How Southerly is re-inventing environmental coverage of the South

Climate change is hitting the American South hard. 

Hurricanes slam Florida and the Carolinas with increasing regularity. Coal-dependent communities in Appalachia have struggled to shift to renewable energy. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow. 

But according to Lyndsey Gilpin, coverage in and about America’s southernmost states hasn’t been meeting the needs of the people on the frontlines of the crisis. 

That’s where Southerly comes in. Gilpin — a seasoned environmental reporter — started the independent, nonprofit online magazine in July 2018 to deliver in-depth climate change reporting that southern states deserve. 

But the site doesn’t just post original stories. It also helps local outlets strengthen their environmental reporting; hosts community-building events; and works with national outlets to bring nuance to their coverage of an oft-misunderstood region. 

And it does so with a one-person staff and modest resources. 

This week in Solution Set we’re taking a look at how Southerly grew from a newsletter to a full-fledged publication, how it’s staying afloat in a challenging media landscape, and how it approaches environmental coverage in a region with many political barriers to climate change conversation. 


This issue is the third and final installment in our series on how news organizations are covering the climate crisis. You can read my overview of the project here. And catch up on previous issues here


TLDR

The Challenge: With limited funding and a one-person staff, Southerly aims to publish in-depth, local climate-focused stories and improve the entire environmental news ecosystem in the South.

The Strategy: Founder Lyndsey Gilpin recruited a network of freelancers exclusively from the South to cover the South in an effort to combat “parachute journalism.” She also holds community-building events and has teamed up with both local and national outlets to produce reporting that fills gaps in climate coverage of the South. 

The Numbers: Southerly’s annual operating budget is $30,000, but Gilpin hopes to grow that to $200,000 by next May. Gilpin is Southerly’s one (unpaid) staff member. 

The Lessons: Southerly has focused its reporting on the real-world effects the region is already feeling rather than the political debate around the broader climate coverage. It’s also focused on regional coverage to add context to local stories. 

The Future: Gilpin plans to build out a more substantial membership program and would like to generate enough revenue to hire full-time correspondents.

Want to know more? Scroll down to read more about what Gilpin has learned from Southerly in The New York Times and CJR.


The Challenge

Gilpin is a native of Louisville, Kentucky — and she loves it so much so that she can’t stay away. She first moved westward to attend graduate school in Chicago and headed back to Louisville after graduation. She spent some time reporting on issues such as renewable energy before moving to Colorado in 2016 to work as a fellow at High Country News, covering climate change and public lands. 

“It was, obviously, during the 2016 election,” Gilpin said. “And I knew I always wanted to go home eventually, and report on Southern issues in some way. But the 2016 election sped it up because I was watching from afar as the media, mostly the national media, was branding the entire South, this huge, huge region that’s incredibly diverse, as ‘Trump country’ and blanketing it as at fault for Trump being elected.” 

So Gilpin moved back to Louisville, where she started writing about how people in the South interact with their environment. Her bylines have appeared in Vice, The Atlantic, Grist and more. 

That’s also when she started the Southerly newsletter. 

“I started writing an analysis every week on a particular topic. Sometimes it was sea-level rise, sometimes it was coal ash or energy policy,” she said. “And then curating really good local journalism — and some national journalism too — that I saw, and overlooked news stories that I that I thought no one was covering.”

Soon enough Gilpin was able to grow her newsletter following, gaining loyal subscribers who supported her through Patreon to start her own website.

Around the same time, Gilpin received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to produce a four-part multimedia series covering how the lack of wastewater infrastructure in Alabama has led to a rise in tropical poverty-related diseases, an issue exacerbated by climate change. To pull it off, she worked with the Montgomery Advertiser and a freelancer based in Alabama. (Disclosure: SJN has previously supported Solution Set.)

With the launch of that series, the online magazine Southerly was born. 

