How Sierra Magazine, At 126 Years Old, Is Keeping ‘Environmental’ Journalism Fresh
Media coverage of the climate crisis has gone mainstream. While today many national and traditional news outlets are covering not only wide-ranging climate activism, but the harrowing repercussions of a planet (and its inhabitants) in peril, Sierra magazine has been on the frontlines of climate- and conservation-focused journalism since the late 1800s.
Jason Mark is the editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine, the renowned national publication distributed by the Sierra Club. Hired in 2015, he joined the editorial team to lead the magazine into a new generation of readers—and present it to a new generation of activists.
Following, Bioneers Senior Director of Programs and Research Teo Grossman chats with Jason Mark about the uptick of mainstream environmental media coverage, what it means for environmental activism as a whole, and how his over-100-year-old publication fits within the new media landscape.
TEO: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Sierra magazine?
JASON: Sierra magazine started out as the Sierra Club publishing in 1894. We’ve been around for a long time. The founding articles of the Sierra Club state that one of the foundational purposes of the organization was to publish authentic information about the Sierra Nevada and its environs. That’s what launched a quarterly magazine/newsletter just a couple of years after the organization began.
It’s really cool to go back and look at an old edition from the 1890s. It was a mix of science journalism from the Sierra Nevada and other alpine regions. There was a lot of stuff on the Cascades, around Mt. Rainier, about Muir’s travels to Alaska, as well as wild, largely intact ecosystems. It also incorporated adventure writing. Mountaineers and others would come back with their trail reports and send in their stories.
In the early 1900s, it became much more of a political publication as the Sierra Club engaged in its first major environmental battle, which was to prevent the construction of a dam in Yosemite National Park: Today, it’s called the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The publication stayed in a quarterly format until after World War II, when David Brower took over. Brower was a media and publishing pioneer, and he started to publish four color photography, which in the 1950s and 60s was really cutting edge. Most publications, even big national magazines, just had black-and-white photography. The photography was mostly of wild places, bringing in artists like Elliot Porter and Ansel Adams (of course mostly shot in black and white).
In the 1970s, the publication became the bi-monthly glossy magazine that we have today.
TEO: You took over as Editor-in-Chief in 2015. Did you have any plans going in, in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?
JASON: It’s a real privilege to edit this magazine with this long lineage. When I was hired, I had really clear marching orders from Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, and from the Board to bring the magazine into a new stage of evolution and to transform it into a 21st century magazine. What that means is to have a media enterprise that is completely threading together our long history of print publication but also using all the new tools, most obviously our online edition.
We’re publishing multiple stories daily at SierraMagazine.org in addition to our bi-monthly print edition. That’s really important for us to sustain our relevance and to keep up with the times. My focus is split between sustaining the excellence and the thoughtfulness of our print edition while also ensuring that we’re moving pretty quickly online.
We’ve done some other things too. We launched a full digital edition of the print magazine that goes out to all of our members and subscribers. We have a podcast, and we’re doing a lot of video production. It’s kind of incredible. This is the arena that we’re playing in: There are so many different modes of communications and so many different mediums. We think that to sustain the interest of our current audience and also grow our audience, this strategy is necessary.
In my view, Sierra magazine, our print edition, is for the members that we have. Our online edition is really for the members we aspire to have. It’s great to see that with our online edition, our leading demographic for much of the year has been 25 to 34 year olds. That’s what we want to be doing: attracting and enlisting a new generation of environmental activists and leaders.
TEO: Where do you see the print and the online package fitting into the larger media ecosystem? What’s the particular niche that Sierra fills?
JASON: That’s a great question. The equally important question for me is: Where do we fit in the overall environmental movement?
There aren’t many other national publications entirely dedicated to environmental topics. Audubon is really the only other NGO-published print magazine at national scale. NRDC shuttered their really excellent magazine, onEarth, a couple of years ago. There’s Orion. But in terms of being at national scale and reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, there’s really only Sierra and Audubon that are focused on environmental topics.
We are trying to speak to what I would call the “ecologically committed.” People like Bioneers attendees who are really passionate and committed to environmental sustainability and social justice. But we’re also trying to reach the environmentally curious: people who are just now tuning into issues around environmentalism and the health and state of the planet. I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing but we’d like to be kind of the Atlantic magazine of green. A place that’s featuring original journalism but also featuring thought leaders like E.O. Wilson or Naomi Klein or Kim Stanley Robinson. We’re trying to bring in some bigger names to write for us who are offering a bigger-picture vision of where we are and where we’re going.
We’re also providing book reviews and cultural coverage, but all through an environmentalist lens. For the most part it works. We are lucky to grab the attention of the national influencers. A couple of times this year already we’ve gotten mentioned in The New York Times newsletters. It’s wonderful to know the folks at the Times are reading our coverage. Sometimes we’ll see our stories repeated on other national media outlets. It goes to show some people are watching us. That allows us to hopefully, in some modest measure, expand the work outside of the environmentalist community and get it more into a mainstream community.
