There’s new vigor at the 108-year-old National Audubon Society, a nonprofit environmental group focused on birds, which is in the process of rolling out a more cohesive, mission-driven strategy for the 21st century.
On Tuesday, the society announced that it had hired industry vet Mark Jannot to run its award-winning magazine, Audubon, and revamp its content and communication strategy. Among other things, that will mean merging the society and magazine websites, building a stronger social media presence, and launching new digital products. But the changes actually run much deeper.
According to David Yarnold, the society’s president and CEO since 2010, Jannot’s hiring was the end of the first phase of Audubon’s “reinvention,” which began 32 months ago with the creation of “the first original, conservation-focused strategic plan” in more than 20 years. The goal is to unify the organization’s 22 state offices, 47 nature centers, and 465 chapters nationwide, in pursuit of the society’s mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.”
“We’d never had a shared vision,” Yarnold explained, “and in its absence what you had was a set of terrific, but disconnected, state programs, and no common sense of purpose. So there was no way to drive large-scale conservation. No way to work with the big conservation funders. No way to have the kind of conservation impact at the scale that’s needed to meet the environmental threats that we face.”
The strategic plan, “Roadmap for Hemispheric Conservation,” runs through 2015 and aligns the society’s work along the four major flyways of the Americas: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. Audubon projects that the effort will save 64 bird species and conserve 118 million acres of natural habitat.
The society is scrapping a few things, like education programs that do not serve its conservation agenda and small-scale federal invasive species policy work. But a key part of the plan is to beef up public engagement.
A lot of what Audubon plans to do, such as merging the magazine and society websites and developing a centralized suite of digital products, isn’t terribly new, Yarnold conceded. “We all know that the big change over the last 20 years has been the emergence of cross-platform journalism,” he said. “Audubon somehow missed that wave and this is our chance to leapfrog everything that’s happened and stitch it all together in brilliant new ways.”
Last year, for example, the society launched its first digital newsletter, Wingspan, which is available in a national edition or in editions tailored to each of the four flyways. But it will be Jannot, who starts May 13, that does most of the stitching.
It’s too early to share specifics, but like Yarnold, Jannot’s goal is to unite the society’s vast network, which includes 4 million people reached through its state offices, nature centers, and local chapters, 1.8 million readers of the magazine, and more than 100,000 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.
“What I want to do,” he said, “is create a really well-integrated content strategy where all our platforms are working together—magazine, unified website, social media, mobile—to engage the audience, to inform them, and to energize them in support of the Audubon Society’s mission.”
Though he admits he’s not yet a dedicated birder, in one way or another, Jannot has focused on environmental issues for most of his career. In the late 90s, he was a senior editor at Men’s Journal for two years and the executive editor of National Geographic Adventure for four years. From 2004 to 2012, he was editor-in-chief of Popular Science and during the last three of those years, he was editorial director of the Bonnier group, which owns Popular Science and number of other magazines. During that time, he led the development of Bonnier’s Mag+ tablet-publishing platform and launched a custom-built iPad edition of Popular Science called Popular Science+.
Last May, Jannot left Bonnier to take an ill-fated job as the chief content officer at Reader’s Digest Association, overseeing titles such as Taste of Home, Birds & Blooms, and Farm & Ranch Living. The company did not have the resources to back up the grand plan it envisioned, however, and Jannot left last September.
With total revenues of $89.9 million in 2012, Audubon is on surer footing. But one of the things that most attracted Jannot to the society was the opportunity to get away from the world of profit-driven publishing.
“After spending a lot of time at various places working on a content-for-commerce business models, I’m really excited about being at a place where we can develop and implement a content-for-mission model,” he said. “I love making money, and obviously it’s necessary to do that, but it’s not much of a guiding philosophy for figuring out how to produce and deliver content.”
The content-in-service-of-mission policy would seem to bode well for the magazine, where David Seideman will remain editor-in-chief, a position he’s held since 2000. Seideman didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he has long used the magazine as a “bully pulpit” for advocating Audubon’s core values.
“This oil spill is our Iraq War,” he told me in 2010, following the publication of a special issue on the impact of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s a very big story because we’ve done a lot of work along the Mississippi Gulf. It’s one of the most important bird areas in the country and one of the most environmentally rich areas on Earth. So, we have deep roots in that part of the country… this is our beat.”
Hopefully, Audubon readers will begin to see even more of that type of dogged reporting on an even wider variety of platforms.
“I intend to double down on enterprise investigations and serious journalism,” Jannot said. “Far from backing away from anything like that, I think it’s critically important. When you’re building a content strategy where you’re asking people to pay for what you’re doing, or you’re using your content to build engagement and membership, you need to deliver stuff that they can’t get elsewhere.”
However, a major part of the plan is to begin producing more user-generated content as well, Jannot added. Once again, from blogs to photos, the idea is to make Audubon members, in addition to more general fans, feel like they’re contributing to a national community working in concert for the greater good.