Freelancer Stephen Leahy on crowdfunding his environmental journalism

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 3.25.37 PM

 

by Rachel Sanders

Stephen Leahy was at a conservation conference in Mexico five years ago when the dire state of freelance journalism became clear to him. After the event, he spoke with several other freelancers, all of whom had received travel awards to attend the event. Most of them had not been able to sell a single story about the conference.

copenhagen-press-pass“These other freelancers were supremely experienced. The former bureau chief from Asia from the New York Times, the former chief of some bureau at Reuters AFP, all these guys had really impressive credentials. And they couldn’t sell any stories as freelancers,” Leahy told Story Board during a recent phone interview.

“And one of the big pronouncements there was the need to protect 50% of the planet. Which is a number that is outrageous and had never ever been uttered before. And I was like ‘wow that’s a really good story.’ But they couldn’t sell any stories. I was the only one who had sold two or three stories.”

Leahy, who is based in Uxbridge, Ontario, says that several of those journalists quit freelancing after this dismal experience. Some made the switch to PR. But he wasn’t prepared to give up.

“People say to me all the time ‘my God, this is amazing stuff, how come I never knew about these things?’ So people want it and I want to keep doing it. How do we make this happen? The only solution I could come up with was, well, they have to pay me directly. Publishers aren’t going to pay, and many of the places I write for can’t pay. Who benefits from this stuff, who wants to see it? The readers. And so why not ask them?”

Over the next few years, Leahy built up an email contact list. The members on his mailing list now number around a thousand. Once a week he sends out a newsletter with links to his most recent stories. Approximately 10% of his newsletters also include a direct pitch for financial support.

“When I first started it was probably a much higher percentage than that. It was probably 50% pitches included with these newsletters. Now it’s declined quite a bit because it’s been pretty stable and I’ve been getting lots of assignments so I haven’t needed it so much,” he said.

Leahy has been freelancing for 22 years. His work has been published in National Geographic, The Guardian, Vice Magazine, Al Jazeera, and The Toronto Star among many others. But with ad revenues dropping, and freelance budgets shrinking, the market is tighter than ever for environmental reporting. Leahy has succeeded in making up some of the income shortfall with crowdfunding. These days, reader contributions account for approximately 20 to 25% of his income.

Leahy believes that his funding model would work with any subject that people care passionately about. But he says it’s also vital that readers feel a connection to the writer in question.

“The subject’s one thing but you also have to want to see more stuff from this writer. It’s a relationship between reader and writer. It’s difficult to do, it takes a long time to build up that relationship. You have to know your audience, you have to build a relationship with them and there has to be some sense of reciprocity. In return for me doing my thing, you help me out. It’s an exchange,” he said.

Leahy int Tom Goldtooth sml - cancun march - renee leahy 2010

To build those relationships, Leahy has had to open up to his readers about his finances and his personal life.

“It’s hard to donate to a person you don’t really know. So I had to open up and explain the situation, the reality of freelancing. Sometimes you get $150 for a story you might have spent two weeks on. Any sensible person would not do that,” he said.

He has tried a number of different funding models – such as asking for weekly contributions and making project-based funding requests – but has found the most success by asking his readers for monthly contributions. And although only a small percentage of his readers offer him financial support, some support him in other ways.

“There are people who do not make financial contributions but they make information contributions or will help me out if I say ‘I’m going to X, Y, and Z to cover this subject. I can’t afford any hotels. Anybody know anyone who could let me stay at their place?’ And that worked out two or three years ago in Bonn, Germany to cover a UN climate meeting,” he said.

Though his published work covers weighty topics, Leahy says some of the most difficult writing he does is in his weekly email newsletters.

“The asking for money thing, of course, was difficult. But it was definitely as difficult to be open and more personable with other people. To be a real person, not just a byline. To say ‘yes I welcome your comments and ideas and I want to have a dialogue,” he said.

“I spend a lot of time editing my own stuff and thinking ‘I’ve got to get this into 200 words or less.’ Nobody wants more email spam, right? So it’s important to be really interesting every time, not just once in a while.”

Despite the difficulties involved in making a living as a freelancer, Leahy is committed to the career.

“You get to meet really interesting people,” he said.

“I had a corporate career for a few years and one of the reasons I gave it up is because I found the folks in the business community not particularly interesting. When I started freelancing, I started writing about farming and agriculture. And I thought ‘my God, farmers are way more interesting than these corporate CEOs. There’s much more to them.’”

And the people aren’t the only thing that Leahy finds interesting about freelancing.

“You get to learn all the time. And because I’ve been lucky enough to mostly write about what I’m interested in, it’s never boring. It’s never easy, but it’s never boring. And I get to choose not only what’s interesting but what I think is important,” he said.

“Freelancing allows you to use your time in the way you want to use it.”

You can contact Stephen Leahy through his website to join his mailing list or ask questions about his crowdfunding model. And you can find him on Twitter at @StephenLeahy.

