The award-winning science writer and editor talks to The Wordling’s editor Natasha Khullar Relph about environmental journalism as a career.
Sara Phillips is an award-winning science writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the commissioning editor for 360info and has been the executive editor for the Asia-Pacific region of Nature Research Group’s custom publishing arm.
Previously, she was the national environment reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where she filed news and feature stories for online, radio and television, and editor of ABC Environment online, a now-archived portal for the ABC’s environment content.
She edited the 10th-anniversary edition of the Best Australian Science Writing in 2020.
Let’s talk about 360info, what it is, and how you came to be a part of it.
I was sitting at my desk working for Nature Custom Media where we did science communication products for clients and I got a phone call from Andrew Jaspan, who is the founder of 360info.
His concept is that the world there’s a lot information out there but what is the quality of this information? How do we know it’s reliable? Meanwhile academia is full of people who are subject matter experts in really niche little areas and they talk to each other in their niche publications and this information isn’t getting out into the wider world. It’s not contributing to the general discussion, the national debate, the national agenda on important issues.
His idea was that if we could just get some of these academics to be putting their research in front of ordinary people, then we could advance the conversation so that it is less toxic as it can sometimes be in media.
How do you get the information in front of people?
We have an idea, let’s just say we want to talk about species extinction. Then we go out and we find academics who are experts in this area. We ask them: What’s missing in this debate? What isn’t being talked about? What things are you working on or your colleagues that really need a bit more exposure? We get feedback from them on angles and ideas. We get their contacts and their ideas and then we go out and we find those people. We’ll then ask them to write analysis pieces for us.
The difference here is important is that it’s analysis, not opinion.
We’re asking researchers to give some framing, some background, some insight into the problems that we’re facing. And hopefully offer potential solutions and ideas for ways forward.
They give us their content, usually around about a thousand words and we edit it to make it palatable for the general news media, which for some academics is just a bit of a spit and polish and for other academics is a wholesale rewrite depending on how their writing is and what kind of person they are.
We have a team of about eight editors and we’re based in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and New Delhi.
What’s your role in all of this?
I’m the commissioning editor based in the Melbourne office. My role is basically to have input into some of the topics that we’re doing, find relevant academics and consult with them on the topics, and then actually find the writers and do the edits. I do the structural editing to bring these pieces into shape.
How do you work with publishers? Do you reach out to them or do they find you? And do they pay for this access?
No. The way it works is that we’re not a destination website and that’s something we’ve thought about. If you’re a destination website, you have spend a lot of money on marketing and report back on clickthroughs and all that sort of stuff.
What we do instead is we are a newswire. When we started, someone in the media described us as “Research Reuters” and we went, yeah, yeah that’s what we are!
We have media partners all over the world, around a thousand now. We just send directly into their newsroom systems and they can choose to pick those stories up or not as they see fit.
How did you get into the field of environmental journalism, where did it start for you?
It probably started at school, to be honest. I really liked biology but I also really liked English. So when I went to university, I just continued studying science and I continued studying English literature, not seeing how those two things fitted together.
It was in my final year of university that I met a science journalist and I was like, oh, this sounds interesting, tell me more about your career!
That’s basically where I fell into it. And my interest in the sciences has always been on the environmental end of things, so you know, ecology, biology, zoology, that sort of stuff.
Climate journalism is a really coveted career now but back when you started, environmental journalism wasn’t what it is today. Did you anticipate that climate would become the story of our time and that so many people would care about it?
Yes, absolutely. I could see that climate change was a massive problem with really multi-dimensional and interesting facets to it. And so I could see way back that it was going to be something that people were going to spend a lot of time reporting on.
When climate change started, it was a science story, which is where I came into it but over time it has morphed into different things. These days it’s a politics story, an economic story, a tech story, a human interest story, and a natural disasters story. It’s all of the facets of journalism that you could possibly ever want with the background being climate change.
Do you think you need to have a science background to be a good climate or environmental journalist?
That gets to the heart of science journalism in general and I can see that there are arguments on both sides.
My experience is from one side in that I do have that science background so I can speak to the scientists in their own terms and then interpret for the general public, but I think there is value of coming at that from the other side where you actually just don’t know anything and you want someone to explain it to you. You ask different questions, I think, when you don’t know anything.
