Community engagement through environmental news (and composting)

ecoRi.pngPROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — Frank Carini, a Boston native with an accent to match, has gone from sports writing to composting. He founded in September 2009 after spending twenty years at newspapers on the North Shore in Massachusetts, Cincinnati, and in Newport, Rhode Island.

“I was getting sick of the direction of where we were going,” he says. “Too much covering press releases and crap like that.”

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    • Reading progressive magazines like Mother Jones, he says, got him thinking about social justice and environmental issues that get short shrift in the mainstream media. So he left his job as news editor at the Newport Daily News to cover the environment.

      “I started realizing sports is fun, it’s a hobby, but it’s nothing: it’s the toy department,” he says. “I finally decided to bite the bullet and leave the comfort and well-paying job to do this.”

      He runs the site with his graphic designer wife and two writers–who, he emphasizes, “get paid peanuts.” They publish between five and seven stories each week on issues like local sustainability initiatives, land use, state environmental legislation, and agriculture.

      He says that he received one $5,000 grant from the The Harris and Frances Block Foundation Inc., and that the site generates about $10,000 a year in total revenue. He makes artisan cheese to help pay the bills.

      “We don’t have any kids,” he adds.

      Americans are increasingly interested in environmental issues and sustainable living. Carini acknowledges, however, that it’s a challenge to translate that demand into a sustainable business model.

      “When I first started out, I thought, I’ll have a staff of five or six people, pay them forty, fifty thousand a year,” he says. “Is that still possible? I don’t think so. But it’s a part-time job…I think it can be done on the side if people have other jobs. I think it can fill in the vacuum, the void caused by the layoffs at newspapers.”

      EcoRI has also branched out beyond environmental journalism, and now gets involved directly in sustainability efforts. In November 2010, Carini and other ecoRI volunteers collected sixty turkey carcasses to feed to pigs at local farms. They also accept compost at area farmers markets.

      “People were confused at first about who we were, and would ask us to do recycling,” he recalls. “I’d explain that we were a news organization. But we thought, ‘Hey, that’s a good way to meet people, and to get people who want to be involved that don’t want to be writers.”

      The composting and carcass recycling has, he says, attracted more readers and media attention than just covering environmental news ever would.

      “I think you have to offer more than just having stories, and be more engaged with your readers. Whether that means collecting compost or whatever that may be,” he says. “We’re a news organization first and foremost, but if we were just that, I’m not sure we would still be growing. No one would cover us if we were just an environmental and social justice news site. As soon as we started collecting turkey carcasses, they showed up.”

      While the site is growing, Carini says that the current readership is made up of the usual suspects: people who already care about the environment. Attracting readers beyond the green community will be, like attracting more revenue, a challenge.

      “We’re preaching to the choir at the moment. That’s the tough part,” says Carini.

      His brother, a Republican, reads and even comments on many articles.

      “Would he read it if I wasn’t his brother? I don’t think so.”

      Carini says the site gets 18,500 hits per month, and has a growing email list of 1,800 people.

      “I think we’ll succeed,” he says, pausing to correct himself. “We are succeeding.”

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Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.