia puts out more than 120 pieces of environmental journalism and opinion a year. It’s so good places like Slate and the Guardian republish its pieces regularly. Coming up, Todd talks about how to cover climate change for people who don’t want to hear about climate change, whether you can train any researcher to be a good communicator, and why Greta Thunberg is so much better at talking about science than most scientists.
BOB: So Todd Reubold, welcome to Science + Story. It’s great to have you.
TODD: It’s great to be here.
BOB: Thank you. So when I was working at the Nature Conservancy seven years ago I think, and I first heard about the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment starting a magazine — an online magazine on conservation and environment, I had two reactions. One, I was really jealous because we just had a blog and we thought that was good; we were getting a lot of traffic. But you guys were starting a magazine. And the second reaction was, “They’re starting a magazine? What are they doing that for? How can they start a magazine?” Right? So it’s called Ensia. Let’s back up. Tell us what is Ensia, what does it cover, who does it serve?
TODD: Sure, no problem. So Ensia is a solutions-focused non-profit magazine. We cover environmental issues all around the country, all around the world frankly. So it’s everything from climate change and deforestation to water security, environmental justice issues, sustainable business, and much, much more. I think of our target audience in terms of this group I’ve dubbed the “solutions economy.” So it’s people who are working on solutions to our biggest environmental challenges. So that might be somebody working at an environmental NGO, or it might be a climate-adaptation specialist, or someone in academia who’s doing research related to a lot of these same issues and topics. That tends to be the target audience we’re really trying to influence and inform with the reporting that we’re doing.
BOB: So it’s not a general-audience publication even though your numbers — your audience numbers are pretty big, right? The target audience is decisionmakers, and practitioners, and people who can use this information to do a better job, correct?
TODD: Yeah, but if we catch some of that general audience I think that’s really great, too. We oftentimes think about, you know, we want our stories to resonate with the people whose lives are being impacted by these environmental changes, too. We want them to see something useful in the stories and the information we’re presenting, something they can take back and make their own lives or their communities better, too. So it’s pretty broad. I mean, we have tiers over the audience we’re really targeting with our reporting.
BOB: How many pieces do you do a year?
TODD: Probably around 125, 150. So not a lot. But we publish two to three times every week.
BOB: And so how many of those are reported pieces and how many of those are opinion pieces or sort of other synthetic pieces?
TODD: Yeah, so it’s probably a mix of about 70-30 with about 70% being reported pieces and 30% being opinion pieces right now. And then we sprinkle in a few other things here and there. We do some more graphical or data-driven pieces every now and then, too.
BOB: And you’re doing this with a staff of three people. Are they full-time or…?
TODD: Yeah, so those — we have a staff of three who’s full-time. There’s myself as publisher, an editor-in-chief, a senior editor, then we get some support from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota in terms of design and, you know, IT (backend). But most of the content is written by freelance journalists all around the world, and then contributors who are writing our voices pieces for us.
BOB: Why start an online magazine, especially at a research institution, in the first place? What were your goals? What did you hope to get out of it?
TODD: Yeah, so to answer that question we have to go back to the early days of Ensia’s predecessor, which was called “Momentum Magazine.” So we launched momentum back in 2008, and if you recall that’s the early days of the Great Recession. And a few years before that, you know, in the mid-2000s, you could send out a press release to a dozen or a couple-dozen dedicated science and environmental journalists around the country, and they would write about the research we were doing at the Institute on the Environment. They would do the reporting for us. But everything started to change with — you know, it’s a combination of the decline of print media and then the great recession coming along. And all of a sudden the news media was just obliterated; thousands of journalists were being laid off. And so we pretty quickly realized that the media that we had come to rely on just wasn’t there anymore. Essentially we had to become the media ourselves. And so that was the early impetus that helped us to launch Momentum Magazine at the time, which then became Ensia. But the other thing is that when we did see, you know, little slivers of environmental coverage it was really talking about what’s wrong in the world, and that’s where the story ended. And we thought, you know, there’s more to the story than that. We need to be reporting on what are we doing to actually fix or solve these problems? And so that was another reason that we thought we would start up Ensia at the Institute on the Environment all those years ago.