I think the questions that non-science people ask are as valid and interesting because let’s face it, most of the general public doesn’t have a science background. So yeah, I can see value in both sides of coming to climate journalism in both ways.
Is there any time that you’ve had journalists that you’ve edited who’ve been in danger or threatened for their environmental reporting?
Yes, definitely. In fact, when I was at the ABC, I had my own personal troll who at one point tried to sue me for defamation.
Also many of my writers. I can think of one in particular who was thoroughly traumatized by the hate he received from the climate deniers. Climate journalism is interesting because you’re crossing a line where you’re veering into activism, but he was personally persecuted by a whole crowd of hate trolls to the point that he was suffering depression. It was affecting his life, affecting his home. But he also felt that he was fighting the good fight so he wouldn’t let it go. I would often get phone calls from him where he was sorting through some of his trauma.
What he went through, no one should go through that in a work setting. It shouldn’t be the situation that you’re going to work and coming home traumatized. But that was what he was facing every day from these people. And they were organized. He’d publish one story and they’d swoop in from all over the world to just post hate comments on his story. Because this was in the era when comments were allowed. It was horrifying.
I speak to a lot of mid-career journalists who have bills to pay, possibly have families, and a lot of them are saying to me, I want to be in environmental journalism, but I also need to do content on the side for the money. As an editor, how do you feel about that?
It’s a difficult topic and one that we discussed a lot at Nature because we were very aware that we did need science journalists to be writing this stuff, but also that we wanted to make sure that they could still continue their careers as science journalists if that’s what they wanted to do. We realized that we weren’t going to pull people away from journalism completely. So the way we got around it at Nature was that we’d just ask our journalists to be very honest with us about any potential conflicts of interest and the people we work with. Freelancers there were the best in the business and they were able to identify conflict and recuse themselves when necessary. But it really was up to the individual journalist to identify those potential conflicts.
So, speaking of freelancers, what do you like to see in a pitch?
We’re not taking pitches at 360info, but when I’ve taken pitches, what I like to see is evidence that somebody knows what publication they’re pitching for and they’re not just sending out an email scattershot to everyone in the whole world. Something that is actually crafted for the publication I’m editing at the time. Evidence that they know who the audience is and that this is story will actually fit the idea of who that audience is.
I’m happy with a couple of paragraphs: This is where I’m thinking to take the idea, maybe contacting these people, they seem like good talent, just a very brief outline of what that could be is sufficient for me to say yay or nay. The other thing that’s good to add into a pitch is a link or your CV where I can go for samples of your writing so that I can actually see that you’re a decent writer.
I think a lot of writers worry that if they don’t get the pitch perfect even if they have a good idea, the editor’s going to ignore it. Do you ever see a pitch that has potential but isn’t quite there and then get in touch with the writer to work with them through it?
Yep, absolutely. A lot of the time when I was commissioning writers, I would see a pitch and think, almost. And then I could see ways to add bits into it or join it up with another idea that I had.
When I commission writers, I give them a comprehensive brief of how many words I want, deadline, and then several paragraphs of what I’m looking for, who you ought to be interviewing, that sort of thing. If I’ve got a fairly clear idea in my head of what this story needs to be, I articulate that to the writers so that they can then deliver on that. If they’ve given me a half a pitch and I say yes, but and then deliver them a comprehensive brief, I think that ticks the boxes in that sense. It gives them an idea of what it is that I’m actually looking for.
Okay, last question: What makes a good science or environmental story?
What makes a great science and environment story is purely humanity.
There are so many science and environment stories that will spout facts and figures at you. Climate change has used up 90% of our budget and we’re going to be rising by 1.5 degrees and numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers. If you actually tell a story about a person, that’s where the engagement is. All science journalism for me is about narrative and about humans and about engagement. If you’ve not got those bits in your story, then you’re lacking the story.
I edited a book a couple of years ago which was “The Best Australian Science Writing 2020” and the story that won the prize for the best story in the book was about a bloke who was involved in NASA back in the early days and the story was about him as an old man looking back at his contribution to the science, the moon program. He had these beautiful little details like him pulling on his compression stockings because of blood circulation problems and it was just the most beautiful human story. What turned that story into a great story was the fact that it was carried by these beautiful characters.
As humans we’re hardwired to respond to narrative, to remember narrative, and to engage with narrative. So when you’re lacking those elements that give that sense of narrative then you’re lacking a story. Otherwise it’s just a collection of facts.
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