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Sierra Magazine’s Editor In Chief, Jason Mark To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “Sierra Magazine Is The Campfire Around Which Sierra Club Members Can Gather.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

February 12, 2018

“Something that we think will have a long shelf life, that someone could pick up off their coffee table six months from the publication date; that’s probably going to find itself in print, more likely. And if our art department thinks it’s the kind of story that is really going to benefit from some really blowout photos, then it would also lend itself more toward print. You can do some great stuff with photos online, but I’m skeptical that you get the same kind of emotional resonance from readers who see that photo on the page.” Jason Mark…

Print brings people together. It’s the “campfire” of the particular community readers are interested in. At least, according to Sierra Magazine’s editor in chief, Jason Mark, it is. In the case of the Sierra Club and its accompanying print magazine, the “campfire” in mention is a publication that has, according to Jason, a circulation of around 695,000, which goes out to all members who are interested in receiving the magazine. And Jason added that the membership is growing, due in part to the current Washington administration and its views on conservation and preservation.

I spoke with Jason recently and we talked about the magazine that is an extension of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization that’s successes include protecting millions of acres of wilderness, helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. And that’s mission statement in part reads: to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources. The magazine upholds those values and ideals, while having its own voice on other issues that may become newsworthy or are important to the overall goals of the organization.

And Jason is a man who believes strongly in those same values, hoping to leave his daughter a much better world than she found, or at the very least, no worse. He’s also a man who believes in the powerful voice of print, whether in word or in image. He believes the print magazine is a strong tool that is used to spread the Sierra Club’s mission, and the online platforms are just as instrumental, and when used together can be an impactful combination that can make anyone stand up and take notice. Print Proud Digital Smart, and totally effective when it comes to environmental journalism.

So, I hope that you enjoy this glimpse into the world of advocacy journalism, covering topics that make a difference in all of our lives, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jason Mark, editor in chief, Sierra Magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On what he believes is the state of the environmental union one year after the presidential election: The state of our union is polluted, I think is the statement I saw from not just the Sierra Club, but a number of other groups. I say in talks that this is less about the state of the whole environmental union, but the state of environmental journalism. If I have the opportunity to talk to early career or inspiring environmental journalists, I say the bad news is that the environment is going to hell and the good news is that there is no shortage of stories to be told.

On what role he thinks the magazine plays in the “Hope Trumps Nope” resistance campaign: As the national magazine of the Sierra Club, we’re practicing advocacy journalism. So, we have a very clear point of view, and we would certainly never shy from being open about that point of view and being transparent with our readers about where we’re coming from. But it’s still journalism; we’re using the best practices of journalism in our actual fairness, accuracy, attention to detail, and verve of storytelling and writing, to communicate our point of view. To sound an alarm when it’s necessary, and to share good news when we have good news to share. So, I definitely think of us as a very Sierra Club metaphor, but Sierra Magazine is the campfire around which Sierra Club members can gather. It’s the only single communication that all Sierra Club members get.

On whether his job as editor in chief has gotten easier or harder overtime: I think it’s harder. It’s harder because of the increase we’ve seen in Sierra Club membership, and therefore in Sierra Magazine readership, just really in the past 14 months. We have 30 percent new member readers since the election. We always tell writers to write for the audience, and you have to know who your audience is. And our audience is shifting. I have this chunk of folks now who are long-time Sierra Club members, some are what we call life-members; they’ve been getting this magazine in one form or another for 20 – 40 years. They’ve been with us a long time. Then I have this new crop of people who are just coming in the door. So, it’s a challenge to try and balance the interests and the awareness level of those different audiences.

On whether he feels President Trump’s election helped to increase the Sierra Club’s memberships: The election of President Trump certainly increased a lot of Americans’ concern and awareness about environmental issues. So, did President Trump help the Sierra Club, in terms of helping the issues that we and our members care about? No, I think that’s pretty obvious. But did he in some way give us a new jolt of political power, in so far as members and constituents equal political power? Yes.

On how he and his team begin the editorial and curation process of choosing content, including covers: We have a standing weekly editorial meeting, in which we’re, of course, also making editorial decisions, curatorial decisions, across two main channels. There’s the print magazine, coming out six times per year and then there’s our online edition, which we’re shooting to have 10 original stories every week. But to stay focused on the print edition, two main things; one is we want to make sure that we have a balance across the range of issues that we believe should be or are of interest to the general environmentalist public. We’re not just covering environmental issues that the Sierra Club works on.

