Energy & Climate Tech PR: Q&A with Jeff St. John, Editor-in-Chief of Canary Media
Apr 22, 2021 Tiffany Darmetko
At Inkhouse, we want to work with changemakers, so it’s no surprise then that energy & climate technology is a specialty focus area of ours. We understand the complexity of the climate tech story arc and are here to help the next generation of changemakers tell their stories.
Recently, we’ve been joking, “let’s party like it’s 2009!” It’s not just because we’re pandemic stir crazy, but that we remember the cleantech boom of the late 2000s, the flood of innovation and funding, and favorite tradeshows like Solar Power International in its heyday. We’re proud to have been telling stories of climate tech innovators for more than a decade.
Fast forward to 2021, and a lot has changed. We’re inspired by the Biden administration’s climate push and the summit kicking off today. There’s massive potential for a new wave of innovation and progress (a la 2009), and our clients are doing crucial work to drive meaningful climate action. It’s a thrill to promote initiatives like the Energy Observer Odyssey where a green hydrogen-powered boat is making stops in CA this week and next.
Whether we’re talking about clean transport, electrification (shoutout to the EV drivers among us!), carbon capture, energy storage, etc., members of the growing Inkhouse Energy & Climate Tech Practice love lending integrated PR support to brands and innovations that can help solve the climate crisis. It requires an understanding of the science of good storytelling and a concerted effort to build lasting relationships with journalists doing the oh so important work of reporting on climate change.
In honor of Earth Day, Inkhouse Account Executive Emma Heilbronner sat down (virtually) with veteran climate reporter and influencer Jeff St. John to hear about the recent launch of Canary Media, his editorial focus as editor-in-chief, and how climate tech companies and their marketing folks can best engage with him.
According to Jeff, “My work is driven by an abiding faith in technology that can halt and reverse the worst effects of global warming, and a fascination with examining and explaining the economic, public policy and social conditions that can foster the proliferation of — or stand in the way of — new technologies being put to use to the greatest benefit.”
We applaud this perspective and we thank you, Jeff, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us (below).
EH: It seems like a very important time for the launch of Canary Media. Why now?
JSJ: Well, beyond the fact that my colleagues and I were all eager to keep working, it’s pretty clear that we’re in a moment of crisis, a decision point, when it comes to making the changes we need to make if we’re to stand a chance of achieving the decarbonization needed to forestall the most catastrophic effects of global warming. I think we’d all done a good job of putting our talents and our experience to work on that effort at Greentech Media, and so when GTM closed down, we were all eager to keep working together, and to retain our connection with our readers and our audience – our supporters. Having RMI come in and offer to help us to do that, but in an even bigger way, was an unexpected, but a welcome, opportunity to do just that. And so we took it and ran with it!
EH: Can you tell us about the meaning behind the name Canary?
JSJ: Canary arose pretty early in our brainstorming process, and it’s a pretty simple story – we wanted to pick something that evoked our purpose, without placing any conceptual limits on the scope of the coverage we’re undertaking. And the canary in the coal mine – well, that’s a suitable mascot, I suppose, for the role we’d like to play – the animal that’s there to warn those it’s listening to the threat of a harmful, even deadly, gas leak – but that’s also comforting, and sings beautifully, even if in our case, we’re hoping that the song keeps going, that we don’t succumb to the threat we’re there to warn against. And – this is a little-known story – we’d been looking for animal names, because one of the early proposals for “Greentech Media” was actually “Bullfrog Media” – the bullfrog being both green and a notably resilient creature. So it was a nice nod to that, in my mind.
EH: Can you talk a bit about who is on your staff/writing for Canary Media?
JSJ: Well, we’ve got myself, and Julian Spector and Emma Foehringer Merchant from Greentech Media – and of course, Eric Wesoff, who was GTM employee number one – number three if you count GTM co-founders Scott Clavenna and Rick Thompson. And then we were fortunate enough to convince David Roberts, the well-known climate and energy policy reporter formerly of Grist and Vox, and now at his own Substack, Volts, to contribute to Canary Media, which was a thrill to me as a long-time David Roberts fan. And then, we were lucky enough to entice Lisa Hymas, who’s worked as a senior editor at Grist, Greenwire, Island Press and Tomorrow, and has written for the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Salon and Mother Jones, to join us as an editor, starting in June. And of course, we’ve got the stellar behind the scenes crew of Nicholas Rinaldi, Stephanie Primavera, Mike Munsell and Katie Tweed from GTM as well, making it possible for us writers to do our jobs.
