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Climate Confidential taps into publishers' cooperative spirit to revive local environmental beats

by: Sally Duros |

A new niche newsroom, Climate Confidential, is reviving local beat reporting on environmental issues through a project called Local Edition.

"The idea (of Local Edition) is to partner with reporters at local papers throughout the country to tell the sorts of small, on-the-ground environmental stories that have a big impact on communities and that serve as great, real-world examples of big climate challenges and solutions,” said Amy Westervelt, an editor and writer with the newsroom.

Founded by six deeply experienced environmental reporters whose bylines have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Scientific American and The Smithsonian, the newsroom’s mission is “Illuminating the crossroads of environment and technology.“  

The vanishing environmental beat 

With the elimination of beat reporters in newsrooms nationwide, local reporting on the environment has been disappearing. Local Edition is Climate Confidential’s effort to shore up the quality of environmental reporting on Main Street. Through Local Edition, the newsroom’s editors and writers will provide subject matter expertise as well as some cash to reporters from small local outlets who want to pursue high impact stories. 

In addition, the Climate Confidential team has been looking for a way to expand its audience beyond committed enthusiasts to a broader public. The founders realized their network of peers were plugged into real stories on the ground that could fill in the gap in local coverage while expanding the audience for their serious brand of environmental reporting. 

Pushing the impact

“There are people who care deeply about environmental coverage. They want to see growing interest in these issues,” said Celeste LeCompte, another founder of Climate Confidential.  “(Our question was) how do you push the impact beyond people who already know this stuff.“

The answer? Bring the reporting to the ground in a context that makes it relevant to a local audience.

Westervelt and LeCompte mentioned two upcoming Local Edition stories that highlight local knowledge — one with the Davis [Calif.] Enterprise and the second in Syria with Syria Deeply.

The Davis story will report on the success of a long-term restoration project that could provide a model for other communities. Assistance from Local Edition will allow for additional multimedia, such as maps and photographs. The Syria Deeply story will feature the work of a journalist on the ground who will be reporting on how resource conflict plays into military conflicts.

“The editors will match our fee to the writer’s fee up to $500 and we will kick in for expenses,” said LeCompte said. That’s the case with the Davis story. The reporter on the story will receive $500 from Local Edition, while the partner paper will pay an additional $500.

A new cooperative era for publishers

A shift in the publisher mindset is creating a pathway for the Local Edition model, said LeCompte, who is also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard researching reader centric business models for news. “Publishers are less possessive and are willing to share. I think that is really transforming journalism.”

Climate Confidential uses publishing and subscription management services provided by the Beacon platform. “Think of Beacon as a publishing platform like WordPress; the cost of using it is essentially a commission, instead of a monthly or annual fee,” said LeCompte  

Beacon asks readers to support a writer for a  $5 per month subscription. In return, the reader is granted access to that writer’s work as well as all the other writers published on Beacon. Writers take home about 70% of their online proceeds, while the remainder supports Beacon. The Beacon site says it currently features the work of 150 writers.

On its own website, Climate Confidential publishes Creative Commons stories, teasers for subscriber-only features that run in full behind Beacon's paywall, and sidebars to subscriber-only stories. To advance circulation, one story is made available to other publishers under a Creative Commons Attributions License each month. 

Crowdfunding model for passionate audiences

Climate Confidential’s initial success suggests that crowd-funding has potential for well-respected journalists reporting on subjects with passionate audiences. Since its launch in March, the publication has raised almost $60,000 — $45,000 initially, then $8,000 for its Local Edition coverage. Recurring subscriptions and bonuses add more to the coffers each month. The publication has been bringing in around $1000 per month. In addition to subscription revenue, the publication has been bringing in around $1000 per month in bonuses based on reader votes.

Said LeCompte “$60,000 is a lot compared with anything that is not venture backed.”

Initially the news team planned to take turns and write four stories per month, but they decided to instead structure their content around themes instead. Recent themes have included “War and Peace,” “Play” and “Smart Cities.”

Although earnings from Climate Confidential aren’t equivalent to a full time job yet, the publication does provide some revenue for the writers while further establishing their journalistic brands.

The newsroom is oriented toward solutions-based journalism.

“Focusing on solutions often flags people as activists,”  said LeCompte. “But that's not what we are trying to do. We are looking at people who are developing solutions for issues that are unequivocally real around climate change, pollution. These are not speculative issues.”

“We are focusing on problem solvers for sure,” she said.

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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