Freelance environmental journalism: Going it alone and making it work
With little demand for environmental stories in Canadian mainstream publications, freelance journalist Stephen Leahy faced two options: Give up the beat, or find a new way to make ends meet. Paul Weinberg explains why the 20-year veteran chose the latter and how he is faring.
A committed freelance environmental journalist has discovered a way to cover important—and often unreported—stories and stay electronically in touch with readers without going through a mainstream media intermediary.
Not that Stephen Leahy had any choice in the matter, after finding fewer newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad buying his stories a few years ago. It was a problem he saw his American colleagues facing in their domestic market as well.
Based in Uxbridge, east of Toronto, he has also found himself one of the few Canadian reporters still covering international conferences where scientists convene over the latest findings on climate, resources depletion, weather, energy, conservation or other environmental issues.
It all came to a head at the 9th World Wilderness Congress (WWC), in Mérida, Yucatán, on November 6, 2009. Leahy and some other fellow freelance journalists —working for such outlets as Reuters and The New York Times—sat down feeling quite discouraged. Amidst them was the excitement of a weighty conference featuring the likes of high-profile scientist Jane Goodall.
These “highly motivated” journalistic veterans, recounts Leahy, could not sell a single story from this major conference to their traditional mainstream media outlets across North America.
“These guys were making no money. [Most] of us freelancers were making zero money. Fortunately, our hotel and flight costs were covered [by the conservation conference organizers] but we were not making money,” he recalls.
Leahy was the exception, having one regular client, alternative Rome-based global news agency Inter Press Service, which was still keen on receiving his latest story from the conservation meeting for its largely developing world audience.
Searching for alternatives
During that session in Mexico, Leahy and his fellow freelancers engaged in the kind of soul searching that one does when the writing is on the wall. Freelance work involving the covering of international scientific conferences for money had virtually dried up, and so most of these journalists specializing in the environmental were considering packing it in and opting instead for public relations work or a job in academia.
In fact, many of Leahy’s freelancer colleagues had had better contacts among the major buyers of environmental stories in the media during the good times—when the state of the climate and the planet’s fauna and flora was fashionable, he says. “If they could not make it, how was I supposed to make a go of it?”
Leahy had started covering the environment about 20 years by writing entirely for Canadian newspapers and magazines before expanding eventually into international outlets such as Inter Press, The Guardian, New Scientist, Audubon Magazine, Al Jazeera and National Geographic News Watch.
But in the last several years the environmentally-focused publications which had been his bread and butter had either disappeared or were (in the case of Audubon) coming out less frequently because of diminished advertising dollars.
Funding his way—with some help
Earning less freelance income meant that Leahy could not afford to attend as many of the international scientific conferences, which had been his major beat for years.
Rather than give up, Leahy was determined to prove that a market still exists for “independent” environmental journalism and he adopted a funding model to allow him to continue.
Leahy has asked his readers to defray his expenses from travelling and staying in the cities around the world where these international gatherings of scientists continue to meet. Each supporter is asked to send in $10 a month via PayPal or a credit card on his web site to help him continue his work in “community supported environmental journalism.”
“I made a commitment to people that obviously the money is going to be used strictly for journalistic purposes and to stay in touch with them,” he says.
Currently, Leahy has upwards of 300 readers who are offering financial support and feedback on his reporting.
Surprisingly enough, Leahy has not fully taken advantage of Twitter which could really expand his legion of supporters.
“I have been thinking about [social media]. Doing it right takes time. In fact I do spend a significant amount of time fundraising. One of the downsides [of this funding model],” he maintains.
Today, Leahy says he still generates an income below the poverty line. On the other hand, he lives frugally, with support from his long term spouse and family back home. “I don't have any debts,” he says simply.
Leahy’s funding model was unique at the start but other journalists including those new to the profession are taking a serious gander at doing something similar to financially support their work and in some cases get themselves established.
One of Leahy’s colleagues, for instance, is using an appeal to readers to raise close to $3,000 to pay for a six-week trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to research its internal conflicts for an upcoming book.
But Leahy, who is close to 60, says the toll of travelling to eight to ten international conferences annually (often resulting in being outside Canada close to five months a year) and sleeping on supporters’ couches has taken a physical toll on him in the past year.
“My ultimate hope is to have 10, 20 or 30 younger people doing something similar. I do get quite a few calls from journalism students from around the world and I always have time for them. Folks younger than me understand social media better and they can use it.”
Diminishing coverage of environmental issues
A perennially-losing candidate for the Green Party in federal elections for the Ontario constituency of Durham—where Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda holds the seat—Leahy has discovered among prospective voters “a hunger” for information on the environment.
“People are really concerned about environmental issues and the state of our democracy. And the second thing is they are so unaware of what is going on in the world, which I think is astonishing,” he says.
The blame for this comes from the disappearance of science issues from the general news programs, Leahy states. He cites as the latest manifestation of this trend—the recent cancellation of CBC News Network’s Connect with Mark Kelly. “It was one of the few sources [for the environment] on broadcast. This is a big blow.”
One of Leahy’s regrets is that with the exception of the alternative online site, Straightgoods.com (which reprints his IPS stories) his articles are largely published outside Canada.
“I started off in Canada, more than 20 years ago, writing 100 per cent for Canadian publications. I used to do weekly columns on environmental issues for daily newspapers that don't exist,” he said.
Leahy is one of those people who cannot imagine doing anything but journalism.
His funding model, he adds, “has enabled me to continue doing what I think is a pretty useful public service, providing people around the world with information about the important environmental issues.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Leahy had been interviewed on Connect with Mark Kelly a couple of times. Though he had been asked to appear, due to scheduling changes or bumps, Leahy has never actually been interviewed on the show.