On whether there is a litmus test or some criteria that decides which stories are for print and which are for online: The biggest difference between print and online is going to be, like it is for many, timeline, urgency and turnaround. I mean, we’re long-lead media; a lot of stuff in the print edition is assigned out six to eight months in advance. It would be tight for us to turn something around in four months. We try to get people out into the field. We want reporters and journalists on the ground telling stories and that obviously requires travel time, cost, and all of that. So, if it’s more in the news, we’re just going to do it for online.

On whether he feels there’s more or less environmental information out there today, only on different platforms: That’s a really hard question. I’m a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and this has been a big topic within that community. We’ve seen a lot of layoffs, as you know, at daily newspapers. And some of those were people whose beats were the environment. I believe today’s environmental journalists’ largest category of membership is freelancers. There’s a lot of people doing this work, but they’re not getting a steady paycheck for it.

On being an author as well as an editor in chief and which he enjoys more, writing or editing: That’s a great question. I’m home today, and I’ve actually been home all of this week, working on a big story, so I definitely think of myself as a writer/editor. It uses different parts of your brain. I love to write and I think of myself as a writer. I guess at the end of the day, I sort of enjoy writing a little bit more, but I also love working with other writers. I love being able to work with a writer in collaboration, and the give and take and push and pull between editor and writer. Then to come out with a final product that is better than the original first draft that the writer turned in. I think it’s a wonderful process and I love being able to do that.

On anything he’d like to add: The one thing that I would add is there’s not that many of us, in this space at least, left standing. There’s still Audubon, and they do really great work; the nature conservancy has a nice thing they put out, but it’s a bit more like a newsletter. Really, Audubon and Sierra are some of the only at scale, national environmental magazines. And in a way, that’s a shame, but it’s also something of an opportunity for us.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I think it would be that I’m just trying to be an uncompromising, but still thoughtful voice for protecting and preserving the natural world. That’s really what I’m trying to do. To use writing, ideas, curation as we mentioned, to promote this idea that we have an obligation to leave the world at least as well as we found it. That’s why Sierra Magazine is a good fit for me; I really am motivated by the values that the Sierra Club has, and am also able to bring my particular skill set as a reporter/journalist/editor to advance those ideals.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Probably some combination that has to do with food. I’m standing in my garden talking to you, where I’ve got my winter garlic growing; chard, kale, lettuces, choy, fava beans. You would probably find me puttering around the garden and/or cooking from the garden, and/or hanging out with my daughter. Or hiking. Recently, we took our daughter, and a couple of other families with kids, right after work, and we headed up into the Oakland Hills and we hiked all of the kids a mile and a half and had a picnic out in the woods, where we could see to the west of us the sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge. And to the east of us the moon rising. So, if I can find a way to peel away from the office, you would probably find me hiking or birdwatching.

On what keeps him up at night: It really is worry and anxiety about the world I’m leaving my daughter. And thinking about what is this hot, crowded century going to look like for her. And how can I, again through this platform that I’m lucky enough to have, how can I do some bit of good to just make sure that it’s not as bad as the world I see.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jason Mark, editor in chief, Sierra Magazine.

Samir Husni: Can you describe for me the state of the environmental union one year after the presidential election?

Jason Mark: The state of our union is polluted, I think is the statement I saw from not just the Sierra Club, but a number of other groups. I say in talks that this is less about the state of the whole environmental union, but the state of environmental journalism. If I have the opportunity to talk to early career or inspiring environmental journalists, I say the bad news is that the environment is going to hell and the good news is that there is no shortage of stories to be told.

We’re obviously very busy. We’re trying to watchdog all of the things that are happening with the Trump administration. I wouldn’t want to shine anybody on, there’s no question that things are pretty grim right now in Washington.

When you look at the obvious attempt to physically dismantle the EPA, which I think is what EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is trying to do. When you look at the effort from the Interior Department to open up great swaths of public land to increase oil and gas drilling. When you look at the unprecedented rollback of national monuments we saw in December, with President Trump attempting to cut in half or more than half, to national monuments in Utah. And then just this month Secretary Zinke proposed to open up virtually all of the U.S. waters to offshore oil and gas drilling. You put all of this in the context of the fact that scientists tell us that time is increasingly limited to take action on reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions; the state of the environmental union is not good.

That being said, there are some encouraging trends outside of Washington. We’re seeing an increasing number of mayors stepping up to put in place plans to move their cities or their jurisdictions to 100 percent clean energy. We’re continuing to see, despite the antipathy from the Trump administration, a booming renewable energy sector; wind and solar efficiency, and even some gains around electric vehicles. So, there are conservation forces; there are other things that are pushing back against the Trump administration, but there’s no question that these are tough times.

