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The reporter-editor bond (insider)

Approximately 90 percent of the workforce in this back-breaking trade of carrying fuelwood this way is women. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.

Approximately 90 percent of the workforce in this back-breaking trade of carrying fuelwood this way is women. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.

  • International freelance environmental journalists work in some of the wildest locales on the planet, where the rampant destruction of nature is occurring against the backdrop of political power struggles, human rights crises, armed conflict, and organized crime.
  • These independent journalists take on significant financial, physical and psychological risk with a very thin safety net. The related stresses and burdens can create roadblocks.
  • Existing support and resource tools to help keep journalists safe and healthy are scattered throughout hundreds of local, domestic and international organizations and media outlets.
  • In addition to resources Mongabay already provides to support independent journalists, in 2019 it hosted a six-month pilot project to provide targeted support and mentoring to a small group of international freelance environmental journalists.

There’s no doubt 2019 was a bad news year for the planet, and for many of the more than 7.5 billion human beings inhabiting it — not to mention countless other species. It’s only natural that many of us increasingly feel perpetually preoccupied by the world’s problems.

For journalists who are frequently in the midst of the action, finding a way forward toward something positive and better increasingly seems like an insurmountable proposition. Certainly at a personal level, I have felt like this at certain points during my more than three years as a forests editor at Mongabay.

Yet, we soldier on.

We do it knowing full well that most people aren’t listening, much like a friend of mine who refuses to consume news. She’s not alone. In 2018, a Pew survey found that seven in 10 Americans had already veered into what Harvard’s Nieman Labs describes as “news avoidance” territory. 

Environmental journalists are running toward the stories, and the public is running away from them. Why?

When you work remotely, your office goes with you. Image by Genevieve Belmaker.

‘I am the job’

News production has become markedly tougher in the past 20 years. I think it started with the post-9/11 ticker tape on cable news and exploded with social media’s rise. There are simply more voices out there than before. That means more collective noise, which obscures a story’s subtle nuances.

Independent journalists frequently note a deficit of time to read, think, discuss, brainstorm with colleagues, and process complex issues with multiple moving parts and global implications. That can limit the ability to tell the story.

In late 2018, I wanted to use Mongabay’s unique remote work environment to improve collaborations with independent journalists and the final product: the story. I knew that I couldn’t continue as I had been, booking assignments with about two to three dozen individual reporters at a time. The stress of tracking their progress, whereabouts, and keeping stories on track was keeping me awake at night. In the rare case of a dispute over financial aspects of the work, the process of untangling difficulties was a Herculean task and communication sometimes broke down.

Two things seemed obvious: working with freelance journalists comes with its challenges — but we editors can be a challenge to understand as well. I know my enthusiasm in the brainstorming stages of a story, alongside a tendency to worry about physical safety and mental health, can be a bit much for reporters. Many of them want to be given an assignment and come back with a story, without too much in between.

Though that approach has long worked fine for the most part, I wanted to see if I could challenge myself and reporters to raise the bar even higher. It seemed worth a try to reduce the pool of reporters I work with on a regular basis.

A small twig from the forest in Ethiopia for a story that became the 14th most-read story on Mongabay in 2019. Image by Christopher Lett.

So I made a short-term offer to a handful of talented freelancers from the Mongabay network. They agreed to commit to working more closely with Mongabay from January through June 2019, and I committed to investing more editorial resources into their work.

I started with a simple check-in from time to time. I opened up a bit about challenges. But I also started asking for a higher caliber of work.

Reporters started to share more, slowly familiarizing me with some of the major incidents and characters in their lives. The context proved invaluable in understanding how to keep collaborations moving and editorial production on schedule.

The simple act of removing a few walls alongside clarifying and then raising expectations — on both sides — immediately improved both communication and collaboration. Though still freelancers, that group of reporters have become regular collaborators who work with multiple editors within Mongabay.

They have covered stories on corrupt logging practices in the forests of Liberia, community-driven wildlife conservation campaigns using graffiti and religion in Ho Chi Minh City, indigenous solutions drawn from traditional knowledge in the densely forested mountains of Guyana, the women of Ethiopia’s Entoto forest, and many more.

The best part has been the countless comments I’ve heard from them about how it benefited them, and the countless ways in which it has benefited me. It’s an irony that creative types like writers who require frequent isolation to do their work are often the most gregarious, outgoing people you’ll ever meet.

Journalists need meaningful interactions with and the support of colleagues. Without it, we risk going adrift.

At the Society for Environmental Journalists’ (SEJ) annual conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2019. From left: Sarah Sax, Genevieve Belmaker and Christopher Lett. Sax and Lett were both part of Mongabay’s pilot mentorship program. Image courtesy of Parimal Rohit.

Expanding boundaries, choosing words

As soon as I was in a rhythm with assigning and editing the reporter group, I started to think about how to improve our storytelling chops. How could we say more with fewer words? How could we report the ugly truths without cringing or glossing things over? How could we bring emotion into the reporting without undermining credibility? Most of all, how could we break out of our same-old perspectives and see things from a fresh angle?

I started to think about the lyrics of songs, particularly hip-hop and rap.

I wanted to find someone from the music world who could speak as a writer and reporter delivering news, information and context via a totally different channel than independent journalists.

With this in mind, I sought out a rapper, Tracey Lee, to talk with the reporters about writing. His new album, Expect the Unexpected, had been released in January 2019. One song, called “Smoke,” caught my attention one day when YouTube suggested I try it. The song begins with a 20-second clip of the unmistakable, richly layered sounds of a tropical rainforest. The lyrics of the song itself tell interwoven stories of life’s peaks, valleys, and injustices. It’s an age-old narrative delivered in a neatly worded package.

I got in touch with Lee, who agreed to have a chat with the journalist group about writing clearly, with a message. More than half a dozen journalists called in from all over the world.

During that call, Lee spoke about the art of choosing the fewest words to convey the most information. He explained how his genetic connections to the Congo helped inspire the song that had caught my attention initially. In a conversation with me, he expanded on his philosophy.

“When I’m writing I draw from their spirit,” Lee said in an interview. “It’s all about connection.”

His writing process has evolved over time. In the early days of his career, he rapped with the Notorious B.I.G., who was killed in 1997 and is still often noted for his rare ability to compose lyrics on the spot.

“I studied a lot of emcees over time, and Notorious B.I.G. was the most efficient emcee — he said more with less,” Lee said of the late superstar. “He had the uncanny ability to find words that fit within the pockets of the music.”

Lee is also an entertainment lawyer, and law school taught him to employ the tactic of writing in his head. He applied it to music.

“I would try to write my rhymes without writing them on a piece of paper,” he said, noting that “taking the paper out of it” significantly improved his muscle memory in the writing process.

“Journalists and hip-hop artists have a lot in common,” Lee said about the logic of giving writing advice to a bunch of environment and science reporters. “We are all trying to report the truth.”

Banner image: Approximately 90 percent of the workforce in this back-breaking trade of carrying fuelwood this way is women. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.

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