“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?


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?


DM: Hmm. The best? I know we get an awful lot about hydrogen fuel cells and cars. People like to ask about cars. People are skeptical about hydrogen: “Where are we going to get all the water for fuel cells?” and “What are we going to do with all of the water that spews out of the tailpipe?” and “Isn’t hydrogen what exploded the Hindenburg?” — you know, stuff like that. I think they’re thoughtful questions. They’re the things that are on people’s minds — especially that Hindenburg thing. Hydrogen has that reputation, which is sort of unfair, because it wasn’t the hydrogen in the Hindenburg that started the fire; it was an oil-based skin that caused it. But I think that’s one of the big questions that people have on their minds when they think about fuel cells — they think about the Hindenburg.

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