EH: Any editorial plans/special sections/focuses we should be aware of?
JSJ: Well, the first thing we’re letting everyone know is to stay tuned for the fall, when we’ll be launching our fully formed online platform. We’re building that from scratch with Happy Cog, and it’s going to support a whole range of features and functionality that we’ll be excited to roll out. Data visualization is a big focus of mine, given the opportunities to leverage the incredible data resources of RMI for storytelling—and Katie Tweed’s work as creative strategies director at GTM, and the product she crafted there, might give curious parties a glimpse of the kind of work we’ll be interested in doing, and then some. And we’re also quite interested in the potential for podcasts—and of course, on developing an active and collaborative relationship with our audience.
EH: What's most exciting about climate tech (or the climate convo) right now?
JSJ: I’m just thrilled by the momentum that the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress has brought to the climate policy realm. It seems that every day brings a major new announcement, another major initiative, on that front. It’s exciting to see individuals who I’ve met and interacted with in their roles at think tanks and NGOs taking senior leadership positions in federal government, and putting their acumen and commitment to work in crafting policy. And the emphasis throughout the administration’s climate policy toward energy equity and environmental justice, and on emphasizing the very real economic development and job-creation opportunities in industries that were considered marginal when I started at GTM – it’s so encouraging to see the potential made manifest. I’m excited as a journalist covering it, but I’m also excited as a citizen and a resident of this planet –although, of course, I’m retaining a healthy sense of discernment in terms of examining the facts underlying the policies at hand.
EH: What inspired your interest in climate journalism?
JSJ: I will be honest—I got scared. I was a bit of a climate and environmental pessimist at first—this was back in my early days of newspaper journalism, working at the Tri-City Herald, a small daily newspaper in Richland, Washington, which is the hometown of Pacific Northwest National Lab, but was essentially created from scratch by the U.S. government in the 1940s to house workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation, one of the primary sites for manufacturing the plutonium that went into the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. Hanford is, today, a very scary place, but in a very slow-moving way—tanks full of radioactive sludge, slowly leaching through the single-shell concrete tanks set into the scrubland along the Columbia River, and a multi-billion dollar waste remediation effort that has yet to succeed in accomplishing what it was promising to do back when I was there from 2002 to 2004, which is convert that waste into a form that can be stored in a fashion that doesn’t make it a threat to every living thing that may get too close to it. Now, that’s a very different threat than climate change, obviously – but it did give me some perspective on the slow-moving nature of human-caused environmental crises. And at the same time, the Tri-City Herald was where I first got to report on the smart grid—PNNL’s GridWise project—and innovative forms of solar power, and wind power, and energy storage, and I just kind of made it a part of my beat, as best I could, working at the business desk of the Tri-City Herald, and then the Fresno Bee from 2006 to 2008, until GTM’s first editor in chief, Jennifer Kho – who’s now a senior advisor at Canary Media, by the way – gave me the chance to make it my beat, full time.
EH: How can PR pros be most helpful to you?
JSJ: Well, now that I’m editor in chief, I am getting so many – so many—emails on a daily basis, I barely know how to keep up with giving each of them a cursory read, let alone a substantive reply. But I’m going to keep it up, because I am well aware of all the things that I don’t know that I don’t know, and I’m constantly being surprised, pleasantly so, by what I’m able to learn, and cover, when I do carve out that time to read thoroughly, and respond with focus and intent. Of course, I’m rarely able to jump on all the stories I’m excited about covering – I’m constantly making lists of items I want to follow up on, and that list is constantly growing – but I suppose I’d ask all of you bringing these stories to our attention to be patient with us – we’re trying the best we can to keep up! – and to be persistent as well. Help us understand how the companies you’re working with, the information you’re trying to share with a broader audience, relate to the big-picture issues we’re working to solve. And the other thing I’m trying to do is to make sure that whatever I can’t cover on the spot, so to speak, I am putting into my memory bank, so that when the time arises that I’m hot on a breaking story, and I’m searching for sources of information that pertains to the subject of the day, I’m able to recall and reach out and include that information in the work I’m doing – and if there’s any way for you all to help us in that task, to make what you share with us “indexable,” so to speak, and applicable for reporting purposes beyond the primary pitch—well, if you can figure out a way to make that easier for us, I’ll certainly make use of it.