Invitation to Journalists

The Conservation Journalism Initiative commenced  with Ian Michler’s investigation into the Sable Antelope being held on the outskirts of Lusaka for import into RSA, and Sam Owen’s story on the problems facing seabirds off the South African coast.  Other writers are currently working on stories related to the upsurge in elephant poaching  and  the illegal ivory trade. Further story releases are scheduled monthly.

Proposed stories need to meet the following criteria in order to be eligible for funding from the Trust:

  1. The Proposer must have the necessary credibility and skills to take on the story;
  2. The story must not duplicate any existing initiative;
  3. The story should have relevance to larger issues and the bigger picture so that it can make a real and sustainable difference;
  4. The story should contain an emotive aspect to enable the broader public to identify with the issue;
  5. The story should endeavour to garner wider public support for conservation;
  6. The story should strive to positively influence existing attitudes and practices;
  7. The story needs to have a clearly defined and achievable outcome;
  8. The story should be results orientated and/or conclude by proposing a positive action plan to avoid feelings of helplessness by readers.
  9. The story budget must be transparent with accurate estimates for expenses.

Independent investigative journalists who specialise in conservation stories and report on environmental issues are invited to submit their proposals indicating how the story will meet the above criteria, including a story synopsis and proposed budget. The budget may include a research fee of R3/word. Journalists will be required to enter into a Writer Agreement with the trust should their proposal be accepted.

However, before submitting a proposal, it is imperative that journalists understand a critical proviso with which the funding is made available.

The primary reason the Conservation Action Trust is sponsoring these stories is that it wants them to reach the widest possible audience. The Trust is therefore looking to enter into agreements with a select group of investigative journalists and environmental reporters to syndicate their stories as widely as possible. PDFs of the sponsored articles will be extensively circulated to other magazines, newspapers and websites for FREE distribution. So, essentially, the journalist gets paid once by the magazine that first runs the story, but not by any of the other publications that may pick it up in due course. This could be a point of contention or concern to some journalists, as it will undoubtedly compromise their ability to sell on the story.

Environmental writing tips by Ian Michler

This is not aimed at telling you how your stories should be written; instead, it is a summary of what has worked for me and hopefully there may be something here that strikes a cord for you. 

The Challenges
Challenge 1: to get a simple message across by

  • Exposing the issues or raising awareness
  • Reducing ignorance levels
  • Countering misinformation
  • Giving context to debates

However, we have more information today than ever before – and easier to access – much of this is due to the press. So,  

Challenge 2: even when the facts are laid out, they seem unable to persuade humanity to translate awareness into fundamental change as the vast majority of us have yet to alter the way we live.

What we are up against

  • An education system that does not promote environmental concerns as a priority
  • Editors and journalists that avoid the significant issues – they focus on producing a succession of trivial content
  • Corporate and political vested interests

The Reader
Who are you writing for? 

  • Governments & decision-makers: they listen to science, statistics and official reports
  • Scientific community: they listen to themselves & other peer-reviewed work
  • General reader: wants to read about something that relates to them – what does this have to do with me?

Content
When choosing your story:

  • Breaking news is not always best
  • Who are the vested interests?
  • Focus on essence of the story (angle) up front – and cut out the ‘background noise’
  • Bring home the immediacy Pay attention to detail by doing your homework
  • Don’t take any statement for granted
  • Less is more – story, content and sentences
  • Be bold, very bold

Do’s

  • Stay on the story and look for variations as it all unfolds
  • Continue to question yourself – motivations
  • Write to inspire and get people involved by being resourceful and imaginative
  • Make the connection for people
  • Question the values that underpin behaviour or attitudes – this brings in emotion
  • Try and link to those that are already converted/doing/have changed: 40% of your city already involved in recycling vs 60% do not
  • Avoid complicated scientific explanations if you can (refer to the links)
  • Make use of social media and internet
  • Use powerful images if you can

 Don’t

  • If possible, don’t target individuals: speak about what happens and let readers draw the links
  • Don’t write for a journal that has a weak editor
  • Don’t compromise yourself
  • Don’t forget to include a positive slant or facts if they can be part of the story
  • Don’t get bored, but don’t write for yourself – this is not about you!
  • Don’t submit immediately
  • Don’t allow yourself to get lonely

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Writing Wild by Don Pinnock

Writing about the environment and all its wild and wonderful things is really science writing, which scares off many people. Or they don’t realise it’s science writing so end up sounding like a stuffy scientist. They forget their job is to interpret and not merely to reproduce data. So here are a few guidlines that should prove useful.

