How Environmental News Outlet Grist Is Growing Revenue & Building a Broader Audience
Over the past three years, nonprofit publisher Grist has more than doubled its annual revenue, while simultaneously investing in editorial talent and increasing staff size. Last week Grist also expanded its content archives, announcing the acquisition of defunct digital magazine Pacific Standard, which closed in August 2019. Like Grist, Pacific Standard was known for its in-depth reporting on issues related to social and environmental justice.
“A huge focus for me has been around the people that we've brought to the organization, and we've had the good fortune to recruit a lot of really extraordinary journalists and editors over the last two years,” says Grist CEO Brady Walkinshaw, a former state legislator in Washington state who joined Grist in 2017. “I think the talent that we're bringing in has really been the driver for a lot of the opportunities and the impact we're having.”
In the following conversation with Publishing Executive, Walkinshaw discusses Grist’s evolving revenue mix, membership growth, and editorial strategy – including how the news outlet is addressing the current pandemic and protests for racial justice through its coverage.
How do you describe Grist to those who are unfamiliar?
Grist is a publication and a digital media outlet that's dedicated to raising awareness and exploring how it is that we're going to decarbonize the planet. So really thinking about equity-based climate solutions and how is it that we can build and grow a publication that's focused on environmental issues at large, but more specifically, what are the solutions to decarbonization? What does it look like to build a more just and sustainable future, and how are we going to report and tell that story? For us, that's everything from thinking about food systems, to culture, to clean energy. We do an advice column that looks at individual behaviors around sustainability. We've covered politics and environment for years. We launched the country's first environmental justice desk a couple of years ago to look at the intersections between race justice, disadvantage, and environment. Our focus at large is to be a publication in the country that reaches a broad public audience that is focused on issues of environment and climate.
How large is your team and your organization?
Our team is about 50 people right now, and it was about half that size. We've grown by 80% to 90% as a staff over the last three and a half years, and the team is now nationally distributed. We used to be based more in Seattle, but now we have a small office in Brooklyn; we have an office in Seattle. Our executive editor is based in Atlanta. We have lots of folks in the Bay area. We have people in Minnesota; Ohio; Washington, D.C.; so we're a pretty distributed organization.
What are the benefits of having a distributed team?
Well, that's a really interesting question. Because I think we really accelerated moving toward a distributed team as we grew over the last few years, and I'd say there's a couple core drivers for that. One is, as we grew, it was more important to me and to the organization that we have more of a national footprint, not just in our coverage, but also in where our reporters and our editors are. The second reason that I felt it was important was from a talent perspective. I think for us as an organization, we've really focused on diversity and equity. All of our programmatic leadership now at Grist are people of color. And so am I; I'm Cuban American. And I've realized, especially in the field of environmental reporting, it is important to diversify your team and to build up a team that reflects more of society.
What are the key challenges of running a nonprofit media organization?
What I've learned and as I've gotten deeper into media is that most nonprofit media outlets, of the many there are, all have fairly different models for funding. I think at this very specific moment, Grist has been really fortunate to have a business model, or I would say revenue model, that's really working and is very diversified. Our fiscal year ends in September and we're projecting revenue of probably between 6.5 and 7 million for this year. That budget comes from a whole number of sources, but the two main sources are relationships that we've developed and nurtured over the years with philanthropists and with foundations. We have many individuals who might generously contribute $1,000 to $5,000 a year. We have individuals who might contribute well more than that, but it's a pretty diversified base.
We also have two other revenue sources, which are growing and important. One is membership, and we define members as people who've made small dollar contributions to Grist over the course of the past year. And that comes with a number of benefits, like we do facilitated chats with our journalists. We also do great mugs and great T-shirts like the one that I'm wearing right now that says, "I cared about the climate before it was hot." So long story short is we've more than doubled our membership over the last year and currently have about 5,000 members. And I see that as a really important metric of organizational health, because in a sense, those are people who are just contributing to the organization because of the power of what we're doing and passion for the content that we're producing.
How are you activating members to donate and support your operations? Are there any strategies or campaigns that have worked really well?
We do five or six membership campaigns a year. We run membership appeals typically through email products, occasionally some social products, and then through visual treatments on the site. And we actually are coming off of our most successful one ever. I didn't know how, when we went into the market to do our membership appeal, how it would go during COVID and more recently, everything happening in this country around race and black lives. But it actually performed very well, so we are finding that those tactics are working.
How did you adjust messaging when you were making this appeal in the current climate?
