When it was founded in 1999, Grist was an outlier. It was one of the earliest nonprofit, online-only publications and it also prioritized coverage of the climate at a time when it was not a mainstream priority.
Yesterday, in his inaugural address, President Joe Biden said, “The cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that cannot be any more desperate or any more clear.” And one of the first acts of his presidency was to recommit the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Times have changed, and Grist has changed with them.
As the climate crisis has become more pronounced, Grist has worked to deepen its coverage for its core audience while broadening its reach beyond those whose main cause is the environment — especially as we will start to hear a lot more about climate action from the new administration.
“Our capacity to look more intersectionality at different themes and issues, whether it is immigration or race or economy, has really deepened and I think that is a niche that we really see ourselves carving out as a brand,” Grist CEO Brady Piñero Walkinshaw told me.
This week in Solution Set we are looking at Grist’s approach to climate coverage, its focus on different audiences, how it is trying to build a membership program.
Here is the TLDR:
• The Challenge: Grist has focused on building its audience among people who both view climate change as a core issue and those who are less interested in the topic.
• The Strategy: With a focus on solutions-oriented coverage, Grist has tried to make its climate and environment coverage interesting and accessible to different audiences.
• The Numbers: The bulk of Grist’s revenue comes from major donors and foundations, but it is growing its membership program and now has about 5,000 members.
• The Lessons: By taking an intersectional approach to reporting on climate change and considering the needs of all readers, Grist is able to expand its reach past those whose main concern is environmental issues.
• The Future: Grist is planning to re-launch its site in early March and rebrand in an effort to boost awareness for its organization and target a broader audience.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to read some additional interviews with Grist CEO Brady Piñero Walkinshaw.
• Anything to add?: Scroll for a quick update on what is next for Solution Set.
Founded in 1999, Grist is an independent, nonprofit news organization that covers climate and sustainability topics such as clean energy and environmental justice.
Within that broad coverage area, Grist focuses on serving three distinct audiences, CEO Brady Piñero Walkinshaw told me:
- Those who think of climate as their top issue.
- Those who care about the climate, but not as their main focus.
- Those who do not see the importance of climate issues.
Grist tries to approach each of those groups with distinct reporting that will meet their needs and bring them back on a regular basis.
For engaged readers who care deeply about the environment, Grist needs to be hyper-relevant in its reporting with detailed, nuanced coverage that supplies solutions.
Walkinshaw labeled the second audience segment as “climate curious” since these readers are aware that climate change is a real and important issue, but do not yet see it as an intersectional issue or necessarily their top area of focus.
The third audience Grist reaches is smaller, but consists of readers who do not see climate as an important issue. Grist wants to engage this group more, communicate with them about their viewpoints, and make the reporting relevant to them.
As it grows, Grist has worked not only to identify those different audience cohorts but to deepen relationships with them and create products that keep them coming back — while ultimately getting some of them to pay as members.
Walkinshaw joined Grist in 2017, and since then the site has focused on growing its reach while deepening its relationships with those audience groups to build out a membership program.
“As we grow our impact and our scale I think there are a lot of opportunities to grow our membership base” Walkinshaw shared.
For its core audience, the first segment of readers for whom climate is the most important issue, Grist focuses on how their reporting can not only inform this group but encourage and provide solutions for climate action to this audience that really wants to create change.
“I think in that way it is thinking about how we can embolden this base with solutions that are bold as well” Walkinshaw explained.
Some projects that Grist has focused on in order to help create solutions in the area of climate action include Fix, its initiative for solution-oriented reporting, which has recently covered topics such as the Indigenous ‘landback’ movement and how data and food science could help save the planet. It also publishes Grist 50, an annual selection of the most innovative green influencers.
Grist has also started a podcast recently called Temperature Check, with the goal of exploring the connection between climate, race, and culture.
The site hopes these products not only appeal to its most loyal readers but also grow the “climate curious” audience by making the topic more accessible and relatable.
