Media Tips with Saul Elbein: Freelancing into the Expanding Global Environmental Beat
Saul Elbein is a freelance journalist from Texas, whose interest in people and the environment has led him close and far from home. Elbein has traveled to Cuero, Texas, Peru, the Philippines and Guatemala, among many places, and written for outlets including The New York Times, Vox, The Texas Observer, and The New Republic. Q and A with Ally Bauer.
Q: Where did your interest in journalism start? What made you choose freelancing?
A: I always knew I wanted to be a writer; I think I’ve been both lucky and unlucky in that regard, in that I both always knew what I wanted to do, and that that thing is a difficult one that doesn’t pay well. More than anything else, I fell into journalism. When I was 12 I read this piece by Sebastian Junger in National Geographic Adventure, and it really opened up my sense of the possible. The fact that it was even in my house was a total fluke — my aunt and uncle, who were big outdoor junkies, had bought my family a subscription, which absolutely no one read. Except this piece was a profile of a commander in Afghan alliance fighting the Taliban, which ended up being sort of a capsule portrait of this beautiful and inaccessible part of Afghanistan, and of the generations-long war there.
And as far as why freelance — well, I fell into freelance in a sense, because during college I was writing for anyone I could, usually without pay. But my first serious internship in Texas was at a magazine, the Texas Observer, that paid its interns freelancer rates — $.50/word, pretty respectable for being 21 and having no real expenses. My first piece was 3000 words; $1500, and pretty much from then on I found I was highly motivated by the cash incentive in publishing stories.
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But I want to be clear about something else. I didn’t choose freelancing, exactly — I graduated from college in 2010, just after the crash, and … journalism was in free fall. The old financial model of journalism — the paper provides content that attracts a readership, then sells companies advertising to target that readership — was falling apart, and few of the new innovative big data/web visualization/new media projects had really gotten off the ground. And all the magazines and papers were just hemorrhaging jobs. So the truth is, I didn’t really have a choice — there were jobs, but not a lot of them, and they weren’t stable.
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Q: How did your passion and interest in environmental issues develop? Is this what you always thought you were interested in reporting on?
A: It was coincidence as much as character. I grew up running around the urban creeks in Dallas and Atlanta with my little brother, hiking with my family on weekends, and between those experiences — going on expeditions to “nature” and seeing the wildness that remained in the center of the city — I started to develop this kind of idiosyncratic relationship with the nonhuman world around me.
I felt like there was this really vibrant, living world that surrounded us in the city, and it was just so strange to me that it was treated as essentially irrelevant. My little brother (himself a very talented writer and journalist) would come back from the creek by our house in Dallas with tales of having seen beavers, or carrying an actual snapping turtle. And so I guess I never much cared about “the environment” or “nature” in the abstract but I cared about urban snapping turtles, and it didn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see a connection between the pollution in their house, which was a creek around the block from mine, and the pollution in mine.
That said, I never planned to be an environmental reporter, inasmuch as that’s what I am now; I always thought that beat was exceedingly boring. Very “worthy” or “precious,” as people sometimes say — it’s like it was this high-minded stuff you were supposed to be reading about but never much wanted to. Like getting dragged out on a hike by your way-too-chipper friends. No fun.
But then fracking and the pipelines came to Texas, and suddenly here was real environmental conflict of the sort that (I had learned during some backpacking trips to Latin America in the 2000s) the rest of the world had long had to deal with. Fracking made me really physically angry; it felt like a personal assault on the land I loved and had grown up on. And as I reported on it in Texas, it really surprised me how many people I met who, though we belonged to different political tribes, we really agreed on that sense of loss and insult when we saw a frack rig going up on the prairie.
Q: How do you see environmental journalism evolving?
A: I hope it’s going to disappear, or — to say the same thing in a different way — that it will expand to swallow the rest of journalism. Ally, I think we’re in the very early stages of what they call, in evolutionary terms, a bottleneck: as climate chaos increases and the world continues to shift, all life on earth is going to get stampeded through a very narrow passageway. Most of us are not going to make it through.
