“EarthTalk,” a weekly, syndicated, Q&A-style column about the environment, might seem a little earthy-crunchy at first. Its publisher, E — The Environment Magazine (circ. 50,000), has been around for 16 years, but it depends mostly on a loyal cadre of earth-friendly readers. That is why Editor Doug Moss is trying to reach all the eyes and ears he can with EarthTalk, which celebrated its three-year anniversary this month. Most of the column’s subscribers are “small, hometown” newspapers, he said, but bigger fish, including the Arizona Republic, the New York Times Co.’s About.com, and now the Newark Star-Ledger have also signed on. EarthTalk is also published in Spanish. Some papers print it regularly, some irregularly, Moss said, but the circulation of all the column’s subscribers now adds up to 37 million.


Curtis Brainard: Potentially, EarthTalk reaches a lot more people than the magazine. But most of them are outside the “choir” of environmentalists who read E. What are you trying to accomplish?


Doug Moss: As a non-profit magazine, we’re really don’t want to just preach to the choir. The magazine by nature does, and that is probably true of any so-called special interest magazine. The people that read E already sort of get it. They understand the issues and they use the magazine as a way to shore up their knowledge and commitment. They’re a lot more knowledgeable about the environment than the average person out there, and we want those subscribers as our base. But our real mission is, of course, to grow the environmental movement and reach well outside of that. … So the column turns up in papers out in the heartland. I’ve got tons of clips where you’ve got the church notices, and the bake sales, and the soccer scores, and then there’s this column running right next them that’s all about climate change and the spread of disease. Basically, we’re getting information to people who do not ordinarily subscribe to E, people who can therefore read about these issues in the newspapers they read everyday.


CB: Do you approach the reporting and writing of these EarthTalk pieces as you would approach a news article that would appear in the magazine, or elsewhere?


DM: Yeah, basically. You know, let’s face it; we are an advocacy magazine. But within that context I think it’s fair to say that we’re very even-handed and we write very accessibly. I used to tell writers when we started E: “Write for your mother, don’t use technical terms. If you’re going to write EPA, explain that it means Environmental Protection Agency first.” So we try to write in a way that’s not fluffy, or anything like that certainly, but that is still accessible. And then we always provide contacts at the end of the answers so that people can do more research. Whatever the topic might be, there are always environmental groups, or government agencies, or green companies that we can refer to at the end, so if people want to look further into it, they can.


CB: EarthTalk is a free service. Has its circulation boosted E’s advertising or subscriptions?


DM: It’s kind of hard to weigh. It’s not source-coded like a direct mail piece. We ask the editors, especially since it is free, to make sure that they credit us. In fact, I check up on them. I go on the Web and I sometimes find instances where the column is running and it doesn’t say that it is from E. So I email the editor and say, you know, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re giving this to you for free, and in exchange for not getting any money, we do want to get the promotion out of it.” We at least want our footer there, which says, if you have an environmental question, write us at this address, or go to that Web page. So, I saw our traffic increase on our Web site pretty steadily starting at the end of 2003, when we started EarthTalk. But I can’t say for 100 percent sure that it’s the column that is doing it all, because we do a lot of promotion of our articles through other means. I think EarthTalk has helped, but it’s not easy to measure, it’s just one of those things that you can’t put your finger on and quantify.


CB: I’ve noticed that most newspaper science sections and science magazines around the country include a regular Q&A. What is it about that format? Does it somehow rend environmental/science news more palatable or comprehensible?

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.