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.


And earlier, when you said that most of the questions seem consumer-oriented, I would say that the balance is about 50/50. Maybe I should go back and check, but that’s what I really aim to do. I try to print one question every week that is more consumer-oriented and one that is a little more about overarching, somewhat more complicated topics. Quite honestly, a lot of the subscribing editors tend to fall back on the easier things that aren’t controversial, but sometimes they surprise me and they don’t. I think what we’re trying to do with the column is very much what we’re trying to do with E: we’re trying to define environmentalism for people. It used to be thought of as just the great outdoors, and it has been labeled tree-hugging and stuff like that, but environmentalism is quite a lot bigger than that. It boils down to public health and other very important things. So over the course of time, if you read E or EarthTalk, I think you get a really good sense of what it means to be an environmentalist, and about the relevancy of environmental issues.


CB: Because you’re trying to reach an audience that is not very familiar with environmental issues, the questions tend to be very basic. For example, “What defines a wetland?” What is the best question you’ve ever received, published or unpublished?

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