Samir Husni: Yet, judging from the cover of your January/February issue, it seems that as an environmental journalist you’re still saying “Hope Trumps Nope.” What role do you think the magazine is playing to ensure that “Hope Trumps Nope?”

Jason Mark: As the national magazine of the Sierra Club, we’re practicing advocacy journalism. So, we have a very clear point of view, and we would certainly never shy from being open about that point of view and being transparent with our readers about where we’re coming from. But it’s still journalism; we’re using the best practices of journalism in our actual fairness, accuracy, attention to detail, and verve of storytelling and writing, to communicate our point of view. To sound an alarm when it’s necessary, and to share good news when we have good news to share.

Sierra Magazine does a number of things. Like any magazine, we want to entertain, delight and surprise our readers. And we’re also trying to inform them, and to activate and engage them. If we’re doing an “Ask Mr. Green” column, which is one of our most popular classic service journalism sections, where a former managing editor, Bob Schildgen, during the ‘90s era, wrote this little advice column for people who were concerned about the environment. The “Ask Mr. Green” is not going to have an urgent call to action; it’s more of a fun, kind of service journalism lifestyle section.

But if you look at a lot of our feature stories or some of the other more newsy dispatches in the magazine, we try as much as possible to align it with some ongoing campaign of the Sierra Club and push to action. So, you might ask where does the “hope” come from? We’re trying to share a story with our readers, grounded, of course, in the facts. And there’s a lot of reasons to be hopeful. Again, if you look at what’s going on outside of Washington.

The magazine really is trying to hit people at an inspirational level. And often that can happen with something as simple as photography. We put a pretty strong emphasis on having really strong, bold photographs in the magazine, kind of tapping into the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams’ DNA. Ansel was on the board of the Sierra Club for many, many years; his photography became iconic representations of wild America.

Some of the inspiration happens through the writing, but often it can happen through the photography or other ways which say: “Listen, there is this wonderful, wild world out there, this wonderful planet that we’re hoping to protect. This is a world we’re saving.” The magazine has played a role, not just on the entertainment and information levels, but also definitely on an inspirational level. We’re trying to give our readers a sense of being part of a larger community; a larger community of shared values and shared ideals. So, I definitely think of us as a very Sierra Club metaphor, but Sierra Magazine is the campfire around which Sierra Club members can gather.

It’s the only single communication that all Sierra Club members get. Not everybody is on the email list. A lot of people who are on our 3.4 million member email list don’t actually get the magazine. Those people have kind of opted in to different channels according to their interests. But everybody who is a dues-paying member gets the magazine. So, it’s a really important way for us, within our audience and within our community, to gather people six times per year around a single space.

Samir Husni: Is your job as an editor in chief, as a creator in chief, as a curator in chief; is it getting easier or harder to produce a magazine like Sierra Magazine?

Jason Mark: I think it’s harder. It’s harder because of the increase we’ve seen in Sierra Club membership, and therefore in Sierra Magazine readership, just really in the past 14 months. I was hired as editor in chief in October, 2015. And at that time our print run, and our print run aligns pretty closely with our paid circulation because, though we do have a newsstand presence, it’s pretty modest, we have very few copies that get pulled, almost everything gets read; so, our print run in October, 2015 was 535,000. And I think our March/April 2018 edition will have a print run of 695,000. That’s 160,000 new readers.

So, basically, we have 30 percent new member readers since the election. We always tell writers to write for the audience, and you have to know who your audience is. And our audience is shifting. I have this chunk of folks now who are long-time Sierra Club members, some are what we call life-members; they’ve been getting this magazine in one form or another for 20 – 40 years. They’ve been with us a long time.

Then I have this new crop of people who are just coming in the door. So, it’s a challenge to try and balance the interests and the awareness level of those different audiences. I should say that the Sierra Club has gotten more members than the magazine goes out to. We have had some who declined to get the magazine, and we pull out duplicates. So, if there are people who have gotten two memberships in one household, they only get one magazine. The Sierra Club’s total membership is close to 800,000. It’s around 700,000 who get the magazine. It’s challenging and I would say it’s harder, because we’ve got a lot of new people coming in the door and that’s exciting and it’s a huge opportunity, and yet, we’re trying to balance. We have a dark green readership and a light green readership. And I have to, as the curator in chief, appeal to all of them.

Samir Husni: Are you telling me that President Trump helped the Sierra Club by increasing membership?

