The national outdoor retailer REI Co-op wants to get people off their phones and into the outdoors by investing in local news organizations and publishing its own magazine instead of a catalog.
The recreational outdoor equipment store is scheduled to publish its new magazine, Uncommon Path, this fall.
REI also announced it would match up to $10,000 in fundraising efforts to 10 local news organizations that have a focus on environmental and investigative reporting.
The switch to an editorial print publication came with the natural evolution of the catalog, which had become more editorially focused in recent years, said Paolo Mottola, editorial director of Uncommon Path.
REI, which is organized as a cooperative, has produced a wide range of content covering educational, utilitarian, informational and entertainment topics, he said. The co-op’s purpose is to awaken a long-lived love of the outdoors, Mottola said.
“What if we took the elements of storytelling that are happening digitally, really brought those to life in more of the traditional print format, and invited people to indulge in storytelling that is off of their phones in more of a focused way,” Mottola said.
The publication will continue to show some merchandise in the magazine, but the form of the content will be an editorial fashion. The gear highlighted in Uncommon Path will be gear that’s been tested by the writers, Mottola said. Products that are built sustainably, inspired by a place or event, or innovated for a sustainable reason will be highlighted in the magazine.
People who previously received an REI catalog may also receive the first issue of Uncommon Path when it’s mailed. Any of the cooperative’s 18 million members may also receive the magazine. Mottola said a “subscription-type” service will be evaluated later on.
First, the co-op wants to understand the reception of the magazine itself. Uncommon Path will be sold at all of the REI stores and select newsstands.
Stories that reside outside
Uncommon Path will feature stories that explore topics like equity, climate, and sustainability through the outdoors, Mottola said.
The first issue features Nedra Deadwyler, the founder of Civil Bikes, on a bike trip in Atlanta, Georgia.
Civil Bikes is an organization that puts people on bikes to explore places in Atlanta that were affected by the Civil War and race. Mottola said the feature on Deadwyler’s organization is a great example of a story that explores equity in an environmental way.
“That is a form of tourism. The way into that form of tourism is through history, race, equity and certainly an outdoor experience. An outdoor experience to learn,” Mottola said.
Empowering local environmental journalism
REI is investing up to $100,000 into local newsrooms across the US as a second effort to strengthen environmental journalism.
“We believe there’s not enough media journalism happening around the outdoors and environmentalism,” Mottola said. “We wanted to create a way to support external nonprofit independent newsrooms and we wanted to do that with integrity and respect with what those newsrooms are trying to accomplish.”
Among the local news organization benefiting from the REI investments are InvestigateWest from Washington state, Carolina Public Press from North Carolina, Adirondack Explorer fromNew York, EcoRI from Rhode Island, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in Illinois, High Country News in Colorado, Bay Nature Institute in California, Wisconsin Watch in Wisconsin, VTDigger in Vermont, and Southerly in the American South.
News organizations receiving investments are nonprofit newsrooms covering issues concerning the environment.
REI is contributing the money through NewsMatch, a fundraising campaign funded by the Knight Foundation and Miami Foundation, to match news organization’s fundraising efforts up to $10,000 for 10 news groups.
Pamela Dempsey, the executive director of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, said news organizations like hers must initially raise $10,000 in individual donations to be eligible. (Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of the GJR is president of the board of the Midwest Center.)
If the Midwest Center does fundraise the $10,000, the matching money from REI will go to expenses related to the reporting the center does.
Fundraising is always a conversation to have, Dempsey said.
An example of the cost of investigative reporting Dempsey shared is an ongoing project about pesticide drift that has damaged millions of acres of cotton and soybean farms.
As a way to report on pesticides differently, the project has been measuring pesticide drift in five locations since 2018. This project has cost the Midwest Center over $10,000 Dempsey said.
The center’s reporting on pesticides focused on Monsanto’s use of the old pesticide dicamba. According to the report, millions of acres suffered crop damage because of the weed killer drifting into fields of crops.
Environmental news organizations and reporters rely on investments from organizations such as the Society for Environmental Journalists for resources. The organization provides story grants up to $5,000 to support environmental journalists, said Meaghan Parker, the executive director of SEJ.