What that means for reporting is that areas previously seen as “environmental” — soil health, water quality, pollution, carbon sequestration, crop health — are going to take on a lot more relevance than they did previously; “nature” is just not going to be able to be seen as separate anymore from the rest of economic, cultural, or political life.
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Q: How did you go about planning and preparing for your international travel? Is there anything you did not do that you wish you had done before you left?
A: Okay, so this is the iron-hard rule of journalism, and of probably all business: she who pays the piper calls the tune.
The absolute most important thing I’ve done on almost all of my trips is secure funding — it is much easier for a publication to agree to pay for a piece, and even kick in some money to cover expenses, if (1) you can give them the sense of a project that is already well underway, and where (2) they won’t have to pick up the check for your expenses (though they will still pay your fee.)
I did a lot of this through the Pulitzer Center, but there are an absolute ton of resources for journalists to cover expenses on public-interest projects, especially if they’re solutions focused. And if you’re reporting around the Southwest and Mountain West — which is a great place with amazing stories that don’t get covered enough — then your expenses should be relatively low, i.e. you can do a lot of reporting on a little number of grant dollars, which is the sort of thing that makes funders very happy, and that therefore makes grant-funders inclined to give you more money in the future.
In conjunction with that, under the current model, you have to find a publisher, who generally pays for the work itself if not the expenses. (Publishers do pay expenses, but less and less these days.) Sometimes things don’t work out with the publisher, the piece gets killed, they pay you a kill fee, and then (and this is what happened with my Cambodia story that ran in Vice, and the Philippines story that ran in California Sunday) you can sometimes then rework it and resell it to somebody else.
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So what that means is (1) you need, ultimately, whether you go freelance or staff, a well-curated network of editors or publishers — and I mean people you like, not publications, because publications fold but friendships last — who you get along with and who like your work and help you grow and will fight for you, and (2) that there is a huge opportunity for those who can figure out a way to get around the we-get-paid-by-publications-owned-by-billionaires-and-funded-by-ads model of journalism, say by self-publishing on Medium, building a following, and crowdfunding, say. I suspect that the more we all understand Internet marketing, the less we are dependent on publications to pay our rent.
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Q: What are your ethical values when it comes to reporting?
Saul: This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. On the one hand, I think journalists can be really precious about the work they do and about what a calling it is, and what ethics we have. And yet on the other hand, for at least a century the business purpose of journalism has been, to repeat what I said above, to get a bunch of like-minded people together so that advertisers can show them ads. The fact that advertisers now have way better technology to find people is the specific reason why journalism is in such trouble; I think the disinterest that working journalists have taken toward the economics of the industry is the more general reason.
Traditionally, you know, the reporting and business sides of newspapers and magazines and broadcasting companies are totally separated, and people don’t have much to do with each other, and kind of look down on each other. And there’s a lot of benefit in that — the idea is that there’s a firewall between sponsors and coverage — but it also means that the news side can stop asking the crucial design questions of (as above) … Why are we making what we’re making and … What do the people we want to reach want from us and … How are we going to support ourselves in doing it? I think in some measure the current market difficulties of the media industry come from generations of not really asking that question, because ad sales were good.
So — all of that is a roundabout way of saying that I think the responsibility of a journalist is the same as the responsibility of a carpenter or architect: you have to make things that are honest, beautiful, and useful.
When I write a story, my responsibility is to distill the sense and use of that experience fairly, skillfully, and honestly for all the people who weren’t able to go on that journey themselves. On a micro level, that means that the reporting has to check out, and I have to go against some of my own biases, and make sure everyone got a chance to speak their piece; on a macro level, it means that the piece is structurally sound, honest, hangs together, knows what it is trying to do, and does it without ego or show.
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Q: What are your views on objectivity in journalism?