A year later, Gilpin is still going strong, publishing in-depth, investigative pieces by a network of Southern freelancers. And she’s also trying to strengthen the Southern environmental journalism ecosystem as a whole. 

“Besides the political reporting, for many, many decades, reporters have parachuted into the South after a hurricane hits, or after there’s some toxic waste spill or some issue with the coal industry, and they come in and report the story and leave,” Gilpin said. “That combined with the fact that there are so few reporters at local news outlets that are able to dedicate time to environmental issues, I saw a huge gap that needed to be filled.” 


The Strategy

With a small operating budget and a one-person staff, Southerly aims to strengthen local climate reporting, encourage civic engagement on environmental issues, connect audiences to outlets, and facilitate national coverage on the South. 

To achieve these goals, Gilpin collaborates with local news outlets throughout the South, rather than compete with them. Other outlets throughout the region are free to publish any of Southerly’s reporting. 

For example, Southerly published a story by a Virginia-based reporter about the decline of coal severance taxes in Appalachia, and how that disrupted worker healthcare, funding for law enforcement, and resources for public schools. Several newspapers reprinted the story. 

“Which to me is a huge, a huge success,” Gilpin said. “For them, they get content that they might not otherwise have the resources to report and for Southerly’s sake, it gets our stories in front of people that are dealing with these issues, so we’re not preaching to the choir online, for people who already know what’s going on with the decline of coal or climate change, but really getting the stories and the information in front of people who can do something about it and can use it to inform their decisions when voting.”

She also joins forces with local newsrooms to report on specific projects. Southerly reported on rural electric co-ops with Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news site covering Mississippi state government. Southerly also partnered with Climate Central and The Macon Telegraph, a local Georgia newspaper, on wildfire management in the state.

Another crucial part of Southerly’s mission is community engagement. Gilpin organizes public forums where residents can meet and talk to local reporters, community leaders, activists, and more. Southerly partnered with Alabama’s Montgomery Advertiser to report on wastewater treatment in the state’s Black Belt. Together, they gathered about 50 people for a community discussion in a rural town outside of Montgomery. 

“It wasn’t anything super novel…[but] I think it’s one of the first times that everyone had been in the same room to talk about it,” Gilpin said. “And that was sort of one of my goals is to do this reporting, but also be present in the places we’re reporting on that might not otherwise have access to these stories.” 

She is also in the process of working with Grist to cross-publish stories about the South. 


The Numbers

Southerly’s annual operating budget is $30,000. It has received grants in excess of $1,000 from SJN, the Even T Collinsworth Jr. Memorial Fund, the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and the PEN America Foundation.

Gilpin hopes to raise $200,000, which will allow it to cover its operating costs, by May 2020. 

Southerly has one staff member: Gilpin. (But at this time, she’s also taking on other freelance gigs to help pay the bills.) However, it has published stories from many freelancers. 

The site receives more than $1,300 in monthly support from donors on Patreon. Monthly donations grew 450% from January 2018 to January 2019, but it’s hoping to move to a new platform. 

The Southerly newsletter, which launched the project, has more than 5,000 subscribers and a nearly 40% average open rate. 


The Lessons

• Hold power to account by focusing on the effects: The climate crisis is in the background of every story Southerly publishes, Gilipin said. Though that emphasis is always there, she doesn’t want to over emphasize it.

“It doesn’t serve Southerly or readers that are adverse to that conversation to sort of beat them over the head with, ‘Look, its climate change. And that’s why you’re suffering,’” Gilpin said.

Instead, Gilpin tries to focus her coverage on issues people are already talking about. Coal miners in Appalachia, for instance, are understandably concerned about their futures. She said there’s a growing recognition that coal jobs aren’t coming back and an increasing awareness of how the industry is impacting the climate.