BOB: So — but you’re trying to solve a problem where media were drying up. You weren’t going to get coverage, but there are very few university-based publications that aren’t promotional of the university. I think about Yale E360, there’s Just Security at NYU, which covers security issues very well, very aggressively. But there aren’t that many that cover in their own publication stuff outside of the university. And you very intentionally created — I wasn’t familiar with Momentum at the time — but you very intentionally created Ensia as not a house organ for the university. It was going to be journalism covering issues on the environment and conservation. So why did you take that decision and why was it the right decision to take, looking back?
TODD: Well, actually early on we were a bit of a hybrid model, where we were doing some reporting about our own people and our own research, and mixing that in with coverage of these issues more broadly out there in the world. And what we realized pretty early on was that if we wanted to have any kind of credibility in reporting on these issues we had to go wholly to the side of we’re just going to cover the issues out there in the world, and we’re not going to give preferential treatment to our home institution. Now, the alignment though with our home institution is that we’re covering issues and reporting on issues that the Institute cared about, and still cares about to this day, around, you know, sustainable agriculture, or clean water, or what have you. But in order to be a thought leader we had to make that break to really bolster our credibility in covering these issues.
BOB: What sort of brand lift, or what sort of benefits has the Institute gotten from having Ensia as this nameplate magazine, which everybody in conservation at least knows, and a lot of people in the environmental space know as well? Has it been beneficial in terms of branding for the Institute, in terms of attracting new students or attracting faculty? Talk about some of the benefits of doing this.
TODD: Yeah, definitely. There have been a number of benefits. I mean, in a lot of ways it’s the front door for the Institute on the Environment here at the University of Minnesota. But what’s funny, and I’m kind of chuckling as you’re asking that question, is that we do get some pushback from people who say, “Oh, I’ve heard of Ensia, but haven’t heard of the Institute per se.” [LAUGHTER] So there’s been a little bit of challenges with that, too. But, you know, I think it’s a great front door, like I said, to learn more about what we’re doing at the Institute more broadly. In that way it’s worked really well for us to help make those connections. Because, you know, the Institute on the Environment is really this — we say it’s a “boundary-spanning organization,” not only within the University and across different disciplines, but also boundary-spanning working with partners in different sectors, different parts of the country. And so Ensia has been a really nice entrée to helping launch some of those new partnerships and collaborations.
BOB: So we should talk about funding. How is Ensia funded — what’s the model and how has that evolved, if at all, over the six years that it’s been in existence?
TODD: Yeah, fundraising, man. I spend, like, 50% or more of my time thinking about this. [LAUGHTER] So I’d say the mix has evolved over the years, but it’s generally a mix of about — you know, we get about a third of our funding comes from the University itself, a third of it comes from major foundations — both private foundations, corporate foundations — and then the remaining third is a mixture of major donors, we do an end-of-year annual campaign with our readers… So it’s really a mix of all those things. We’ve done some sponsorships of events in the past. So it’s a little bit of everything in terms of funding.
BOB: How do you handle – do you have a problem, or a perceived problem with conflicts of interest, vis-à-vis journalism funded by this corporation, or this donor, etc.? And if you do, how do you handle it? Are you really up front? Are you really transparent about what funds what, or how have you handled it?
TODD: Yeah. We’re absolutely up front with that, with all of our funders, whether it’s a foundation or a major donor, an individual or a couple. We have a really strongly-written and strongly-worded code of ethics that we’ve posted on our website that outlines — I think it’s about a four-page-long document that goes through, you know, our editorial independence and how we treat our relationship with the University. I’ll also mention that — so we’re members of the Institute for Non-Profit News, which is this national network of non-profit news organizations. And to become a member of that group we had to pass a pretty high bar. And so I often share with people that, you know, just becoming a member of that group has shown that we’re really strongly committed to that idea of editorial independence.
BOB: So what was the bar? What are some of the strictures to join that group?
TODD: Yeah, I mean, they require things like the code of ethics, which I just mentioned. They require transparency around funding. All donors over $1000 have to be named and mentioned on your website. You know, things like that that are really important to build trust with the audience that we’re trying to reach.
BOB: So when you started Ensia… And you have a great — very small but great team that I think has been with you since the beginning. Mary and David have been with you since the beginning.