Help Sustain Independent Environmental Journalism

Freelance environmental journalist Stephen Leahy: Going it alone and making it work

Stephen Leahy speaking at Toronto Climate March 2014
Stephen Leahy speaking at Toronto Climate March 2014

 

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.

[Published by the Canadian Journalism Project in 2012]

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 GuardianNew ScientistAudubon 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.

 

Help Sustain Independent Environmental Journalism

Keystone XL Pipeline Carbon Emissions Top 100 Million Tons a Year

The Keystone XL oil pipeline could put up to 110 million tons of additional climate-heating CO2 into the atmosphere every year for 50 years, according a study publishedSunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

If Keystone XL was a country, its 110 million tons of CO2 emissions would be comparable to those of the Czech Republic, Greece, and a number of other mid-sized European nations. And it could have a real shot at making the top 35 worst carbon polluting countries in the world.

The study notes that 110 million tons of CO2 is four times more emissions than the US State Department’s highest estimate for the controversial pipeline, which is currently undergoing an environmental review.

The State Department failed to account for the potential emissions from the increase in the global supply of oil, said study co-author Peter Erickson, a researcher with the US office of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an independent international research institute.

This new study is an update to an SEI working paper Motherboard reported on last December. At that time the estimated CO2 emissions from Keystone were 93 million tons, but that’s climbed higher with the benefit of updated information.

“This time it’s gone through the ringer of peer-review and is a far clearer and more direct version of the previous paper,” Erickson said in an interview. “It’s also generated a lot more media interest this time.”

The study shows how Keystone XL’s projected daily volume of 830,000 barrels of Canada’s bitumen oil could slightly lower oil prices on the global market and increase global consumption. More precisely, for every barrel of increased production, global oil consumption could increase by 0.6 barrels owing to the incremental decrease in global oil prices, Erickson said.

This finding is potentially crucial because of President Obama’s prior statement that he will only approve Keystone, “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The decision remains largely in Obama’s hands because Keystone XL crosses national borders. The current plan is for a 1,200-mile, 36-inch diameter pipe to be built from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. The $7 billion pipeline will bring tar sands bitumen from under the frozen forests and lakes of northern Alberta to the world market, and will help the region’s booming oil operations expand even further. XL is part of a larger 2,500-mile Keystone pipeline system that terminates on the Texas Gulf Coast and is owned and operated by energy company TransCanada.

In 2012, Obama rejected TransCanada’s application because the pipeline route was through Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills region. A few months later, TransCanada re-applied with a new pipeline route. The State Department is now doing an environmental review using energy consulting company Environmental Resources Management, which is expected to be completed next year.

Building more oil infrastructure is exactly the wrong thing to be doing when the world is struggling to reduce CO2 emissions. The SEI report pegs global investment in oil and gas infrastructure at $700 billion per year for the next 20 years, based on data from the International Energy Agency, along with considerable investment in coal.

That investment will only burn through our carbon budget faster than we are now. According to the IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook, which is one of the top energy reports annually, some two-thirds of our proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to avoid heating the planet by more than two degrees Celsius by 2050. That’s a threshold set by the US and other nations who have made climate change mitigation pledges.

However, SEI study co-author Michael Lazarus said last December that the CEOs, board members, bankers, and government officials who make the decisions to build new infrastructure won’t even talk about cutting back. “It seems to be off limits to talk about cutting back on fossil fuel extraction,” he said.

Presumably, these folks also aren’t talking about the disastrous environment all of us will be trapped in if we heat the planet by those two degrees and beyond. We can’t quit oil immediately because it will take time to build an alternative energy infrastructure. However, at this point it makes little environmental sense to build new pipelines like Keystone XL to increase access to tar sands bitumen, the world’s dirtiest form of oil.

Stop All Investments in Fossil Fuel Infrastructure or All Will Suffer IPCC warns

 

Carbon overload - have to stop expanding
Carbon overload – have to stop expanding

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 22 2014 (IPS) 

Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May.

This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the finalIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” — Professor Ottmar Edenhofer 

That report warned that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising far too fast, even with more than 650 billion dollars invested in renewable energy in the last three years. However, over the same time period even more money was invested in getting more fossil fuels out of the ground.

The latter investment is keeping humanity and the planet locked onto a devastating path of a global temperature increase of four to five degrees C, the IPCC’s Working Group III report warned.

Scientists and economists say that unlocking ourselves from disaster will require a massive reduction in emissions – between 40 percent and 70 percent – by midcentury. This is can be readily accomplished without inventing any new technology and at a reasonably low cost, reducing global economic growth by a comparatively tiny 0.06 percent.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, said at a press conference.

It does mean an end to investments in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure as the annual growth in CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal and gas must peak and decline in the next few years. The atmosphere already has 42 percent more CO2 than it did prior to 1800.

This extra CO2 is trapping more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms and extreme weather. And it will do so for the next 1,000 years since CO2 is a very durable molecule.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Edenhofer said.