TEO: I was intrigued to hear you talk about the moment in the early 1900s when Sierra magazine became a political magazine. I hadn’t thought about Sierra in that way. The intention is not just for your audience to read the magazine and continue what they’re doing, but to really galvanize some sort of response.
JASON: Yeah, hopefully after they read the article or put down the magazine, that won’t be the end of their environmental activism.
A fight against a coal power plant, that’s a political battle. That’s not a partisan battle. It may not have anything to do with, at least in this country, the Democrats versus the Republicans, or right and left. It’s about X community, who has the power to decide how energy is generated. That’s what I mean by political. It’s not necessarily partisan in terms of what’s happening in Washington D.C. or the big houses. We do cover those issues, but it’s asking questions about who has power and how it is wielded. How does that power impact not only human communities but all the other communities with whom we’re sharing this planet—other forms of life and beings?
TEO: Less than a decade ago, it was fairly easy to keep up with climate science coverage in the media. Every now and then there’d be a story. Today, it’s totally taken off. Three-quarters of the major papers in the U.S. covered the September 2019 climate strikes in some way on their front pages.
What do you think is responsible for that shift? Do you think overall awareness of climate change drove the increase of coverage or the reverse?
JASON: Yes, there’s definitely more environmental coverage now than we’ve seen in a while, and that’s great. I think it’s kind of a three-legged stool.
1) The planet is sending out distress signals in terms of rising temperatures, declining biodiversity, super storms, and historically unprecedented wildfires. It’s harder and harder for people to ignore those distress signals. The fire alarm is starting to clang so loudly and persistently that you have to be willfully ignorant not to see it.
2) I think people are more attuned. They’re seeking out more information. The curiosity level is increasing among the general public. That is a positive feedback loop with the social movements pushing for dramatic action on climate, which we saw in September 2019 with the truly historic climate marches.
3) I think some of it is a righteous effort on the part of some journalists who self-organize. There’s this initiative called Covering Climate Now, which has mostly been spearheaded by the folks at Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation magazine, along with other partners, and they got I think hundreds of news outlets to sign up for this initiative and to agree to expand their coverage.
I think those are the three factors. Hopefully righteous feedback loops will continue, and not just on climate. It’s important not to let the situation in the atmosphere, as worrisome as it is, crowd out so many other important environmental issues: air quality, water quality, toxins, wildlife and biodiversity. I’m hoping there’s a long-tail effect in which people’s concerns about what’s happening with the atmosphere, with climate and the weather, will hopefully lead to other concerns and interests around the suite of what we call environmental issues.
TEO: One of the hazards of climate change being so big is it does tend to take up all the oxygen in the room, and there are so many other huge stories. What is your perspective on the coverage of the rest of the environmental concerns of the world keeping up?
JASON: Obviously these reports are dire and the indicators are worrisome, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re seeing a little bit more of a balance. I think it’s good news that people are paying attention to the bad news.
I’m hoping that we can start to wrap our heads around or break free from what some people call “carbon fundamentalists.” It’s not just about parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is only one part of the overall environmental social crisis. And if we lose sight of the extinction emergency, or if we get sucked into carbon fundamentalism, the danger that I perceive is that we would have an environmental movement that is only committed to saving humans from a crisis that we are self-manufacturing. I for one am not really interested in living on a planet that’s just humans, crows, cows and cockroaches. I want to make sure we are also fighting for a world worth living in, and that is going to involve the whole spectrum of wildlife and ecosystems.
TEO: You mentioned that it’s good news that people are paying attention to the bad news. I’m curious what your take on solutions journalism is, and whether you see that emerging as a new paradigm.
JASON: I love the idea of solutions journalism. We definitely think about that here at Sierra magazine. Sometimes it is just pure play muckraking and trying to shine a light on bad actors. But much more of the time we are looking to tell the stories of creative individuals, communities, and initiatives that are finding new and innovative ways to respond to environmental or social threats. Sometimes it’s as simple as a profile: Here’s an interesting do-gooder, check them out. Sometimes it can be a bit more complicated: Here’s a scientist or researcher who is pursuing this question.
The old journalism maxim is still true: If it bleeds, it reads. People say they want good-news stories, but they will gravitate toward the bad-news stories. That’s true for our own little corner of the media sphere as well. Our story about the bird declines in North America definitely outpaced our coverage of the climate march.
TEO: As an editor and a journalist, I can’t fathom how difficult it must be to handle and report on the sheer quantity of environmentally backwards thinking coming from the federal level recently. How do you handle that?
JASON: It’s hard to keep up with. The short answer is we obviously don’t pick all the stories we want to. We’ve done an OK job, for example, on the Trump administration’s full frontal attack on the California clean air standards and tail pipe standards, but we’ve also kind of dropped the ball on some of those announcements. We do our best to watchdog what’s happening in the public landscape, but we can’t cover it all. The short answer is we do our best and try not to pour too many coals of hot fire on ourselves when we miss something.