Even as interest in all things food-related skyrockets, space devoted to serious food issues continues to lose out to the gastroporn of hot restaurants and hotter chefs. So last year, a group of fed-up food writers launched the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit that funds investigative journalism on matters of food, agriculture, and environmental health. Its first piece, on New Mexico’s dairy industry, was published last fall in High Country News; a second story, published on msnbc.com in January, explained how a drug designed to keep pigs lean is hurting US pork exports. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke with Sam Fromartz, FERN’s editor in chief.
Was it tough to convince funders that there was a need for this?
Seems like every time we met with a funder, another prominent environmental journalist was getting laid off. So it wasn’t difficult to make the case.
How does FERN work?
We’re not funding journalists; we’re commissioning stories. A lot of nonprofits will give you money and say, ‘Go work on something.’ The weakness with that model is that a journalist could spend a year and the stories wouldn’t run anywhere. We try to get a publication partner on board with the story from the inception. We’re not only bringing the story ideas and the writers, but we cover the research costs, the travel. We ask the publication to pay their usual writer’s fee, but we’ll even negotiate that.
How much can you pay for a single story?
If it’s a good story, we will pay whatever it takes to get it.
How many publications do you have relationships with?
Several. I don’t want to say which ones because it’s come up where a publication we’re working with is sensitive to the use of their name before the story is published.
A lot of food writers straddle the line between journalist and activist. Is that a problem?
Our goal is to be independent and produce stories without bias based on excellent, fact-based reporting. We don’t have an activist agenda. In some of our pieces, the writer will come to some conclusion. But it’s the writer’s conclusion, not ours.
Would you consider a story on, say, corruption at the Sierra Club?
Sounds like a juicy story to me. If it’s a good idea, I’m open to looking at it.Brent Cunningham is CJRs managing editor.