Jason Mark: The election of President Trump certainly increased a lot of Americans’ concern and awareness about environmental issues. So, did President Trump help the Sierra Club, in terms of helping the issues that we and our members care about? No, I think that’s pretty obvious. But did he in some way give us a new jolt of political power, in so far as members and constituents equal political power? Yes.

Samir Husni: As we talk about the role of advocacy journalism and the role of environmental journalism; you mentioned in the beginning that there are a lot of stories, in fact, more than ever before. Describe that process for me. When you meet with your editorial team, how do you decide on cover stories, such as the “Hope Trumps Nope?” How do you begin that curation process?

Jason Mark: We have a standing weekly editorial meeting, in which we’re, of course, also making editorial decisions, curatorial decisions, across two main channels. There’s the print magazine, coming out six times per year and then there’s our online edition, which we’re shooting to have 10 original stories every week.

But to stay focused on the print edition, two main things; one is we want to make sure that we have a balance across the range of issues that we believe should be or are of interest to the general environmentalist public. We’re not just covering environmental issues that the Sierra Club works on.

This is a random example, I wasn’t actually at the magazine, but the lion that was shot in Africa by a dentist, that story became a very big deal. That’s the kind of thing that Sierra Club doesn’t really work on, wildlife conservation in Africa, but a story like that, that’s already in the news and it’s become of interest to the general environmentally-minded general public, we would cover it. We try to look across the range of environmental issues. There’s going to, of course, be climate and energy, public lands conservation, water, clean air, clean water, public health and environmental justice, wildlife; we’re looking across all those issues and making sure that, not necessarily every issue, but throughout the course of the year we’re touching on all of them. And we’re finding different stories, many from our network of freelancers, that are going to respond to those interests. So, that’s just kind of like topically. We’re trying to make sure that we hit all of the bases.

And then it’s about our tone. The environment can often be famously thought of as something of a depressing topic. And again, without trying to be Pollyannaish or kind of guild the facts, we do try to keep our eye out for stories that have an element of hope or optimism in them. And we try to balance out the three-alarm fire stories that are bad news with some good news stories. We try to balance heavy and light. Heavy, meaning it has politics, science; it’s going to be a deeper, meatier kind of story.

And we balance that with some things that are fun, some of our front of the book matter around the lifestyles stuff; our lifestyles guide. Some of the back of the book, personal essays, “Ask Mr. Green,” looking for our cultural coverage, books, films, TV, documentary speeches; just whatever it is that has some sort of environmental bent. It’s trying to make sure that we are delighting them, entertaining our readers as much as we’re kind of scaring the hell out of them.

Samir Husni: Do you have a litmus test or some criteria that decides between a great story for the print magazine and a great story for online?

Jason Mark: The biggest difference between print and online is going to be, like it is for many, timeline, urgency and turnaround. I mean, we’re long-lead media; a lot of stuff in the print edition is assigned out six to eight months in advance. It would be tight for us to turn something around in four months. We try to get people out into the field. We want reporters and journalists on the ground telling stories and that obviously requires travel time, cost, and all of that. So, if it’s more in the news, we’re just going to do it for online.

And I think it’s great to see some of the innovations that have happened in online, long-form storytelling. It’s hard to hold people’s attention online with a three or four thousand word story. You can do it sometimes and people will dive in, and obviously when we do the print-to-web migration, like when we post a story online, if it’s a 4,000 word cover story, we’ll still pull out all of the social media stops and put it out on our email list hard. But if we know it’s going to be a deeper, more complex story, that probably lends itself better to print versus web.

We’re trying to make sure that the stories in print have a longer shelf life. Something ideally longer than our two-month edition window; I think you can look at the Naomi Klein cover piece we ran as an example.

One thing that I was really proud of in this Jan./Feb. issue was this really talented freelance writer, Madeline Ostrander, who wrote a lovely piece from Minnesota, where she went to places that had voted for Trump, sharing the experience of Trump voters regarding climate change. That should have a six to eight month shelf life.

So, something that we think will have a long shelf life, that someone could pick up off their coffee table six months from the publication date; that’s probably going to find itself in print, more likely. And if our art department thinks it’s the kind of story that is really going to benefit from some really blowout photos, then it would also lend itself more toward print. You can do some great stuff with photos online, but I’m skeptical that you get the same kind of emotional resonance from readers who see that photo on the page.

Samir Husni: Do you feel the information regarding environmental journalism is less or more now, only with different platforms?

Jason Mark: That’s a really hard question. I’m a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and this has been a big topic within that community. We’ve seen a lot of layoffs, as you know, at daily newspapers. And some of those were people whose beats were the environment. I believe today’s environmental journalists’ largest category of membership is freelancers. There’s a lot of people doing this work, but they’re not getting a steady paycheck for it.