First, something about writing in general.

People don’t have to read your story and won’t unless they get information they want and, importantly, pleasure in reading it. The relationship between information and pleasure is the story’s engagement.

Engagement is woven from a number of strands. The first is the amount of information and knowledge you, as a writer, have about the subject. If you have too little – if you’ve failed to adequately research – it shows in verbal floundering that a reader will immediately discern. This floundering results from having insufficient mastery of the topic to fashion a story beyond the facts in hand. You cannot contextualise, allude, cross-reference, or craft what I will refer to shortly as the meme.

Research to a modern storyteller – and yes, science writing is also storytelling – is akin to the wisdom of an ancient griot, the keeper of tribal memory. Our wisdom is no longer mainly in our heads but in books, papers, libraries, museums or the internet. We need it none the less – as does the griot – to convince the reader (or listener) of our integrity. I’ll take a flyer and say that to write a good tale you need about 10 times the information you end up with on paper.

There’s another strand, seemingly small and obvious, that’s often disturbingly absent from contemporary writing – conceptual flow. It’s for very good reason that written language is spaced in sentences and paragraphs. Punctuation was derived initially from the need, when speaking, to draw a breath – or the inability to continue speaking without drawing one. When speaking, however, you have the overall subject you wish to impart in your mind and communicate it in a logically arranged, integrated flow of words embedded in a grammar.

Writing takes much longer to construct and along the way it’s possible to lose the overall subject, the core of your communication, which in speaking is the purpose of your engagement. Let me deal first with the notion of flow. While you’re writing a story using words, your reader is receiving it as an unfolding stream of ideas by way of those words. If you break the idea stream, you’ll lose the reader who, in failing to understand the conceptual coherence, will probably stop reading and flip the page.

It is a truism often ignored that the conceptual launch pad for the following sentence is the preceding one and the mother of a paragraph is the one before it. If you fail to find some linking device or idea you lose the story.

A crosshead – the mini-heading within the text – is not simply a visual device as layout artists seem to think, but the point at which you break the conceptual narrative and change direction. But, of course, subsections of a story need to be in relationship or else, again, the story is lost.

I’ll go one step deeper. In telling a story, you must not forget the story. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many oft-published writers do forget it. You need to constantly ask yourself: what is the story? The worst kind of writing is when facts are bussed together in long strings on the assumption that if you chuck everything into the pot you get a gourmet meal. You don’t: the result is indigestion.

So how do you know what the story is? This brings me to the meme. The biologist Richard Dawkins invented it to describe a unit of cultural information. In the way that genes are handed on through propagation, memes can move from one mind to another as tunes, catch-phrases, stories, beliefs, ways of making things or viewing the world.

When used in writing, the meme is that which conveys an underlying message that is greater than the sum of information used to construct it. As a writer it forces you to step away from your story and ask: ‘What am I really saying here? What core truth about the meaning of nature, culture or life am I conveying?’

The mimetic of a good story – the sort of story we should be writing – is often in the realm of mythology, though we may not know or even intend it. There are ancient and universal truths that pre-date writing and even civilisation and which hold true for humans whoever they are. This explains the undying popularity of works such as The Illiad, The Odyssey, King Arthur, Grimm’s Fairy Tails, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, San stories, ancient folk songs and modern ballads. You may be writing science, but when your readers hear a good meme there’s the tingle of recognition, something that makes them think: ‘Yes, that’s right. That’s how it is.’

Now for some nuts and bolts.

You have to start a story somewhere, end it somewhere and do the bit in the middle. But the pain this seems to cause suggests the need for a few words on the business of beginnings. At the risk of seeming to state the obvious, an environmental article requires an intro, a backbone, content and an outro. But it’s surprising how few have all these elements.