BOB: When you started — and I was on your advisory council for a couple of years — we had conversations about the collapse of environmental coverage in journalism. Beats were getting killed, people were getting reassigned; nobody was talking about the environment. I remember the New York Times famously cancelled their climate blog and people said, “Is this the end of climate coverage at the New York Times?” So at the time you had this really clear niche that you were filling–“We’re going to step in and provide the environmental coverage that other people are no longer providing.” And that was the selling point to funders. Fast-forward to today, everybody’s talking about climate change. Everybody’s covering climate change it seems. Biodiversity is back in the news with the recent UN report. So what’s changed for you over the last six years, and how do you see the niche that you fill now versus what you filled six years ago?
TODD: Well, the funny thing is that I think for people like yourself and I are kind of in the know on these environmental issues it seems like there’s a lot more coverage. And while there is a lot more coverage, I actually saw a report not too long ago, a few months back, that was saying that if you looked at mainstream media outlets in the U.S. less than one percent of their coverage is about these environmental issues that we’re talking about. And that includes coverage of climate change and other huge issues impacting the world. So it’s been great to see the New York Times is back, the Washington Post has beefed up their environmental coverage again. But we still have a long ways to go if you look at the scale of these challenges and the amount of coverage that they’re getting. So I think that there’s still a place for Ensia. I think there’s definitely still a place for our coverage of solutions to these problems. Whenever I talk to prospective partners or funders, we start talking about the solutions angle, that’s when their eyes really light up. They’re, like, “Yes, that’s what we need. We don’t need another story telling us the world is going to heck in a handbasket, you know? We need to know what’s being done to fix these problems.” And so that’s something that we’re still really focused on.
BOB: So let’s talk about that, solutions journalism.
BOB: How do you define it, and how do you make sure when you do it — like, give us an example of some really good solutions coverage that you’ve had — but how do you define it so that it’s not mindlessly-positive coverage, but that you’re actually striving towards the tough business of finding often full-of-compromise solutions to these problems?
TODD: Yeah, so there’s actually something called the “Solutions Journalism Network” and their official definition of “solutions journalism” is “rigorous reporting on responses to our biggest social problems.” At Ensia we like to say it’s essentially telling the whole story. It’s not stopping with the doom and gloom or the problems we’re facing, but it’s moving beyond that to what are we actually doing to solve these problems? But a lot of times when people hear this idea of solutions journalism their mind automatically goes to advocacy journalism, like we’re advocating for a particular solution. And that’s not at all what we’re doing actually. We’re being really critical of the solutions that we’re uncovering. So, for example, let me share with you a recent story that we did. We did this story looking at plastic recycling, which is this huge problem around the world. I mean, we’ve got to get a handle on plastics and what’s going on with plastic pollution. And so a lot of people when they hear about recycling plastic they think, “Great, that’s a perfect solution. Let’s do more of that.” Well, what this story uncovered was that there are a lot of contaminants in the plastic to begin with that are just moving along the supply chain into those recycled materials, and now the recycled materials have the same contaminants and the same issues as the plastic originally had. So while it may be a solution it’s definitely not a perfect solution; there are things that need to be fixed. But that’s an example of where solutions journalism isn’t just cheerleading for a particular outcome or solution to a problem.
BOB: So you’re covering the solutions that are being attempted?
BOB: Does your journalism also suggest solutions that aren’t being attempted right now, and how do you manage to integrate that?
TODD: We try not to do a lot of suggesting of solutions. I mean, if somebody was being interviewed, talks about something that’s on the horizon, we’re definitely going to put that into the reporting. But we prefer to report on solutions that are actually being attempted or are underway in some part of the world right now.
Ideally with solutions journalism our goal is to uncover a potential solution, poke holes in it, see if it’s working or not, and then have some reader somewhere else in the world say, “Hey, I can learn from that story. I can learn from that particular solution. Let’s try and apply it to the same problem we have in my particular part of the country.”
BOB: So how do you measure success then if success is reporting, looking at a solution critically — looking at a problem and then looking at its solution critically, and then adoption if the solution holds water by someone else someplace else who could benefit from that solution? How are you measuring success? Is it anecdotal? Do you have numerical metrics of success? Talk more about your metrics as a publication.