Continue reading

Oil, Coal and Gas Industry Destroying Our Childrens’ Future

“moving aerial” of a bike sml

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 4 2013 (IPS)

Around the world, 2012 was the year of extreme weather, when we unequivocally learned that the fossil fuel energy that powers our societies is destroying them. Accepting this reality is the biggest challenge of the brand new year.

Re-engineering our societies and lifestyles to prosper on green alternatives is the penultimate challenge of this decade. There is no more important task for all of us to engage in because climate change affects everything from food to water availability.

A number of scientific analyses have demonstrated we already have the technology to re-engineer our society to thrive on green alternative energy. The newest of these was published Wednesday in the prestigious journal Nature. It plainly states that politics is the real barrier, not technology nor cost. (It is far cheaper to act than not.)

Keeping global warming to less than two degrees C is mainly dependent on “when countries will begin to take serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, according to the study “Probabilistic cost estimates for climate change mitigation”.

Climate change has already pushed global temperatures up 0.8 degrees C, with significant consequences. No climate scientist thinks two degrees C will be “safe”. Many countries, especially least-developed countries and small island states, want the global target to be less than 1.5C of heating. Even then large portions of the Arctic and Antarctic will continue to melt raising sea levels, albeit at a slower rate.

Delay in making the shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources will be very costly. Waiting until 2020 to curb global emissions will cost twice as much compared with peaking emissions by 2015, the Nature analysis shows.

Serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means 65 percent of current coal power plants will have to be shut down in the next decade or two, a previous Nature study reported by IPS shows.

US Fossil Emissions now and how much they need to decline

Instead of serious action, global emissions continue to break new records, rising about three percent per year. It appears 2012 will be about 52 gigatonnes (billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents). This is our annual climate scorecard, the most important number in human history. That number needs to fall to be between 41 and 47 gigatonnes (Gt) by 2020 to have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C of warming. Continue reading

The Bigger Canada’s Energy Sector Gets the Poorer People Become

By Stephen Leahy

Thu, 2013-03-21 05:00 DeSmog Canada

Blame Canada is a four part series revealing how Canada has become a wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah. For Part 1, click here. Part 2 here

Few are aware Canada’s GDP shot up from an average of $600 billion per year in the 1990s to more than $1.7 trillion in 2012. This near tripling of the GDP is largely due to fossil fuel investments and exports.

However not many Canadians are three times wealthier. For one thing GDP is only a measure economic activity. The other reason is that little of this new wealth stayed in Canada. And what did stay went to a small percentage of the population, worsening the gap between rich and poor.

One of the hallmarks of a “petro-state” is that while a country’s energy industry generates fantastic amounts of money, the bulk of its citizens remain poor. Nigeria is a good example. Canada’s poverty rates have skyrocketed in step with the growth of the energy sector. One Canadian child in seven now lives in poverty, according to the Conference Board of Canada, the country’s foremost independent research organization.

Income inequality increased faster than the US, with the rich getting richer and poor and middle class losing grounds over the past 15 to 20 years, the Conference Board also reported January 2013.

“Most of Canada’s increase in wealth went to the big shareholders in the resource industries,” says Daniel Drache, a political scientist at Toronto’s York University. “It mainly went to the elites.”

Full Story: http://desmog.ca/2013/03/20/blame-canada-part-3-bigger-canada-s-energy-sector-gets-poorer-people-become_

Canada Uses Foreign Aid to Promote Its Mining/Energy Sector

mining gaia

The absorption of Canada’s aid agency into the foreign affairs and international trade ministry has been widely condemned

By Stephen Leahy

Monday 25 March 2013 17.37 GMT theguardian.com

Following the unexpected announcement that the Canadian International Development Agency (Cida) will be folded into the ministry of foreign affairs and international trade, the Canadian government has made it clear there must be a direct return on its aid “investment”, primarily access to resources in other countries.

“It is a fundamental change. Canada is tying aid to its commercial interests. This is going to leave a bitter taste out there,” says Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada, which has received CIDA funding for more than a decade.

As Nutt acknowledges, all aid is politicised to some extent. But Canada has taken this to a new level. Civil society aid organisations working with CIDA are no longer aid delivery partners but sub-contractors, bidding on aid programmes and increasingly forced to work with the private sector, says Nutt.

“This puts Canadian aid organisations in ethical conflict. How can they criticise the actions of the mining companies they have to work with to get funding to help the poor?”

Cida’s fate has startled not only Canada’s foreign aid community but, by all accounts, Cida staff, who learned of the agency’s fate through the media.

The new department of foreign affairs, trade and development will continue to tackle poverty in developing countries with its $4.8 billion aid budget intact, the government said.

“This is Canadian money … Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit,” said international co-operation minister Julian Fantino last December, adding that Cida is working with the private sector to help Canada “maintain a global advantage”.

Full story