If a newspaper story can be likened to a hyena – all jaws and not much at the other end – an environmental story can be said to need a tooth-filled head of subtle and alluring beauty, a body as balanced as a butterfly and a tail of a stegosaurus: hard hitting with sharp points at the end. It shouldn’t look like a news story, it shouldn’t feel like an ‘inverted pyramid’ and it should end with a bang, not a whimper. Most importantly, it needs a riveting intro.

I started as a radio writer and the experience was invaluable for a particular reason. There’s so much information streaming in today that the written word has become easily put-downable. So more than ever – like radio which is switch-offable – written stories need to hook readers from the very first moment and make sure they’re not tossed aside until the reader hits the end of the last paragraph. I generally take longer to create an intro than the rest of the story – it once took two weeks. That’s how important it is.

Will the intro be the moment a lion crashed through the undergrowth in your direction? Or the mood of a million flamingos settling on Lake Turkana? Or perhaps the shock poisoning of 100 elephants in Hwange National Park? Let’s start at what it shouldn’t be. Here’s one written for African Wildlife by John Yeld (who should have known better):

After a long and sometimes tortuous process that confirmed both the best and worst of the democratic system, the names of the 18 new members of the National Parks Board of Trustees were finally approved by the Cabinet and then announced publicly by Environmental Affairs and Tourism minister.

So who wants to read more? But African Wildlife does have a way with words. Another scintillating intro:

In any country in the world, the status and health of the biophysical or natural environment are determined, to a greater or lesser extent, by socio-economic and socio-political realities.

We’ve all written intros we hoped would be forgotten and their deadly ‘clunk’ has caused as much pain (or should have) as their creation. They’re generally the result of bad planning and a lack of confidence in your ability to play with words and feelings. Painless intro writing requires you to look away from your story or experience and ask: ‘What will best attract a reader’s attention in this story?’ Here’s a good one one right off the deck by Tony Gibbs in Islands:

Friday evening a thunderstorm ghosted off the Atlantic and exploded over Block Island just after dark, sluicing the mid-September scattering of revellers off the streets around Old Harbour.

A good writer doesn’t only have to know their subject, they need to be well-read. That’s the only way you’ll get up the confidence to do with words what Monet did with colour. And it will distinguish you from a house painter.

Now about the outro, the last paragraph or sentence of an article. It’s what an old journalism Prof. of mine called the Cinderella Factor: that which gets left to the end has considerable impact on those who find it (the slipper. You get it?).

The outro in a science article (as opposed to a news story) is what a reader leaves your story with (I know, split infinitive, but sometimes it’s necessary). And the more intimately it’s linked to the intro by an umbilical cord of ideas, the better it will be. National Geographic has a nice sensitivity to outros worth keeping an eye on. Here’s the outro of an article by Rick Gore on Neanderthals. The drift of the story is that they may have been an unsuccessful branch of the human tree, which is why they died out. His outro goes like this:

Weren’t they curious? Maybe that was one of those inscrutable differences between them and us. We were compelled by curiosity and obsession for change. Perhaps the thought of moving never occurred to them. Maybe they simply accepted the present, without a past or future tense. Who knows? What we can say is that for more than 200 000 years the Neandertals adapted to their challenging world. Will we say the same for ourselves?

In the same issue Kenneth Taylor writes about the quest to save the puffin and ends:

The wave sets the little bird afloat and washes it out to deeper water. The puffin dives, surfaces still farther out and paddles confidently past a small boat into the wide embrace of the sea. Saved from almost certain death in Vestmannaeyjar, this puffin is entering a natural realm where predators threaten, food may be scarce and hazards such as oil spills may wait. For it and for us, I think, the challenge has just begun.

There’s a similarity here. Both outros attempt to connect the reader with the subject and leave him or her in a reflective mood. Ancient people are shrouded in mystery but it’s also the mystery of our own origins. Are we gonna make 200 000 years? Humankind has reached a point where nature is in their hands. Can we (do we want to) save the puffin?

As one does with good intros, these writers have stepped back from their subjects and asked: ‘What’s in this for the reader? On what shore of emotion or understanding do we want to deposit them?’