“In Appalachia in particular — I keep bringing this up because I’m from Kentucky — but a lot of miners and former miners would love an alternative, would love a job in a different industry,” she said. “But that’s not something politicians talk about. And that’s not something that the media typically reports on, when it comes to town. And there’s just a lot of a lot of rumblings and I think that the sort of larger narrative is missing in this region. And the people we need to hold to the account are the politicians and the industries in power. And I think that’s where the focus needs to be more than that people that are confused and misinformed and misled by the people in power.”

By showing the real-world impact of climate change, news organizations can provide actionable information to their audiences, which can help them implement solutions or make decisions.

• Regional coverage adds context: The South is already seeing the impacts of climate change, and it continues to be one of the most at-risk regions in the United States.

Gilpin believes that Southerly’s regional approach to reporting on the climate crisis can help add context for local readers.

“One of the biggest problems I see in media coverage of this region is oftentimes it’s reported in isolation. A lot of people in Appalachia might think that they’re alone in their fight against pollution of their land and water from the coal industry or chemical industry, and may not see because the media is not covering it in this way, that people along the Gulf Coast or outside of New Orleans are facing the same issues with the oil and gas industry or the chemical industry down there,” she said. “And so one of the biggest goals with these collaborations and also with our regional focus is to connect the dots between those places and show that this region is incredibly diverse and obviously there are there are many ways that environmental issues and climate change are manifesting throughout the South.”

By expanding the lens of local coverage, journalists can help their audiences achieve a deeper understanding of the challenges their communities are facing and also offer potential solutions from other areas.

• Treat your freelancers well: Gilpin is a freelancer. In fact, she’s still freelancing for other outlets so she can afford to keep Southerly afloat.

But because of her background, she’s made treating writers well a cornerstone of Southerly’s strategy.

Southerly pays $500 for a story up to 1,000 words and $750 for a 1,200 to 1,600-word story.

“I really believe that to build a sustainable publication that is trying to report properly and accurately on these places, the work being done internally in Southerly has to reflect that,” Gilpin said. “I can’t pay as high as I want to pay still. But I think that paying above average, that was a no brainer for me. Because people deserve more money than what they’re typically making freelancing and especially people who, like I said, are trying to reach a wide swath of writers, I think being paid better than a lot of other places makes them want to pitch Southerly.”

One of the reasons Gilpin can afford to do this is because she isn’t paying herself at the moment, but by making a commitment to paying well, it is easier to attract and retain more diverse writers.


The Future

While Southerly has been sustained mostly through small-dollar donations and some initial grants, Gilipin said she needs to secure more substantial funding and build out a more robust membership program in order to continue to grow. 

Gilpin plans to lean into the site’s environmental focus and has already started discussions with funders who focus more on the environment, not journalism.  

“That’s sort of an advantage that Southerly has because of our niche covering the environment, that foundations that are already funding those things and also want to get into journalism or democracy,” she said. “I think that’s a really good avenue.”

The expanded funding would allow Southerly to pursue additional audience engagement events, host workshops for emerging journalists, or even produce some kind of print magazine. Ultimately, Gilpin’s goal is to serve audiences that aren’t typically receiving in-depth local climate coverage.

“I think that in doing and sort of growing in that way, that’ll make the audience wider and reach more people that otherwise aren’t being reached,” she said. 


Want to know more? 

• Last November, Gilpin wrote an essay for CJR about the lessons she’d learned covering the environment in the South. 

• The New York Times opinion section featured Southerly as one of “a group of forward-thinking, upstart journals and websites are exploding the stereotypes so many attach to this place and its people.”

• Last year, we covered how another organization — 100 Days in Appalachia — is trying to change the narrative of its region through strong local reporting. 


Anything to add?

This is the last issue of our climate change series, but we’re continuing to collect resources to help newsrooms better cover the defining crisis of our time.

We’ve been compiling the list in this Google Sheet. Is there anything we’re missing? What else should we include? Let us know.

See you next week!


Photo of the Blue Ridge Mountains by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which publications Southerly had partnered with and how much it pays for freelance stories.