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Ten Questions with David Sassoon of InsideClimate News

David Sassoon is the founder and publisher of InsideClimate News, a 6-year-old news nonprofit that just won a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for a series, “The Dilbit Disaster.”

David Sassoon, founder of InsideClimate News

David Sassoon, founder of InsideClimate News

Sassoon and his staff conducted a 7-month investigation into an oil spill most Americans had never even heard of. In July 2010, more than 1 million gallons of oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River, resulting in the most expensive cleanup in U.S. history. The dilbit oil is the same kind that the Keystone XL Pipeline could someday carry.

InsideClimate News is a Web-based startup that does in-depth reporting on energy and climate change issues. The organization is primarily funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Marisla Foundation and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

1. Take me back to 2007. What prompted you to launch what was then called SolveClimate News?

Back in 2007 it looked like the country was getting ready to move toward national climate legislation. And we were very much attuned to the interest in the business community and the economic case for taking action. We also saw that the mainstream reporting on climate change was flawed. It was still reporting as if there was equal doubt about man-made global warming — when really on one side you had politics and the other side science, which was indisputable.

So we thought we should report the story from the ground of truth and model good environmental journalism, as well as bring the perspective and the news of the thinking in the business community especially. We wanted to bring this story out of the green bubble, so to speak.

The original name also reflects that reality. It looked like the nation was interested in solving climate change, and we wanted to be a part of that.

2. What was the most challenging aspect of getting off the ground?

The web was bewildering and seductive. We started as a blog and then found ourselves chasing traffic and looking for ways to get attention and readership. It took us several months to realize what we were doing wasn’t going to help us do what we wanted to do ultimately.

We decided we needed to be producing our own original work rather than derivative work, which we were doing by blogging. We also realized that we had designed a website that we couldn’t possibly fill and maintain. We really were learning about how to do this as we went. And there were just two of us initially. We were very ambitious, working 16 hours a day and waking up in the middle of the night to get things done. It was exciting and overwhelming.

But when we decided to steer our ship toward more investigative journalism, where we thought we wanted to be, we got more clarity, and things fell into place.

3. So, given this shift to more longform content, what do you see as the place of aggregation and blogging in media?

I think it’s useful. We learn a lot from blogs we read. It’s part of the national discussion. But we thought what we wanted to do was not react but create understanding and report on the complexity of things and also to fill in gaps in coverage.

The other thing that was happening at this time (in 2009) was massive newspaper closings and firings. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs and we were seeing the environmental beats and reporting go away.

So there was this parallel crisis. I was trained as a journalist, so I felt that we needed to do it. There was a void to fill.

4. Describe your business model and how you decided you would make money to stay sustainable and be able to carry out your mission?

The first thing we had to do was demonstrate that the work we were doing was needed and had an impact. The foundations were behind us but we had to demonstrate that it was useful activity. We were able to do that. We got a content partnership with Reuters, since they liked the work we were doing. This partnership gave us distribution. It was reach. It was impact. It was readers. It was legitimacy.

We also realized that as we kept going we weren’t going to be able to rely on foundations forever. So we figured the way in which we would be able to think about our revenue streams was to do really good work that got noticed. We thought from there we could leap frog to other revenue streams and over time rely less on the foundation money.

And that’s what’s happening now. We don’t have other revenue yet but we are looking at developing a couple of initiatives to attract money.

The foundations are happy right now. Winning a Pulitzer is the best validation we could give them for the importance of their investment.

We think we can attract corporate sponsorships. It’s not an advertising model. We’re thinking corporate responsibility. We’re developing a program to approach companies to say, ’Will you support us for a year?’ There will be a page where you can talk about your environmental initiatives, climate change initiatives, whatever and allow them to be good corporate citizens while supporting our journalism.

We’re working out the details of that and developing a plan to see if there’s interest. I think there will be. The other thing is we thought we should avoid the energy companies—both fossil fuels and clean energy – so there isn’t a conflict of interest. But I believe there are enough non-energy companies out there that want to support what we’re doing and demonstrate corporate responsibility.

5. At this point you have a staff of seven. How are all of the different responsibilities divided between such a small crew, and are you planning to grow that amount?

We have seven staff, and they wear about 25 hats.

There are two editors and four reporters and me. We need to diversity the staff so that we can do more business development. We intend to grow. We hope to be 20 people when we reach full scale, maybe 25 people. And that will be in the next two to three years. We need to raise money to do that. We think the need is there. There are actually a lot of stories and projects we want to do that we can’t because we’re spread too thin.

For example, last year we published a couple of e-books, and we’d like to do more of that. It could also develop into another revenue stream.