You’re the expert. You have a right to take that liberty – and readers enjoy it. They feel you take them seriously. A neat linkage between intro and outro was in James Wamsley’s article in National Geographic Traveller on New Hampshire. The intro went like this:

I am sitting on a New Hampshire stone wall, built by hard-handed farmers two centuries ago of granite boulders wrestled from the steep adjacent fields. Rounded and smoothed by the grinding of glaciers, the rocks are grey-green with lichens as big as the heads of buffalo.

And the outro?

In the schoolhouse of 1863 they left a motto on the wall. I glance over it once and then do a kind of mental double take, reading again: ‘Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.’ Perhaps a kernel of that spirit remained in New Hampshire when the Shakers packed in. Or maybe it was always there, in the eternal granite, the vulnerable loons and crystal water, the blazing moments of the maple leaves.

And now for backbone and content. When Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the molecular structure of DNA they provided us with a useful way to describe a good article: ‘A complex two-stranded molecule that contains all the information needed to build, control and maintain a living organism’. Remember the picture of that elegant little spiral with bits of essential information suspended in between? Without the spiral you’d have a bag of blobs and without the blobs there’d be, well, nothing of consequence.

Think of your article that way. Facts are relatively easy to get. But before you start writing you have to have the spiral or, to change metaphor, a backbone. Its the force of your telling, the underlying thing you’re trying to say. Ever since the Industrial Revolution and scientism we’ve been obsessed by FACTS but, in writing articles, beware of this seduction – a story is more than the sum of its facts.

Sadly there are many who don’t know this and assemble for our regard paragraph after paragraph of facts loosely connected by a headline. Rather like a train without an engine or caboose.

A good story has to have an inner logic, a mental map, a meme, so the reader knows where he or she’s going and even why they’re being sent on this adventure. There are many ways to do this and some stories fall more comfortably into place than others.

A useful way to shape up a story is to set a question or a puzzle at the beginning – or an alluring statement which makes a reader want to unravel or find the answer to. Here’s George Stuart of National Geographic:

When Saburo Sugiyama began excavating along the southern edge of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at the Mexican ruin of Teotihuacan, he realised, as all archaeologists do at such times, that he was crossing the threshold of the unknown.

Another device is to set up a tension between two opposing elements in the story: one view against another, for example the belief of elephant over-population against the facts of rapidly declining herds. Such tension creates an engine for the narrative, makes it go.

But the golden rule in collecting interesting information is simple: be curious. Its surprising how many aren’t and operate in ‘routine mode’ – some even flip right over into pontification. It’s the death of good writing. And  writing well doesn’t mean writing long. Generally the opposite is true. Environmental writing generally isn’t daily news (though it should be). You have enough time to hammer lumps of coal into gems. Cut every inessential bit ’till it hurts.

And don’t fight editors. They usually know their job – that’s how they came to be editors. If they ask you to change or rewrite, do it. In case you feel precious about your words here’s a story about condensation worth keeping in mind.

People magazine once commissioned a cover story about the singer Cher. The first draft ran to thousands and thousands of words. When the pictures came in, the text was condensed to two thousand words.

Then Cary Grant died, taking the prime slot, and Cher was held over and subbed down to 1000 words. Then it was skidded again as other issues overshadowed the article. Finally it appeared – in the gossip section with a forlorn pic of Cher – as a caption around 35 words long. That was known ever afterwards in People as the $35 000 caption. A shame? No! That’s good: if a caption is all it rated, so be it.

Don’t forget, you’re competing with television, busy schedules and falling attention spans. The days of dad with his pipe and paper in the corner lounger are over. What we have to do in order to compete – and its a radio expression again – is write in sound-bytes: smaller consumable bits of information. Don’t write in 2500 words what, with more care, you could tell in 1000. It’ll just get spiked.

Wait! Don’t stop reading yet. I know I’ve hit 2500 words but here are a few more important pointers.

  • Don’t assume your audience is stupid, but don’t presume they know your subject either. Writing down to people is irritating and using jargon just because you know what it means is even worse.
  • Avoid using ‘I’ as much as possible, but it’s not forbidden, especially if you show how you pieced together the story that led to a breakthrough of understanding.
  • You’re not the expert so reference your sources – not as footnotes or in parenthesis but naturally in the flow of the narrative. But avoid too many.

See? It’s easy. Now go out and do it.