TODD: Yeah, I mean, this is the eternal challenge of journalism and media outlets is how do you measure the impact of the work that you’re doing? I mean, what you just described there–someone reads the story they pick up that solution and they apply it somewhere else in the world — that’s the ideal. I mean, if we could do that with every story we would be golden. But that’s really hard to measure because it’s anecdotal, it takes time, there are other factors involved in that type of an impact. So for us we’ve created this kind of spectrum of things that we can measure. And we try to measure everything from the more analytical side of time on page, number of readers, who’s republishing our stories, to who’s talking about the stories, where are we being cited, what other publications might we be influencing or conversations might we be influencing, all on a spectrum to the far side, which is what’s the real-world impact of that particular story, whether it’s, you know, the solutions adoption we were just talking about or does the story influence a policy that we might have here in the country, or something like that. But it’s really, really hard to measure the impact of journalism and to describe the impact of journalism.
BOB: I think like a journalist often as well, and a journalist’s job is done after the story has been filed and published. They might do a follow-up, but it’s done. So are you — how do you track adoption of solutions? Are you waiting for people to write in and say, “This was a great story and we’re going to try this here,” or do you have a more proactive way of tracking those kinds of anecdotes?
TODD: Yeah, we’ve tried to get more proactive in recent years, so reaching out to the writers, reaching out to the sources who are interviewed in the stories, asking them, you know, “What have you heard? What came of this interview” or “this particular story that you did?” It’s really time-consuming though, to be honest, to track down those anecdotal examples. But like you said, you know, oftentimes journalists think that once the story is out there the work is done. So I would – a little bit of a side story here, years and years ago I was a professional musician. And there would be so much work that would go into, you know, recording, and putting together the album, and the artwork, and then releasing the album out into the world. And that’s where the work really begins. You’ve got to go out there and promote the work and make sure it gets in front of people. And it’s the same thing with journalism is that we spend so much time on the backhand putting together the story, that I think oftentimes we’re giving short shrift to the other end of that, which is making sure the right people are seeing that story. We’ve done a lot of work over the years to reach out directly to organizations who we think could benefit from knowing about particular stories or solutions that we’re reporting on. But it’s a long, arduous process for sure.
BOB: I know when we started talking about Ensia your syndication network was a big selling point for writers, for funders. You would publish stuff on the Ensia website, but then other publications could pick it up, Slate, other places could pick it up and publish it for free basically. And they would have to give you credit but they could use it as well. And you were measuring that as additional impact. You were actually measuring that traffic as part of your impact reporting. Is that still a part of your portfolio right now, that kind of syndication network? And talk more about that.
TODD: Yeah, the syndication is definitely still part of our portfolio and part of our impact statement when I talk to individuals who are interested in our work. So over the years we’ve created this network of about 40 or 50 leading media outlets around the world who will pick up and republish Ensia’s content. Everyone from GreenBiz and the Guardian, to Scientific American and others. And we see that as a really great way to amplify the work that we’re doing to reach a bigger audience. And as we were just talking about a moment ago, to hopefully increase the adoption of some of the solutions that we’re covering.
BOB: Did they come to you, your network partners, and say, “We’d like to cover this. We have some topics that we see some readership demand on,” or is it still the case that you pitch them and they decide yes or no on a piece?
TODD: It’s mostly us going to them and saying, “Hey, you know, we see a gap in your coverage around this topic that we’re covering. Would you be interested in republishing our stories?” And we make sure to let them know that, you know we put a ton of work into, you know, fact checking and editing our stories, which surprisingly a lot of media outlets just don’t have the bandwidth to do nowadays. And so we really try and be up front about, “This is a credible story, we’re a credible news outlet, and we can help you fill a void in your reporting.”
BOB: Let’s talk about climate for a second. So we talked before about the tremendous amount of perceived growth in climate coverage. And that may be recency bias on our part, or just myopia I guess because we’re looking at it so closely, and we – there was no coverage. Now there’s coverage so it looks enormous. The complaint used to be that nobody’s covering it. How are you now approaching covering climate to make sure that you’re differentiated from the way that other people are? Because they are – other outlets are covering the new report, the new paper, filling the information deficit gap, and to my mind committing the same mistakes over and over of piling more data and more information into a void that probably really isn’t there right now.