We’ve seen, at least online, and I’m trying to think about the whole media landscape; with some of the topnotch dailies, look at what The New York Times has done on their climate/environment team; they’ve really built it out. They’ve snapped up hot talent like Brad Plumer and Kendra Pierre-Louis. Look at what the Times is doing and the Washington Post is doing, and online magazines like Vox. You look at Mother Jones and their very strong environmental reporting; what I’m trying to say is that places that don’t have an environmental focus have very strong environmental reporting teams. And that’s great. So, I’m cautiously hopeful that the information is getting out there and that the issues are being covered.

Samir Husni: You’re also an author as well as an editor in chief, you wrote the book “Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.” Which do you enjoy more, writing or editing?

Jason Mark: That’s a great question. I’m home today, and I’ve actually been home all of this week, working on a big story, so I definitely think of myself as a writer/editor. It uses different parts of your brain. I love to write and I think of myself as a writer. I guess at the end of the day, I sort of enjoy writing a little bit more, but I also love working with other writers. I love being able to work with a writer in collaboration, and the give and take and push and pull between editor and writer. Then to come out with a final product that is better than the original first draft that the writer turned in. I think it’s a wonderful process and I love being able to do that.

Having spent time with freelancers, it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to give talented freelance writers and photographers work. If a good reporter is judged by the depth of the sources he/she cultivates, then a good editor is judged by the talent he/she cultivates. That’s what I think a lot of editors should do; it’s finding those writers and photographers and illustrators who are really talented, and getting them into your stable. I zip off an email at least once a week to some writer whose work I love. And I tell them how much I’d love it if they would pitch us some stories, or let’s think of some ideas together. And sometimes that pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, but once a week I’ll just write an email and in the subject line I’ll put “Fan letter from an editor,” and send it to someone whose work I really like. I love that process of trying to search out and cultivate talent.

Samir Husni: And in your search for the “Wild in the Age of Man,” did you find the wild?

Jason Mark: I did. The short answer is yes. There’s still a lot of wild out there, even what some are calling the “Anthropocene,” there’s still a lot of wild out there.

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Jason Mark: The one thing that I would add is there’s not that many of us, in this space at least, left standing. There’s still Audubon, and they do really great work; the nature conservancy has a nice thing they put out, but it’s a bit more like a newsletter. Really, Audubon and Sierra are some of the only at scale, national environmental magazines. And in a way, that’s a shame, but it’s also something of an opportunity for us.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) closed a wonderful magazine, onEarth, and that was a real shame. Greenpeace no longer has a magazine. There’s a magazine called Orion, which I love, but it has a pretty small circulation. So, I think that’s kind of our challenge and opportunity; there’s not a lot of other specialized, general interest magazines that are covering the environment.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Jason Mark: I think it would be that I’m just trying to be an uncompromising, but still thoughtful voice for protecting and preserving the natural world. That’s really what I’m trying to do. To use writing, ideas, curation as we mentioned, to promote this idea that we have an obligation to leave the world at least as well as we found it. That’s why Sierra Magazine is a good fit for me; I really am motivated by the values that the Sierra Club has, and am also able to bring my particular skill set as a reporter/journalist/editor to advance those ideals.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Jason Mark: Probably some combination that has to do with food. I’m standing in my garden talking to you, where I’ve got my winter garlic growing; chard, kale, lettuces, choy, fava beans. You would probably find me puttering around the garden and/or cooking from the garden, and/or hanging out with my daughter. Or hiking. Recently, we took our daughter, and a couple of other families with kids, right after work, and we headed up into the Oakland Hills and we hiked all of the kids a mile and a half and had a picnic out in the woods, where we could see to the west of us the sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge. And to the east of us the moon rising. So, if I can find a way to peel away from the office, you would probably find me hiking or birdwatching.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Jason Mark: It really is worry and anxiety about the world I’m leaving my daughter. And thinking about what is this hot, crowded century going to look like for her. And how can I, again through this platform that I’m lucky enough to have, how can I do some bit of good to just make sure that it’s not as bad as the world I see.

The occupational hazard of being an environmental journalist, and I think the same could be said for people who work in environmental sciences, is knowing too much. And knowing that, in fact, we are in a very tough predicament here. And the real thing that keeps me up at night is just seeing the real unresponsiveness that leads from the American political system. We see other countries wrapping their heads around these large, global environmental challenges, but the Trump administration is just sort of being willfully negligent, or willfully antagonistic.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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