To grow its overall audience, and the third group that is not typically interested in the environment, Grist will produce coverage such as a connection between COVID-19 and pollution in low income areas, that appeals to a wider readership while also partnering with other organizations to expand its reach. (More on Grist’s partnership strategy in The Lessons.)
“We started running some of our video content through The Weather Channel which is reaching a much, much bigger audience” Walkinshaw explained while speaking about how this third segment will not often find Grist organically.
Grist prides itself in its ability to find connections between the environment and issues such as race, politics, COVID-19, and the economy, and believes that this specific area of reporting is what helps its coverage standout, and builds loyalty.
“Our capacity to look more intersectionality at different themes and issues, whether it is immigration or race or economy, has really deepened and I think that is a niche that we really see ourselves carving out as a brand” Walkinshaw shared.
As Grist has focused on expanding its coverage areas in recent years, its revenue has grown as well.
In its 2020 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, it generated $6.6 million in revenue, with 92% coming from major donors and foundations. That is an increase from $3.2 million in revenue in 2017. (According to its tax filings, Grist brought in $11.8 million in its 2019 fiscal year, but much of that was from a series of multi-year grants that had to be reported in the first year.)
With about 5,000 members, membership accounted for 4% of total revenue. The rest came from earned income and sponsorships.
Grist has a staff of 50 people across the United States, and its team has grown as its added new products and focused on new coverage areas.
Focus on Solutions: Though he knows that Grist is not the main news source for many people, Walkinshaw understands the importance of the site’s reporting to its core audience. (For example, it published a story this week on how the attack on the U.S. Capitol “shattered the myth of public lands.”)
Walkinshaw explained that Grist’s focus on its core coverage areas is really two-fold.
“One it is solutions, so how is it that Grist can be shining a light forward through our reporting and journalism work on the solutions that are going to get us to a better and more just future?,” he said. “And then, relatively, how can we also help show and educate and engage our audience that climate is an intersectional issue and one touches on all these different facets of life?”
Grist reports from the perspective that climate change is a dire threat to our society and the planet. Walkinshaw explained that more than 20 years ago when it started, Grist’s emphasis on climate action was unique, but many major publications have recently begun emphasizing this issue more. He referenced that some, including The Guardian, have even begun using the term climate crisis instead of climate change in the past few years.
Even though it is wonderful that climate issues are becoming a more popular topic of reporting, challenges still arise when running a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source focused on climate change, since this topic has become very political over the past few years.
Walkinshaw said he believes Grist’s reporting can be relevant to all political parties while explaining that even some Republicans have been included as members of the Grist 50 for their work in the environmental field.
“I think we have really lifted up perspectives across the aisle when it has come to different climate solutions” Walkinshaw explains.
Grist says its mantra is “Don’t freak out. Figure it out.” Given the current state of the world, it has become easy to fall into the mindset that there is no chance of recovering and to, therefore, give up hope in finding a solution to certain issues such as climate change.
Optimize for organic growth: News organizations of all sizes often experiment with a mix of paid and organic audience acquisition, and Grist is no exception.
Grist has experimented with different strategies, but it has come to realize that while organic growth is more difficult, it is worth it in the long run because members are likely to be retained for longer.
Walkinshaw said Grist had tried a few paid email acquisition drives in the past — its 2019 financial disclosure form says that it spent $75,000 to acquire email lists — but those members often do not renew year-to-year. Grist hopes to continue experimenting with this acquisition strategy, while focusing on being more specific with its targeting.
Grist is focused on defining its brand proposition, delivering consistent coverage, and building out successful email newsletters to attract readers into the audience engagement funnel. (More on this in The Future.)
Organic members who find an organization themselves are more likely to stay with that organization longer, so Walkinshaw said that building your brand is extremely crucial to draw those long-time members.