TODD: Yeah, there’s a lot of climate coverage on exactly what you’re talking about. It’s on the latest disaster or the latest greenhouse gas readings, but not a lot of context around these issues. I think that’s still missing, the in-depth reporting around what does this mean longer-term for us? For us — this is going to sound funny — but we try to cover climate change without covering climate change. And by that I mean that there’s a portion of our audience that we’re trying to reach — more the green moderates/green conservatives — who just saying the word “climate change” might turn off a part of that audience. And so we try to cover climate change but through the lens of public health, or changes to, you know, their local nature reserve, or agriculture, or food, or what have you, or water security. So that’s a way that we’re really thinking about climate change. The other thing is that when we report on an issue like, say, biodiversity loss, yeah, that definitely has a climate-change component to it. But it also has elements of global trade, or agriculture, or poaching. So there’s much more to these issues than just climate change I think. And so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to say that, yeah, climate change is obviously the huge issue, it’s incredibly important right now, but it’s not the only dimension to a lot of these issues that we’re facing.
BOB: How concerned are you about audience growth being a non-profit at a university? How concerned are you about audience growth and showing audience growth as a marketer of success to your funders?
TODD: I mean, yeah, we’d love to grow our audience. I think, you know, who wouldn’t like to grow their audience? But really the most important thing for me is are we reaching the right audience? And that’s something I try to talk to a lot of funders about. You know, it’s not just the size of the audience; it’s who you’re reaching, who you’re influencing, who’s sharing your content, who’s talking about your content. To me that’s more important.
And I can make a pretty strong case that the right people are reading and sharing our content, so that’s the most important thing to me.
BOB: So one of the things I think that makes you really interesting — other than you were a musician and now you’re a publisher — you were for over a decade I think the communications director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. So you wore both hats — you were wearing the journalism hat, but then you were also wearing this communications hat as well. And you were coaching researchers on staff how to write good opinion pieces, how to be more effective and more impactful in their public scholarship. So let’s talk about what makes for a good opinion piece and why it’s so challenging to get researchers to produce them.
TODD: Well, this is going to sound funny, but the first thing that makes a good opinion piece is to actually have an opinion [LAUGHTER], you know? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with researchers who live in this world of, you know, “It may be this or it may be that. You know, we need to hedge a little bit.” There’s no room for hedging in an op-ed. You know, you’ve got to take a stand, back it up, deal with potential criticisms, and do all that within 750 words. So it’s really changing the mindset of researchers to begin with. We’re fortunate at Ensia though, we’ve got an incredible team of editors who can, you know, pull out the idea that someone’s trying to get out, really help them bolster the case for that point, and really make it a strong op-ed, look at all the potential critiques that might come their way to play a little bit of a devil’s advocate. So we have a lot of experience doing that, too.
BOB: How important are solutions in opinion pieces? And I’m of the opinion, the very strong opinion, that they’re very important maybe not for landing the pitch and making the editor happy, but for making it effective in the world. The people who are going to be – the decisionmakers who are going to be reading this piece and may act on it want a solution, they just don’t want a problem outline. So what are your feelings on this?
TODD: Yeah, I mean, I love op-ed pieces that have a solutions component to it; I think that’s absolutely critical. You know, I often say to people, “Tell us what the problem is right up front, be really crystal-clear about that, tell us why it’s a problem, but then the next step is tell us what can be done to fix that problem, what can be done to solve that problem.” So I think you’re right, that’s absolutely critical to a really effective op-ed is to have that solutions component to it, too. And that’s something we really try and pull out of our writers at Ensia.
BOB: Who’s a really good scientist-communicator?
TODD: Well, I’m a bit biased to one of my old bosses, John Foley, who’s now at Project Drawdown. I think that the clearness of the way he communicates, he’s also not afraid to take pretty strong opinions, but then back them up with science and data and a bit of emotion. He’s someone that I still admire out there in the world.
BOB: So what makes John really effective? He’s transparent about how he feels, but what else makes him effective?
TODD: It’s funny, because he grew up in Maine but he comes across as this kind of “aw shucks,” you know, Midwesterner, you know? And then you get into a discussion or debate with him, and you realize this guy is whip-smart. He knows what he’s talking about. He also understands the importance of, you know, these treatable comments or, you know, soundbites. He understands the power of that in his public talks and just in conversations with him. I guess it’s a number of factors. He just knows his stuff though, you know? That’s really important, too. And he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks.
BOB: One thing about him — and I’ve written about this as well — is that he’s not afraid of repetition, which is very unusual for a scientist. Not a scientist in terms of what they’re publishing about in peer-review journals — they can plough the same ground over and over and over again incrementally making advances — but in terms of their public persona.