Well, a couple of months ago, we pivoted a lot of our coverage, and similar to a lot of other media outlets, particularly over the first couple of months of COVID, we saw real surge in site traffic. We saw about a 60% to 80% surge in traffic above rolling average in prior months. And a lot of that was in part because we pivoted a lot of our coverage to look at the intersection between coronavirus and climate change. And there are many aspects of that that we've been exploring. We launched a newsletter product a couple months ago called Climate in the Time of Coronavirus. So what we found was that pivoting the message and using a message in the campaign around the coronavirus climate intersection proved to be quite powerful. We had so many audience questions about everything from, 'What does the slowing down of the economy mean for carbon?' to 'What is the future of office space and the built environment?' to 'What are the future of carbon emissions from transportation systems that are changing?' So the whole nexus has been really rich for us to explore from an editorial perspective.
You just announced that you acquired Pacific Standard. Can you share the motivations behind that?
Sure. That was really exciting. You may know the Pacific Standard, they published for about 12 years based out of Santa Barbara. They did a lot of really extraordinary long-form work, and we had a lot of respect for their work. A lot of it was around issues of social justice and environmental justice. And the direction that we took is when they closed last August, a couple of months after that, we wondered if they needed help in stewarding a home for the archives. We ended up acquiring the 20,000-plus archives and the content and also the brand of the Pacific Standard. And there's a lot of synergy between the brand and the content that they were producing and our audience and the content of our brand. So we're now thinking, what are the next steps from that acquisition?
What are the decisions your team has made over the past three years that have contributed to Grist’s revenue growth?
We’ve been really fortunate because I think folks are really seeing the need to increase the amount of coverage and content around climate solutions in the country as issues of environment become much more mainstream and of broad interest. I think maybe 20 years ago, and even up into the last few years, we might've been seen more as a single-issue vertical, but I think the market for thinking about how environment impacts every aspect of our lives and the economy makes for a much larger potential audience. So I think that fundamentally has been behind, I would say the interest in more support for this kind of work.
Grist is doing a lot of coverage on social justice and the intersection of environmentalism and race. Can you share how Grist is addressing the protests right now?
Yeah, that's really been a focus of our coverage strategy. And I would say that it has been for a long time. Even a month, two months ago, years ago, we've been publishing right at intersections of race and environment, but then even over the last couple months as COVID swept across the country, we did a lot of long-form coverage and in-depth reporting around the disparate impacts of coronavirus on black and brown communities and the relationship of coronavirus to issues of air pollution and the prevalence of some higher rates of COVID in places where air pollution was higher. So we've done a lot of environmental justice coverage related to COVID. And then more recently, over the last couple of weeks, we have dug much more into coverage related to protest and black lives.
One of our wonderful writers who joined us about a year ago — Naveena Sadasivam, a Pulitzer finalist and Livingston finalist —wrote a great piece on states looking at criminalizing protest. And that kind of criminalization of protest also has its roots in the environmental movement by efforts states have done to kind of make it illegal, to protest large fossil fuel infrastructure projects like pipelines. So we're thinking about what those parallels are between race and environment, and that's happened in a number of different ways. We just did an interview with Jane Fonda, who is also talking about this alongside a black youth activist named Jerome Foster.
What are your top priorities for the remainder of this year?
You know, we've been really fortunate to be in a position to not be reducing our staff during a really difficult and challenging time for the media sector. For me, I think a priority is thinking about, as we kind of are in a secure financial position, are there ways that we can attract more extraordinary talent to the team? So that's a real focus for me is thinking about how we bring on more talented writers, editors, and others to the Grist team. And then we've been considering going into a refresh of the brand. That would be a big process for us internally, thinking about how we want the brand to reflect the organization that we've evolved into. And I would say the last thing, and maybe this just should be the first thing, is we're spending an enormous amount of time right now thinking about how we represent authentically our work in the context of black lives and in the work, the protests that are happening in this country right now around race. We're thinking about what that means for us as a media nonprofit in our coverage and in our storytelling.
What opportunities do you see for Grist in the longer term, not just this year, but over the next few?
I think there's a real opportunity in this country to build a media outlet, which, in a very popular way — the same way that Fast Company or Wired did with the future of technology — is a really consumer-facing media property that is engaging this country and the conversation about climate change and climate solutions in a very equity-based way. So thinking about how we can tell that story to a much, much broader audience is something that we're thinking a lot about.
Leah Wynalek is the senior editor for Publishing Executive and Book Business. She has worked at national magazine publishing companies including Trusted Media Brands and Rodale, where she assisted in digital content creation and strategy for Prevention.com. More recently, she used her multimedia skillset on behalf of clients as a content specialist for Philadelphia-based marketing agency En Route.