Collaborate for more impact: Last September, Grist published a deeply reported investigative story on sugarcane burning in South Florida and its effects on air quality, which was linked to adverse health outcomes, including an impact on COVID-19 patients. The practice disproportionately affects communities of color.
The story explored the effects of sugarcane burning on communities in Florida and included vivid descriptions of students walking to school with “trash bags over their heads to protect themselves from falling ash.” With stunning photography, engaging graphics, and a comprehensive online presentation, Grist presented the story in a way you would expect for a big-swing story.
However, Grist had another approach to drawing attention to the story: It shared it with the Miami Herald, which republished the article in full.
This collaboration allowed it to reach a much broader audience, and it allowed Grist to reach an audience of local South Florida readers who did not set out to find out more about environmental issues but were engaged with an issue that is impacting their community.
Walkinshaw explained that Grist’s success with partnerships comes from writing stories concerning specific communities, and then finding local publications in those communities to partner with. Walkinshaw said that most of these story specific partnerships come from Grist bringing “national expertise to local partnerships.”
Great investigative work and moving writing can allow readers to feel drawn to a topic, such as environmental and human rights issues, but by allowing others to republish the work and share it with targeted audiences, outlets can expand their impact.
For years, Walkinshaw said that the narrative around climate change has been in a doom and gloom space, but he explains that when finding the solutions “you see these really interesting points of light and I do think that story is the story that we want to be telling.”
That will continue to be key for the future of Grist.
Early March, Grist is planning to launch a rebrand of its website as part of its continued effort to reach a broader audience.
“I think that we have changed a lot internally over the last three-four years. I think the amount of product and content we are putting out has tripled and I think we are doing a lot more deep form investigative and explanatory work… but I still think our brand awareness is very low” Walkinshaw said.
This relaunch will include a refresh to the website, giving it a new look and feel, as well as an editorial focus on climate justice and solutions. Walkinshaw also said Grist plans to use more data visualizations to enhance user experience on the site, as displayed in the layout of a recent on Trump’s climate legacy.
Last June, Grist acquired the assets of Pacific Standard, a magazine that closed in 2019 due to a withdrawal of funding. Pacific Standard is known for its history of reporting on race issues and social justice.
While the assets are in a public trust, Grist was approached to become the nonprofit home of these assets. For now, it is just maintaining the archives, but Grist is looking for ways to continue Pacific Standard’s mission.
“I think it adds a new lens to social and economic justice whereas Grist has had a strong lens around environmental justice so I think there are ways that it might expand the intersectional focus,” Walkinshaw shares as he explains Grist’s plan to test publishing under the Pacific Standard brand.
Want to know more?
• In fall 2019 we published a series of stories in Solution Set about how local newsrooms are tackling the climate crisis. Catch up on that series here.
• 2020 was the hottest year on record despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Columbia Journalism Review highlighted how newsrooms — including Grist — are reporting on the intersection of climate and the pandemic.
• Walkinshaw also spoke last year about Grist’s plans with The Idea, Atlantic Media’s media newsletter.
• For more details on Grist’s work with Pacific Standard’s archives, here is a good Axios story.
• ONA20 also recently published a piece on the 5 takeaways from Bringing Climate Change and Solutions Home to Your Audience.
Anything to add?
Hey — this is Joseph again. I want to share a quick update on what’s next for this newsletter. As my role at The Lenfest Institute has evolved, I’ve no longer been able to maintain the weekly schedule we initiated when we began publishing in 2018. And just before the holidays I sent out a short survey to ask what you would find valuable in this space — thanks for your thoughtful feedback.
So here’s where we’re going from here: We’re going to publish Solution Set on a biweekly basis. We’re going to continue to report case studies like we have in the past, but we’re also going to more proactively curate new research and resources — like we did earlier this month with our list of guides to covering the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol — and we’ll also republish worthwhile coverage from partners.
As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions, thoughts, or story ideas. You can email me or find me on Twitter at @ylichterman.
Thank you for being a part of this community, and we’ll see you in a couple weeks!
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