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February 16, 2023

Climate journalism ‘aspirational’ for new reporters, says Carbon Brief editor Leo Hickman

Leo Hickman explains how Carbon Brief built an audience beyond the climate wonks.

By Bron Maher

Climate change may be a depressing prospect for many, but it has become one of the most popular specialist areas for aspiring journalists, according to Carbon Brief’s editor Leo Hickman.

Press Gazette sat down with Hickman to hear about Carbon Brief’s philanthropic funding model, why it is pondering paid content and how it is coping with news avoidance (listen to the discussion in Press Gazette’s podcast here).

Founded in 2010, Carbon Brief is an un-paywalled, digital-only publisher covering energy and climate science and policy. In December the publisher’s policy editor, Simon Evans, won the energy and environment journalism prize at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. According to Similarweb, it attracts around 300,000 unique visitors a month from around the world.

The site has grown quickly in the last two years, growing from around eight staff to nearly 20. It is entirely funded by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), which it says provided it with £853,442 in the 2021 financial year. The ECF is funded by a variety of philanthropic foundations and advocates for action to tackle climate change.

“I think hopefully we’re a really good case study of how it can work,” Hickman told Press Gazette, “how that form of funding of journalism can produce highly trusted and respected and impactful public interest journalism. 

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“The relationship with the funding is really interesting. When I arrived at Carbon Brief, obviously, I had a very big question about – how does that work?”

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[Read more: UK journalism has received almost £80m in philanthropy since 2019 but US dominates donations for news]

The natural concern for any publisher with a single source of philanthropic funding is they may be vulnerable to editorial meddling. But Hickman said: “It’s been a really great relationship, in a way, because the funders know how important the trust and authority and respect of a publication is in terms of if it’s going to have impact through its journalism.

“So it makes sense for both parties to ensure there’s a very, very tight editorial firewall around our publication and around our team of journalists. Because it’s in both parties’ interests.

“It’s not in a funder’s interest to be interfering or asking questions or driving coverage, because readers are clever. The sniff test would quickly fail in terms of people working out whether journalism has been driven by that.”

When imagining those climate journalism readers, Hickman said Carbon Brief was thinking of “people who are, in some way, shape or form using this information in their professional lives.

“So it may be policymakers and their advisors, it may be academics, it may be NGOs and campaigners. And actually, very importantly, other journalists – other journalists are a very important audience for us.

“But we also have increasingly now what we describe as our halo audience – people who find our journalism through searches, social media, or whatever.”

Hickman said that two major events outside of Carbon Brief’s control increased the size of its lay audience.

“When Donald Trump was elected in late 2016 we suddenly found a big surge in visitors from North America. And it was effectively people just doing very, very simple Google searches, like ‘What is climate change?’ ‘Is it caused by humans?’ That kind of thing…

“And then in 2019, we saw another big surge [with] Greta Thunberg and the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. When all that mushroomed up and became this big social phenomenon, we found a lot of people – largely because Greta herself shared some of our content repeatedly on Instagram and Twitter – we found a lot of her followers and people coming towards our content.”

Whereas Carbon Brief had been producing its journalism thinking “of our audience being quite geeky or nerdy or kind of in the weeds enjoying the detail and the nuance of our journalism, we found these other audiences gravitating towards our content because they like our animations of data, or whatever it might be”.

And, unusually for a British outlet, Carbon Brief draws a bigger audience in the US than at home: “I can’t quite remember when the crossover point was, but I think it was about 2017 when, for the first time, we noticed that our audience was bigger in the US than in the UK. And it’s been that way ever since.”

Hickman says Carbon Brief is now looking at diversifying its revenue streams.

“There’s nothing to say we have to be forevermore only funded via philanthropy. Like all publications, it makes sense to diversify your funding and look at other forms of income. And I think we’re probably at that point now, where we’re beginning to look at that.”

[Read more: Full Fact looks to diversify funding as editor says ‘wave it in their faces’ model is working]

Carbon brief currently produces email newsletters and webinars in addition to its core website.

“They’re all free at the moment because we’re funded via philanthropy. But there’s nothing to stop us, perhaps, continuing to develop in that, and then maybe for some particular audiences, a revenue model around that – we could do some paid-for newsletters, for example, or do some bespoke content – I guess not a paywall so much, [but] some sort of membership scheme where you get additional content if you join the Carbon Brief-plus model.”

‘Glamorous’: Could Fergie’s hit 2007 single have been about climate journalism all along?

What does Hickman think of the state of climate journalism more generally?

“Generally, [in] the news reporting – the news pages of the new national newspapers – I think the UK has improved dramatically in terms of its reliability and accuracy and sort of fair coverage of climate science in particular.

“But the opinion pages, which obviously include the editorials, is still an incredibly mixed bag, to be honest.”

Last month Carbon Brief published an analysis showing a surge in 2022 for right-leaning newspapers’ support for fracking, alongside a dip in support for action on climate change.

[Read more: UK press embraced nuclear power and fracking over renewables in 2022]

But there had been other positive developments, Hickman said.

“I think a particular heartening trend is employment of journalists on this beat. That’s always a heartening trend, to see jobs being created or increased and boosted around this.”

More broadly Hickman said he was pleased by “the moving out of the ghettoisation, really, of climate.

“When I was writing for The Guardian 10/15 years ago, if you were a climate reporter – and I’m not sure anyone even self-described in that way at the time – you were a subset of the environmental reporters, who were a subset of the science beat, who were a subset of the news desk. You know, you were a pretty lonely operator if you were a climate reporter.

“Whereas now, and I think this is really interesting, watching the graduates coming out of journalism schools and colleges… to see how climate journalism is now aspirational. People want to do that coming out of college or uni or whatever, in the way that they [had previously] wanted to be a sports reporter or the foreign correspondent, all those perceived to be glamorous roles within journalism.

“Now people see climate journalism as, I would say, up there as being something they really aspire to do, because they know that it’s important, they know it has impact, it has global impact. And to be honest, every [part] of journalism these days, you can probably argue there is a climate angle to be found if you look hard enough.”

‘We will be covering this all century’

A major talking point among news organisations over the past year has been news avoidance – the trend, observed for example in the 2022 Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, of audiences turning away from news for some period of time because of its effect on their mood.

Carbon Brief deals almost exclusively with a subject many would view as gloomy. Did Hickman have any tips on reducing news avoidance?

“As a practising, working journalist, or a team of journalists, there’s almost, to be honest, a mental health issue around professionally working relentlessly, day in, day out, on a pretty profound and at times pretty depressing subject.

“And I think that that hasn’t really been discussed, generally, amongst the wider community of journalists. Particularly given there’s been an increase in people being assigned [to] and covering this beat.”

[Read more: Six charts that sum up the state of the global news industry in 2022 according to the Reuters Institute]

But Carbon Brief has an in-built resilience to news avoidance.

“We are a specialist publication and this is our specialism. So in a way, it’s not quite the same as being in a mainstream broadcaster or mainstream national newspaper where you’re competing against a whole range of other topics.”

He emphasised, though, that climate change coverage is not going away.

“We know, now – it’s already baked in – that we as journalists, or as a profession… will be covering this all this century. And there’ll be ups and downs, there’ll be new technologies developed, new leaders elected, new political cycles, all sorts of things going on. But I don’t think it’s a cliché to say it’s the story of the century…

“So it is very challenging, but I think it’s more challenging for mainstream media than it is for us. Because this is our domain. This is what we do every single day. We’re just trying to explain the latest developments as best we can.”

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