Last Thursday OnEarth published the kind of piece that harkens back to the old days of legacy journalism. Written by environmental writer Elizabeth Royte, the story, “An Accident Waiting to Happen,” chronicles the risks of transporting oil by train. The dangers of using the nation’s railways to move massive amounts of a volatile substance have been well documented, but Royte’s piece went beyond the headlines, sending her to northwestern Montana, where she narrated the concerns of the staff of Glacier National Park, who are bracing themselves for potential disaster from the crude bearing trains that roll through their rail system up to 10 times per week. At just under 3,000 words, the piece was thorough, lively and—extraordinarily—online-only.
Since a digital redesign last summer, OnEarth has been using its website to publish the kind of pieces usually reserved for the typically higher budgets granted in the print bubble. They’ve even coined a print term for the Web, designating their most substantial work with an “Online Cover Story” marker. Like a monthly magazine, the staff aim for one cover story per month, but because of the medium the number can shift with the news cycle, ambition, or timing. For example: Three have gone live, so far, in February.
OnEarth isn’t the first publication to push #longreads online. Digital-native sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed have hired longform editors and even science sites like The Verge have invested in narrative journalism. But OnEarth’s resources are distinctly old-school: Their reporters (who hold day jobs at places like The New Yorker) travel around the country to report these time-consuming, expensive works of environmental journalism, a field that insiders say is shrinking, for the internet, usually a locale with fewer resources to devote to these sorts of projects.
“Quite often we’ll decide what stories we want to do, then decide the best format for them,” wrote Scott Dodd, the magazine’s Web editor, in an email.
The editorial arm of the
National Natural Resources Defense Council, OnEarth’s unusual business model doesn’t prevent it from producing notable work (like a piece unearthing Susan Rice’s ties with the American tar sands industry, a discovery which raised questions about a potential Secretary of State nomination) and luring top environmental writers—names like Elizabeth Kolbert, Elizabeth Royte, Ted Genoways, and Jessica Benko. (Disclosure: I wrote a piece for the OnEarth website last spring.)
“Though obviously we do a lot of timely, rapid response news and analysis pieces online, too, we still consider deep-dive narrative journalism our signature thing,” wrote Dodd. The Web has provided ample space to publish complicated projects that wouldn’t fit in print, like this 13,000-word series on the Kalamazoo River tar sands spill. Dodd says that the long pieces have done well trafficwise for the site. “[It’s] in part because we work hard to promote it, and also because we’ve developed publishing partnerships with outlets like Mother Jones, Outside, Slate, and the Pacific Standard that syndicate some of our best work, so it reaches a larger audience.
Thinking about longform in a platform agnostic way allows OnEarth to move content between the magazine and the Web, depending on where it’s best suited. “Some are clearly print or digital from the beginning (something that relies heavily on great images will run in the magazine, because we have a much larger art budget there, while something that’s more timely or subject to news developments will go online because we can be more responsive), but there are even times when we’ve assigned something for the print magazine and then decided to run it online because it became more timely.”
Publishing long to digital also allows for an editing process that can adapt quickly to news pegs. Dodd and OnEarth articles editor Jeff Turrentine spent a few months slowly editing one of this month’s cover stories, “Putin’s Leopards,” a Bill Donahue piece unpacking Vladamir Putin’s leopard sanctuary as overplayed greenwashing, in advance of the Sochi Olympics. “Of course, on the day we were planning to run it, Putin actually visited the leopard sanctuary with the international media in tow,” wrote Dodd. The piece ran later that afternoon, with the press visit as a new lede.
“It was great serendipity, or great advance planning on our part, or actually a combination of both,” says Dodd.