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?

DM: It’s hard to say. I’m not a psychologist. But I think just the act of asking a question piques the interest of the person who sees the question and then he or she wants to know the answer. You know, that sounds kind of simple, but maybe it’s that. But it is certainly a proven format, as we know from all the columns that have been in papers over the years, from “Ann Landers” to “Hints from Heloise,” and what have you. EarthTalk grew out of the magazine itself, which has a Q&A in the back that we originally called “Ask E,” and we renamed it, for mainstream consumption, “EarthTalk.”

But prior to that, I actually sold the idea to United Media and we originally had it out there under the name of “Green Living.” And they got it into about 21 major dailies. Of course, the newspapers were paying for it, but when 9/11 happened, they started canceling a lot of their paid content — we were assured that it was nothing to do with us — and it got down to about seven papers. And since we had ratcheted up our workflow from three questions and answers in E every two months to 18 every two months, we just decided it wasn’t worth it. So we got out of that deal and we decided, hey, why don’t we just sell syndicated. And let’s offer it for free, we don’t care about the money; the promotional value is really more. And I was just flabbergasted when I first sent out a promotion — we signed up a couple hundred papers right off the bat. I had said to myself, if we get up to 20, like United Media, that’s the threshold, but we far exceeded it and it’s continued from there.

CB: The majority of your questions and answers are consumer-oriented, but some deal with topics like carbon sequestration and waste-to-energy plants in a more general framework. What kind of balance do you aim for — and is timeliness important?

DM: Well, people ask the questions, you know. We take liberties with how we edit them because sometimes people will ask sort of long, rambling questions and they’re not relevant enough. We pare them down and focus them a little bit more. When it comes time to decide what to run we definitely consider timeliness. Last year, prior to the Christmas season, we ran something about whether to buy a fake or real Christmas tree. You know, we try to be somewhat seasonal about it.

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