John doesn’t believe in tweeting once. He’ll tweet something 20 times because he knows that people haven’t seen it that one time. He believes in repetition. And he covers a lot of the same ground in his essays and he’s not afraid to do that.
TODD: Yeah. And, you know, even back when he was in academia, which he’s not in academia now, but even back then he understood the importance of being visible, whether it was, you know, public talks, or writing op-eds, or being active on social media. And you’re right, as someone who knew him pretty well behind the scenes, I would see the same talking points, you know, coming up over and over again. But it’s effective when you do that. And I think a lot of scientists and communicators who are scientists just don’t realize the power of that repetition. I mean, think about politics. Take a speech by President Obama or any politician — they’re using repetition all the time, you know, because they know that it works and it’s an effective way to communicate.
BOB: Can you train a scientist or a researcher to be a really good, impactful communicator? Or is it more the case that they have a lot of natural talent and it’s just a question of — the ones who succeed have a lot of natural talent, and it’s just a question of steering that in the right direction. You’ve been at this for a decade — let’s have a conversation about that.
TODD: Yeah, I think that you can, but here’s the important point: they have to want to do it. You know, this is a lot of work to become a really strong communicator. Because you’re talking about, you know, upping your game with public talks. You’re talking about writing more frequently, writing op-eds, or starting, you know, a blog or something like that. You’re talking about spending your time on social media where you could be a target, frankly, for a lot of different people. So in order to become effective at that… And it’s a totally new skill, too, that, you know, if you look at most grad programs or PhD programs, I bet most of these folks never take a course on science communication.
And so you’re asking them to take on this whole new field and this whole new way of working, and thinking, and communicating in the world. It’s a huge challenge. So they really have to want to do it. But when you find those people who really want to become better communicators, sure, you can work with anyone and improve the way that they communicate. I think that’s possible, definitely.
BOB: What do you think are the one or two steps if somebody wants to do it but they know their skills aren’t quite up to snuff? What are the one or two things that they should do, let’s say, in the next six months?
TODD: I think one of the most important things — and this is where you become really vulnerable though — is to ask for feedback. Ask for feedback on your public talks, ask for feedback on your writing, just be completely open to criticism. That’s one of the first steps is being able to be broken down a little bit, if you will, so you can build yourself back up as a stronger communicator. The second thing that they should do is just watch and pay attention to others who are doing this really well who they might admire. Find out, you know, how frequently are they writing? How active are they on Twitter? What type of things are they communicating on social media? What’s their demeanor like during their public talks? What do their slides look like? You know, just learning from people you admire who you think do this really well is another important step.
BOB: When you were running (comms) at IonE, what sort of opportunities did you try to create for people who – for researchers who wanted to advance their public impact? Could they write for Ensia? Could they blog for something that you had created? How did you help them?
TODD: Well, back when I was communications director at IonE, again, we had that firewall between Ensia and IonE communications. So we typically would steer them towards communicating on the IonE website if they wanted to do something in writing like a blog or something like that. We would also do things like we would organize events where the talks were more in a TED style rather than your typical academic department seminar. So we would look for ways to create opportunities where they could get out, try new things, be a little bit vulnerable, and really get feedback on what they were doing.
BOB: What don’t researchers understand about journalism that they need to?
TODD: Oh my gosh, so much [LAUGHTER]. I think they don’t understand — and this is going to sound pretty funny–but I don’t think they don’t understand that most journalists are professionals, too, you know? Most journalists spend a lot of time in school and in their career, honing their craft. And they really do want to get the story right. They want to understand what a researcher is talking about. They don’t want to make a fool of themselves and write something that’s wrong. They really do want to get that story correct for their readers and help their readers to understand your research or discipline, whatever it might be. The other thing I think though is that a lot of researchers don’t understand that journalists also love the tweet-ready comments or the soundbites. I mean, let’s just admit it. We had a story come out recently that was looking at how individual action isn’t enough to really tackle a lot of these big environmental challenges we’re facing in the world. And there was somebody quoted in the story — and this story came out months ago but it’s still sticking with me — he said, “Screw the straws and do something serious.” You know, journalists love when they get something like that, that kind of nugget they can put into a story. So I think researchers can think in soundbites a little bit more frequently than they do, too.