The titles are still current. There’s one about the Dilbit Disaster, which is what we won the Pulitzer for. And the other is about the German energy transformation, and is called “Clean Break.” And that one’s been selling even better (since the Pulitzer).

They’re stories about solutions. It’s quite a compelling story about a modern-day industrial economy.

6. Why should people care about the dilbit disaster?

It’s intimately connected to our future and our relationship to energy and climate change. We do not have a climate and energy policy in this country. And we don’t even have a proper debate happening. What we have instead is a situation where the fight has been forced to be around the Keystone Pipeline. It’s the only place where this discussion’s happening.

Our series on the dilbit disaster deepens the understanding of why this pipeline is so important. We went to Kalamazoo to report on the spill. It turns out the oil is a mysterious substance. It turns out it sinks to the bottom. Three years later, they’re still cleaning it up.

Once we were doing reporting on Kalamazoo we continued reporting on the pipeline network in this country, because what is happening is the flow of oil that used to go from the gulf to the Midwest has been reversed. And the infrastructure that is in place to do that is 50 years old. It’s a whole transformation that the oil industry is wanting to effect. And it’s happening without most people knowing about it. And this form of oil that’s coming from Canada is a very different animal and needs to be examined.

Our series reflects these larger climate and energy conversations that should and need to be happening.

7. What was the effort involved to make this series come to life?

Elizabeth McGowan (a reporter) went to Michigan and got there a year after the spill. It was a lot of reconstruction and finding people to tell us the story to make it come alive. We wanted to do a narrative to really make it compelling. Piecing together the story required a lot of hard work. And Susan White, the editor, was leading the charge and helping us tell the story.

Lisa Song, a young reporter who had a degree from MIT, came on board to help Elizabeth because she brought a science background so we could understand this mysterious oil better.

After that phase Dave Hasemyer (a reporter) came on board to report on what Enbridge was doing to expand that very same pipeline and how they were treating the community. Altogether we got a 360-degree view of what this was all about, but it took time.

It was well conceived by Susan and well directed. We started publishing in June, and we didn’t stop until December.

8. What do you know about your audience – who’s reading your work and how are they finding you?

We know we were being read by the climate and energy community that is really interested in the issue. That includes people on Capitol Hill, federal agencies, the EPA, policy makers, lobbyists, activists. And as importantly, we’ve always been read by media. A lot of the stories that we do find echo and influence, and we’ve been tracking that. We know we’re very well-read by an influential core of readers.

The general public, to some degree, reads us. But if you come to our site you really have to be interested to read lots of pipeline stories. One of the things we hope to do is to make our site more accessible.

Since we got the Pulitzer we have gotten a lot more widespread attention. The work we did has become common knowledge in the media world. We’ve wanted our work to be known, and we’re getting there.

Aside from our own site and publishing, we have content partnerships with companies like Bloomberg, McClatchy, The Guardian. Those partnerships have been the main way in which we were getting our stories out to a wider audience. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’ve always seen the traffic come to us. But we’re being accessed by a bigger audience.

We’re seeing a lot of people access our work through Twitter and Facebook. It’s kind of like an adjunct. They can get the summary there, and then they can come to us if something in particular grabs them and they want to learn more.

9. You have an office in Brooklyn. But otherwise your company is essentially a virtual one, spread out over the world. How do you manage a newsroom remotely, and should more outlets do away with centralized newsrooms?

Stacy Feldman, cofounder and managing editor, is in Tel Aviv. Susan White is in San Diego and we have reporters all over. So we’re awake most of the day. And, you know, there are challenges and advantages to this. I think, as we grow, we want to have a hub somewhere. But we will continue to be mostly virtual, because there’s nothing like having different reporters in different places. It also keeps costs down. We’ve been able to do our work very efficiently. And that may be one of the things that comes out of this, the notion that very important work can be done by small organizations that have focus and passion.

I still think legacy newsrooms are important. Some stories require going to court to get documents. You need the heft on some stories you’re doing.

10. If you had to distill it down, what does it take to do big-time journalism that makes a difference as a small organization?

We have limited resources, so we need to be nimble and smart. Because we are focused on climate and energy issues every day — and that’s all we do — we have a bit of an advantage. We’re experts in the journalism world in this area, which means we can be ahead of the curve. That’s how we’ve established our reputation. We see where the puck will be. And then get there. When there’s action there, we’re already in the midst of it.

That’s a function of our specialization, and we’ll continue to do that.

The prize is great validation and a big help to us to continue to grow and do what we’re doing. I don’t think it changes what we do. It just makes possible more things we’ve dreamed of doing.

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