A: Personally, I’ve never much cared for that “objectivity” style of journalism, to the extent it even exists anymore, because I think it is boring and fundamentally dishonest. I much prefer people who have a point of view — as everyone does — but who are honest, self-critical, and self-aware about it. I grew up in Dallas listening to conservative talk radio, and I really loved it, even though I disagreed with those guys on everything; I liked that, tendentious blowhards though they mostly were, I knew where they stood. And I knew, too, that they cared about entertaining me as a listener; they did not take me for granted. There is an ethics in this as well.
Contrast that to the New York Times, which is so careful to be measured that they generally don’t say much that is interesting at all. There’s no better proof of that than this epic climate change piece that ran as a full issue in the Times’ Magazine last year. It is a masterful example of a journalist who sees a global, dramatic issue — and sidesteps most of what makes that issue compelling, because he has to, because this is the New York Times’ core thing, tell a ‘balanced, objective’ story. He spends the whole piece portraying as reasonable and wanting to take action on climate — and then ends up sort of waving his hands at the fact that the energy industry has been enormously successful, largely with the unintentional collusion of “objective” media, in preventing any such action.
But then in a sense all this is old news — objectivity journalism isn’t doing so well. It’s pretty much just the Times and the Post and the Boston Globe; a few regional conglomerates. All the startups are really voicey, opinionated outlets like Vox and Huffington Post and Vice and Buzzfeed and Current Affairs and The Intercept and (on the other side) Breitbart and The Daily Caller. I think in some sense the consensus on this has just shifted a lot; I don’t know that many people that talk about objectivity anymore as being the standard to aspire to.
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Q: What have you found most challenging while writing internationally/cross culturally?
A: I am six foot two and white-passing (although my family is Jewish, which gives us a strange relationship with whiteness) and I often report in places like Southeast Asia or Latin America where most people … do not look that way. That means that I have to set them at ease pretty quickly, and also just to accept that I’m going to be a figure of curiosity a lot of places I go, and to try and leverage that.
The biggest thing you can do for yourself in this regard, if you want to report from cultures and languages outside your own, is to find ones that you fall in love with. Find a land, a cuisine, a music, a set of stories, that speaks to you and whispers to you with the promise of a long period of discovery. That’s essential because there is a world of things to write about, but motivation and attention are fleeting, and when you’re in love it is much less trouble to motivate yourself. Progress happens by magic.
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Q: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a career in international reporting and environmental reporting?
A: Journalism/reporting are in a lot of ways products like any other: they require inputs, they cost money to make, and they have to be sold. People tend to forget this, and I think that is part of why the business is in such disarray.
As a journalist, your body is a sort of factory which stews together all that you experience and spits out stories and insights. This process happens almost automatically — that is, you don’t have to worry about “how do I get ideas” — as long as you’re willing to (1) learn how to see and listen, (2) put yourself where the story is, which will often, especially as you get experienced, be where intuition takes you, and (3) capture what you find there, by writing or recording, and (4) go through it and reflect on it.
Do all that, in a constant churn, and stories will pour out. A lot of people like to treat journalism like this really cerebral enterprise where you’re sitting in your house Coming Up With Ideas. No. Make a habit of feeding your brain, give it a creative outlet, and it will make a habit of rewarding you with good ideas.
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Q: Any final tips to prepare for an international / cross-cultural journalism career?
A: Travel as much as you can, even if it’s close to home. Put yourself in uncomfortable — though not traumatic — situations to build resilience. Acquire outdoor skills if you don’t have them — they’ll make you useful in the field, which (though this is not the reason to do it) can impresses sources and colleagues. Do hard things, but don’t be a martyr — know what your capacity is and don’t throw yourself into experiences you don’t want to have just because you think you ought to. PTSD is real, even for those who will never be in a gunfight; it’s also very treatable.
And if you want to do this business, treat it as a business — this is much easier said than done, but find ways to make it work for you financially. Look for like-minded colleagues and collaborators. Use the privilege of youth to build relationships and ask people for advice.
And above all — write. Larry McMurtry suggests five pages a day, double spaced, (about 1250 words) on some actual active writing project. I can’t claim to keep to that — I can say, though, when I’m writing a lot, like a couple thousand words a day, everything else in my life seems to fall into focus.