BOB: What’s wrong with science communications today?
TODD: That’s a really tough question. I think that one thing that’s wrong with a lot of science communication though is that we still think that we can focus on just the data and somehow that’s going to change people’s minds. I often say to people that, yeah, the data is important, but the data is only half the equation. The other half of the equation is making an emotional connection with the people you’re trying to reach or trying to influence. I think that when those two come together–the data or the logical side with the more emotional side — that’s when real change can happen. And I think a lot of that happens through storytelling, which we just – we don’t seem to do a lot of really great storytelling when it comes to science communication, and I wish we did more of that.
BOB: So let me follow on that. Because I think some of the values that you’re talking about — connection, identification, inspiration — are things that we normally associate, when we think about marketing, with marketing. Marketing’s really good at that stuff. Science communication, it may want to provoke, it may want to upset, but it wants to be clear and it wants to communicate. So those qualities of storytelling — connection, inspiration — are not at a premium in the transaction of science communication, at least as I have seen it practiced, and as I learned it. It was a step away from that. And it was part of why scientists in many cases are turned on by science communication and hate marketing.
TODD: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, as you’ve written about in the past, Bob, we need these huge communications campaigns around these issues, too. And storytelling, marketing, those are critical elements to building these campaigns. I’m always amazed that if you look at the millions of dollars that have been pumped into, for example, climate-denial campaigns — or maybe even billions of dollars at this point, I don’t know — and then you look at what’s being done on the other side of the equation to promote, you know, solutions to environmental challenges, or ways that we can fix this climate crisis, there’s nothing similar in terms of a campaign of that magnitude going on that side of the equation. And I keep wondering why not? Why don’t we think about a campaign for a better climate or for renewable energy in the same way that the denialists used that playbook to think about climate denial, and spent millions if not billions of dollars. So yeah, absolutely I think that science communication needs to take a lot more out of the playbook of marketing and storytelling and other communications disciplines.
BOB: So this leads to my next question, which is that traditionally research communications has been tremendously dependent on media for outreach and validation. And the media’s changing so much. I’m going to resist the temptation to say there’s an erosion of media, but there’s a lot of shape-shifting going on. What should research communications be doing to adapt?
TODD: So I think the most important thing — I probably get, I don’t know, half-a-dozen to two-dozen pitches from academic institutions, think tanks, and others around the country each day. And most of the time I just read a couple sentences and I delete it right away. Because the problem is that we’re still sending out press releases like it’s 2000 or 2005. And the world has changed so much now that I think that a lot of research communicators really need to think like journalists and think, you know, pitch me an idea, pitch me why I should care, why our readers should care about this topic and then tell me who your expert is who can talk about it rather than focusing so much on here’s this great researcher and this new paper that came out. I don’t have time for that, frankly. I just want to know why should people care about [LAUGHTER] this particular issue? And so I think that’s a big change that I’d love to see happen.
BOB: You also said to me in previous conversation you think more research centers, institutes, NGOs, should become publishers. Do you still feel that way, and if you do talk more about that.
TODD: Yeah, I mean, this goes back to, you know, where we started this conversation earlier about, you know, what happened due to the Great Recession and the thousands of journalists that were laid off. And you and I have talked a little bit about some of that has come back now with some of the big publishers and also this growth of non-profit media. But the landscape is so different than it used to be out there in the past. So if you care about environmental issues, for example, and you’re looking for environmental journalists, there just aren’t as many as there used to be that you can pitch stories to. And so that’s why I think it’s really important to become your own publisher in a lot of ways, create your own platform for telling these important stories, rather than just relying on the media in the way that we used to to tell the story for us.
BOB: I can see that as being a very scary prospect for a director of communications to go into their — the director of the institute and say, “We need to start a publication.”
TODD: Yeah, but you don’t have to start something like an Ensia. You know, it doesn’t have to be that robust. But it’s just thinking about, you know, multimedia storytelling in a different way, or just how do we get our researchers writing more frequently for posting things on Medium, or the Conversation, or other outlets like that. So it doesn’t have to be creating something like Ensia I guess.