The organization supports large and small newspapers with financial support including the Guardian US, High Country News, and The New Orleans Advocate. SEJ tries to support in-depth reporting that is not available with current budgets, Parker said.
The organization is supporting three coverage projects in three outlets but there are hundreds of communities in the nation that need access to information about their environment.
A problem facing environmental journalism, along with the industry is money, Parker said.
“It’s always money; it continues to be money,” Parker said. “That has two roots. One is of course the collapse of the media industry which has affected many beats, not just the environment but the environment was one of the most vulnerable.”
The other root of the problem is the environment beat isn’t popular with general interest publications.
“They’re seen as a fringe or luxury,” she said.
But SEJ’s and Parker’s perspective is that there is nothing more important than the local environment.
“It is the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat,” Parker said. “That is essential to your very existence.”
When cuts are made in the newsroom the environmental beat is either the first to be cut completely or shrunk.
Journalism organizations are predominantly the funders of the Midwest Center but the organization is reaching out to the public for more individual donations, Dempsey said.
“It’s always a question of where will that individual dollar come from,” she said.
Andy Hall, the executive director and co-founder of Wisconsin Watch, said, “I welcome the support from individuals, corporations and organizations that recognize the critical importance of journalism to our way of life.”
Wisconsin Watch is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization housed at School of Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The newsroom focuses on government accountability and quality of life including economic, cultural and justice issues, Hall said.
REI’s investment will help Wisconsin Watch continue to train the next generation’s investigative journalists, Hall said. The money can be used to fund the work of an intern for half a year and support travel expenses to cover stories that extend out of state.
“We will work hard to continue that to better fulfill our mission and reach more people,” Hall said. “The mission of the organization is to increase the quality, quantity, and understanding of investigative journalism to inform and strengthen democracy.”
Wisconsin Watch has an audience of about 82 million. Newsrooms or new broadcast shows can use its reporting through a password protected section of Wisconsin Watch’s website, Hall said.
An “Uncommon Path” for advocacy reporting
REI decided to invest in local news organizations because the co-op wanted to see more reporting and media outdoors, but also knew that it wasn’t in the role to tell all stories, Mottola said.
The issue of climate change and the individual or collective impact on climate is hard to grapple with, he said. That is why REI doesn’t presume that as a retailer and co-op out of Seattle, Washington that it can communicate relevantly in every community, even ones with an REI store, he said.
For people to take action about climate change, issues need to have a local focus, Mottola said.
“We wanted to encourage and enable more newsrooms and independent newsrooms to expand their outdoor environmental coverage,” Mottola said.
Mottola said his colleagues made the decision of investment as they observed local newsrooms and climate change coverage shrinking.
“We know that is creating a disservice to the community they [local news] serve,” Mottola said. “Climate change is the pressing issue of our time and generation.”
It’s an issue that largely remains untold, Parker said.
When asked if Mottola thinks more corporations or business organizations will begin making investments in civic initiatives like journalism, Mottola said it was hard to say.
Wisconsin Watch’s Hall said news organizations need to keep complete editorial and journalistic independence for this model of journalism funding to work.
“It’s important to be open to the public about the sources of our funding,” Hall said.
Corporate support in journalism is something that should be thought through in a mindful manner, Hall said. In the future, he said it was likely to see more corporate support for topics that people believe in.
The industry as a whole is looking at a variety of funding models, Dempsey said.
“What might work for some, might not work for others,” Dempsey said in an email. “I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution, however, there are lessons we can learn moving forward and best practices to draw upon.”
A long-term solution for communities without environmental coverage are the locally driven start-up outlets, Parker said. Southerly, started by SEJ board member Lydnsey Gilpin, was started in response to a gap in regional reporting in the midsouth.
The best way to improve environmental reporting is to increase it, Parker said.
“It’s an incredible example of what someone can do when they see a huge gap and can figure out how to fill it,” Parker said.
For REI, it’s the love of the outdoors that inspires its work and financial support for environmental journalism.
“We’ve got an agenda. We want to see more people in the outdoors and understand the problems facing the outdoors,” Mottola said.
Amelia Blakely reported from Carbondale, Illinois, where she is a student at Southern Illinois University. You can find her on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.