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Conservation writing: The outdoor media's dirty little secret

BY BEAU BEASLEY
“Beau, we’re simply not going to run this conservation piece you’ve sent us. Furthermore, if the editor ever offers to run anything like this from you again, I’ve told him he’ll be fired.”
I’d written for a certain fly-fishing magazine several times during the past decade and had an excellent relationship with its staff, so the publisher’s words floored me. I liked the magazine. I knew its readers would eat up my article. I worked hard on this piece and did my homework. And yet it was clear that the publisher would not run my well-researched and balanced article now or ever. What went wrong?
I’d been working for months on a piece about menhaden, an imperiled baitfish. The menhaden issue was politically charged up and down the East Coast and especially in my home state of Virginia, where conservationists and recreational anglers believed an industrial fishing fleet was jeopardizing the future of the small but crucial menhaden. I had already sent the piece to another magazine I frequently write for, but when I received a proof, I found that the editor had deleted the name of the commercial fishing company every time I used it. In the end I pulled the piece myself rather than let it run watered down. Publication after publication subsequently turned the piece down, and I had to ask myself, “Why won’t anyone run this piece?”
Very few outdoor magazines actually want to run well-researched, evenhanded conservation articles. Why is this? I think there are several reasons. First, their readers don’t want to read them. So much of our culture has become politicized, and our politics are now highly polarized. As a result, we find that even something as innocuous as a baitfish becomes a political football, with stakeholders lining up on either side of the field to hurl epithets at one another. Our polarized politics mean that instead of sitting down to discuss an issue with folks we disagree with but to whom we ascribe the best motives, we automatically assume the worst about our opponents. They aren’t just wrong — they’re malicious, corrupt and self-serving. (Think I’m wrong? Try this: When you’re next surrounded by a group of conservationists, tell them that you’re not convinced that the projected benefits of “fighting” anthropogenic global warming justify its astronomical costs. Then sit back and watch what happens. You’ll soon find yourself all alone at the bar.) Needless to say, this kind of thinking makes dialogue and compromise nearly impossible.
Writers are not immune to this demonizing. On the contrary, we tend to feed it. It is, after all, much easier to write a red-meat advocacy piece to throw to a sympathetic readership than it is to do the yeoman’s work of researching not just the positions of all sides but the studies that undergird those positions. It’s harder work and it’s thankless, too. People prefer to read that which reinforces their biases and not that which forces them to question those biases. So readers don’t want to read questions, they want to read answers: This is right, that is wrong, this is good, that is bad. The reality, however, is that few things in life are that simple.
Second, outdoor magazines are businesses and must make money. They cannot afford to publish what they believe, rightly or wrongly, will antagonize their advertisers. And these days, as we’ve just seen, nearly everything offends someone.
Finally, serious research takes a great deal of time — and time is money. Writing a piece about a local Trout Unlimited club dropping a few trout in the water or planting some trees near a local creek is infinitely easier than digging deeper into a story about a manufacturer who may or may not be dumping something harmful into a local stream. Publishers are rarely in a position to remunerate an investigative writer with a figure that is commensurate to his labor. Publishers, too, are hesitant to run a piece that might land them in court. As a result, investigative journalists and the papers that love them are both dying breeds.
Despite one editor after another turning it down after six months of searching, “Where Have All the Menhaden Gone?” ran in the May/June issue 2009 of Fly Fish America. I’m pleased to say the article was extremely well received on both sides of the issue. The piece won the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers Association’s award for conservation writing, though I was sorry that the various editors who turned me down weren’t in the audience to watch me receive the award. As outdoor writers, we’re constantly torn between the desire to give the publisher what he or she wants so we get the paycheck we want, and the desire to tell a really compelling story that educates our readers and challenges their assumptions. It’s a fine line to walk, but if we don’t dig deeper and tell the great stories of our day, who will? ◊
A member since 2008, Beau Beasley an awardwinning conservation writer. He lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, Va. You can contact find out more about Beasley at www.beaubeasley.com.

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