BOB: So we’ve got an environmental movement right now that in many respects is being driven by people certainly who are under 30 years of age often by people who are under 18 years of age. We could probably sum that up as the “Greta Effect,” because she’s the most distilled avatar of this. And it’s super interesting to me right now because I feel like these groups are advocating for a return to science-based action and policies in a way that we learned as research communicators don’t lecture people about the science. Try to invite them in. Try to have conversations and dialogue with them. Don’t beat them over the head with information. And we’re at a moment now where we’ve got a bunch of teenagers saying, “No, listen to the science.” And it’s proved to be profoundly effective, at least so far, in galvanizing a movement. So what’s going on? What do you think is going on? Why are these young people so effective where scientists communicating many of the same things have not been for decades?
TODD: I don’t — it’s fascinating to me. I haven’t been able to put my finger on this either, like, why this group of younger folks is so effective right now. You know, part of it maybe is they’re authentic, the authenticity of their voice perhaps. I mean, take a look at someone like Greta. It’s amazing — she’s, like — she’s the first rock star of the climate generation, if you will, the first international rock star. And like you said, her message is something we’ve been hearing and saying for decades now, “Just listen to the science.” But what is it about her? Is it that she backs it up with her actions? Is it the way she says what she says? I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. What do you think? Do you think there’s something unique about this particular generation?
BOB: I think we missed something and that something was as soon as the generation that was going to be impa- whose lives – whose entire lives were going to be impacted by climate change came of age they were going to be really pissed off.
TODD: Yeah — yep.
BOB: We kept on thinking that prosperity was going to continue and that these people were going to buy into the prosperity machine, and they were going to accept the line that we’re going to be able to adapt, a new technology is going to come along and save us, progress will win the day. They’re not buying it because they’re looking at their lives — their lives are not — their economic lives are not projected to be any better than their parents–in some cases profoundly worse — and they have lost a substantial amount of trust in those who came before them. So I think we should’ve seen this coming, but now that it’s here everybody seems to be a little surprised by it.
TODD: You know what’s really interesting, too, related to that, you know, you’ve got this generation, as you just said, who can see the impacts of climate change, for example, on the horizon, and they know they’re going to be here. They’re going to be living through those changes all around the world. I was just talking to someone the other day, and we both have young children. So my wife and I have a two-year-old son right now, and when you have a young child and you start to do the math, and you realize that there’s a really good chance that this kid could live to the year 2100… You know, for so long when we talked about these projects to 2050 or 2100, it was so abstract. But when you have a child or when you are a young person yourself, that abstraction goes away and you start to realize, wow, this is really — this is literally the world they’re going to be living in. The decisions we’re making today are going to impact the future and the world that they live in. That I think brings a lot of immediacy to really solving these problems. And I think that I see a lot of that immediacy and a lot of that concern in these younger generations.
BOB: What are you worried about when you are worried about the future of Ensia; what keeps you up at night?
TODD: Oh boy [LAUGHTER], a lot of things actually. I mean, it’s really a pretty big struggle running a non-profit media outlet. I think the biggest challenges though are around relevancy, are around questions of are we having a big enough impact given the scale of the challenges that we’re facing, are we diverse enough in terms of our writers and the people we’re interviewing, are we able to fundraise enough to continue producing the coverage that we’re producing? It’s a little bit of everything I think that I — that keeps me up late at night [LAUGHTER].
BOB: If you had to go back and do one thing differently with Ensia what would it have been?
TODD: Oh, if I had to go back and do one thing differently — well, I’d actually do two things different [LAUGHTER]. The first one is I would hire somebody in development or to do fundraising right from day one. I think that’s critical. I met with someone early on who founded another non-profit media outlet, and I met with him years after we had launched Ensia, and his big of advice was, “Every dollar I have extra, I’m putting that into raising more money for the future.” And I think that’s really critical to building a sustainable organization. The other thing I think we would do different — and I just mentioned, you know, this idea of having (a) more diverse set of writers who are contributing to us and people we’re interviewing — I would put a higher premium on that sooner. I think that we really need to break down this idea of just talking and talking with the “environmental choir,” if you will, and really span these environmental issues to a broader set of people who are being impacted.
BOB: Todd, thanks so much for your time, I really appreciate it. And great talking to you, and best of luck to Ensia. Everyone should take a look at it. The URL again is…?
TODD: Ensia.com, E-N-S-I-A.com.
BOB: Great, thanks so much.
TODD: Thank you.