Career Choice: Abandon Journalism for Public Relations or….?

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Freelancer Stephen Leahy on crowdfunding his environmental journalism

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, (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

Climate Change B.S. Detector: Sorting Fact from Fiction

which makes more sense sml

By Stephen Leahy

Uxbridge Cosmos, Feb 2013

There is quite a bit of misinformation about climate science and climate change (global warming). This is the most important issue of our time but it can be a complex subject. Here are some tips to help sort fact from fiction based on my experience of writing about science and climate change for the past 15 years.

Tip #1: Consider the source

It’s important to know where the information is coming from. Are they an expert or someone with an impressive looking website but no climate science training? No one goes to an engineer if they want their appendix removed.

If someone says a group of retired NASA scientists claim there is no evidence carbon dioxide causes global warming, I check to see if they are climate scientists — they’re not. Then I go to the official NASA website and in a big headline it says: “97% of climate sciences agree” climate change is happening.  This is followed by a long list of well-regarded scientific societies from around the world who also agree.

Tip#2 Verify

A reader once sent me a link to a “science” article from Investor’s Business Daily that said increased activity of the sun was entirely responsible for the current warming according to the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, a well-known research centre in Germany. A quick check of the Max Planck Institute’s website revealed their actual conclusion: “Solar activity affects the climate but plays only a minor role in the current global warming.”

Tip#3 Brush up on some science

Our atmosphere traps and retains the suns heat which is called the greenhouse effect. Without this the Earth would be more like the moon: +100C in the day and -170C at night. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that helps keep the planet warm by retaining some of the sun’s heat.  John Tyndall proved this 150 years ago in 1861. In the last 100 years our burning of oil, gas and coal has added 40% more CO2 to the atmosphere. That extra CO2 has warmed the planet 0.8C globally and 1.5C to 2.0C in Canada so far.

Tip # 4: Follow the money

Ask this question who has the most to gain or lose? Climate scientist’s largely rely on getting research money from governments. Scientists are smart people who are good with numbers so if they just wanted to make money they’d be working on Bay St or Wall St.

On the other hand the oil, coal and gas companies represent by far the richest industry in human history. In 2010 their revenues were estimated to be $5 trillion, far more than Canada’s $1.7 trillion gross domestic product (GDP) that year. (A trillion is one thousand billion. A trillion seconds is nearly 32,000 years).

The five biggest oil companies made a record $137 billion in profits in 2011. Surprisingly Canada’s largely foreign-owned oil and gas industry still receives $1.3 billion a year in public subsidies despite many promises to end this taxpayer handout.abyess cartoon 2012Toon05

Some fossil fuel companies have been caught sowing confusion and doubt about climate change just like the tobacco companies did regarding the link between smoking and lung cancer. Fossil fuel interests fund organizations that look official or science-based and they publish reports, write opinion pieces or do media interviews stating that global warming is a hoax and there is no real need to burn less oil, gas or coal. One of these organizations is Canada’s Friends of Science and its related site ClimateChange101 that received funding from Calgary oil company Talisman Energy to put out false and long-debunked critiques of climate science.

Here’s two of the best sources I use to help me sort fact from fiction:

For climate science go to “Skeptical Science”, a volunteer community with clearly written, rock solid science-based answers on climate.

For everything else go to “DeSmogBlog – Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science” . There is now a Canadian version “DeSmogCanada”  that I will be contributing to.

No one really wants to think about climate change and what it means for our children’s future. It is too difficult, too painful to even consider. But avoiding or denying global warming and its dangers prevents us from taking action to minimize future impacts. Inaction and delay are truly terrifying. However taking action at the personal, family and community levels is liberating and empowering. We need to start a conversation about this.

Uxbridge’s Stephen Leahy is the 2012 co-winner of the Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change reporting . He is the senior science and environment correspondent at IPS,  Inter Press Service News Agency, based in Rome. His work is also published in National Geographic, The Guardian (UK), New Scientist, Al Jazeera, Earth Island Journal and others.

Or Just Print This Cheat Sheet Will Help You Win Every Climate Argument (thanks to Mother Jones)climate-flowchart_FINAL2sml