What’s the Story? – A workshop about environmental historians and the media
A workshop held on 17 November 2012 designed to assist environmental historians develop their stills in, and strategies for, working with the media. Led by Erin Gill (@erinjacqgill), an energy and environmental journalist and environmental historian.
Notes by Erin Gill
Below are notes I took during the workshop. |Within these I have embedded two images of the ‘drawings’ I made on the day. I hope you will be able to view these without difficulty. In case you can’t I’ve added them as attachments, along with a few other photos.
My apologies for any errors of fact or meaning in these notes – please let me know if you spot errors, so that I can correct my copy of the notes for future reference!
My hope is that you finding reading these notes a useful reminder of the themes of the day and of any insights you may have gained into the direction you’d like to head in with regard to engaging with the press.
We began the workshop by introducing ourselves and explaining what we hoped to gain from it.
Lucy Veale – University of Nottingham, geography department. Lucy has been involved in the AHRC-funded Weather walks, weather talks project with Georgina Endfield. Her research focuses on the British climatologist Gordon Manley (1902-1980). Lucy had some experience of dealing with the press she worked with Paul Warde on the Sheringham Park exhibition, but she feels there were more opportunities that could have been pursued. She attended the workshop in the hope of getting some tips about how to communicate better with the media.
Chris Pearson – lecturer in twentieth century history at University of Liverpool. Chris’ research background includes looking at the environmental history of war and militarised landscapes. He’s currently working on the history of dogs in Paris, but plans to make this a more transnational study. Chris’ media experience includes producing his own blog – Sniffing the Past – and doing some tweeting (@SniffThePastDog). This has all been self taught and he’d like to learn how to speak to the press.
Leona Skelton – has recently submitted her PhD thesis, which focuses on how waste was managed in early Edinburgh and York. She currently works for a commercial gas supplier, but has remained involved in environmental history via the Kielder oral history project with David Moon, which is part of the AHRC-funded hsitories of environmental change network. Leona has recently completed transcription of the project’s 37 interviews with Kielder residents. Her media experience includes writing an article for History Scotland magazine and for Durham University’s alumni publication for history graduates. She would like to make more of an effort to engage with the media and to make sure her work doesn’t remain stuck in the ivory tower.
Jill Payne, teaches British and sub-saharan African politics and political economy at University of Bristol, including the politics of HIV/AIDS. Jill’s own research focuses on the history of landscape protection and hydroelectricity projects in Britain and Africa. She has had some experience of working with the Guardian’s Comment is Free editors, but found that she couldn’t offer what they wanted. Jill felt that they wanted her and her writing partner to go beyond what would be ethical and to prescribe policy.
Marianna Dudley, University of Bristol, worked on the AHRC-funded militarised landscapes project and is currently working on the history of landscape protection in Britain, specifically National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Marianna is comfortable using social media personally, but not professionally. A few months ago, she was approached by Radio 4 out of the blue and did an interview. The interview wasn’t used in the end, but Marianna enjoyed the experience and would like to be able to do more media work in future.
Joseph Da Costa (@JosephMdaCosta), is an MA student at King’s College London. Joseph’s research includes looking at how national perceptions of environment link with colonial ideology. He worries about the relevance of academic work and would like to use media to make his research more accessible.
Mel Porter, public affairs manager at History &Policy, with a remit to work with historians to help them communicate with policy makers, either directly or via the media. Mel’s background includes time working as a communications officer within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and as a news analyst within the Cabinet Office. She has a BA in modern history and an MA in journalism. She attended the workshop primarily as an observer, but offered much useful input.
Marcus Hall, University of Zurich. Marcus teaches history within an environmental sciences department. This can be a challenge. He has both a science and humanities background and his current research includes a focus on disease ecology and the impact of parasites on human affairs. Marcus is not convinced that people are reading books any more and suspects there may be better outlets for communicating with the wider public than the traditional printed page. He wants to make sure he reaches people.
Paul Warde (@pswarde) – an historian at University of East Anglia and a senior editor with History & Policy, and one of the forces behind the AHRC-funded histories of environmental change network. Paul’s research began with a focus on forests and he has what he describes as a healthy obsession with the history of potash production. Recently, energy history has been a big part of Paul’s work as well as the history of prediction. Paul admits to having a ‘basic discomfort’ in dealing with the media and he often turns down offers to do media interviews. Historians are trained to be obsessively careful about detail, which is not a characteristic generally shared by the media. But he is aware that a lot of policy is informed by implicit historical narratives that are presented by the press.
Peter Coates – professor of American and environmental history at University of Bristol and principal investigator for the AHRC-funded histories of environmental change network. Peter’s recent research has included the environmental histories of rivers and he is interested in the way the media represents invasive species. He feels that the importance of public engagement by historians – giving talks at local history societies and the like – has been superseded in Britain by the requirement to have ‘impact’ in a policy or business sense. Peter also shares Marcus’ concern about whether the printed page is the way to reach people now. Yet academic credibility is still measured in terms of individually-authored monographs. Impact is additional work, yet it seems that the humanities is gradually moving toward the science model, which is collaborative and team based. Peter describes his experience with the press as largely negative and often involving unexpected calls from researchers wanting to check facts – essentially, seeking to use an historian as a cheap (or free) researcher. Peter would like to be more in control of how he works with the media. When it comes to media narratives about invasive species, Peter is aware of the same storylines being repeatedly deployed, narratives that simple, entrenched and xenophobic, leaving no room for the complexity of the issues raised.
David Moon – previously at Durham, David has just taken a post at University of York, focusing on Russian and transnational environmental history. He has worked with Peter, Paul and Georgina Endfield on the AHRC-funded histories of environmental change network. David has written articles for history magazines produced for 6th formers and he would like to do more media work. He is aware of how different the worlds of academia and journalism are in terms of production timescales. It takes ten years to produce an academic monograph, but with a blog it’s possible to write something in just one hour. David finds that writing more quickly can be creative and interesting. A while ago David recorded a podcast as part of Jan Oosthoek’s Exploring Environmental History Podcast series and was struck that it received the same number of hits as many of his books have sold. He also is aware that academic work favours more introverted personalities, while journalism favours extroversion.
Next, we shared some of our ideas for publicising our research. As the number of ideas built up and as discussion about them developed, I was struck – and excited – by how diverse they were and how each workshop participant had his/ her own ideas that fit with individual interests and experience. It was a wonderful reminder that working with the press and the public is best viewed as an experimental and creative process, rather than a formulaic ‘must-do’ tick-box exercise. This is especially the case at the moment, with the media in a state of flux as it adapts to the creative and financial implications of new technology.
David Moon – is working on an application for Leverhulme Trust funding in order to replicate the model of the AHRC histories of environmental change network with researchers of Russian environmental history. He would like to find ways to publicise the activities of the new network, not least to increase its profile and secure funding. Ideas include working with BBC History Magazine to produce a substantial article/podcast/multi-media offering about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown.
Jill Payne – Would like to explore how to re-work articles she has/ is writing for the purpose of the REF so that they are relevant to a lay audience. One topic that could be interesting is the way Iceland is in the midst of selling of its natural resources to the highest bidder. One option could be for Jill to focus on writing for smaller circulation publications with expert readerships. Such readerships often don’t ‘demand’ the level of generalisation and simplistic policy recommendations that editors of the Guardian’s and the Telegraph’s comment pieces generally require.
Thinking about Jill’s options a few publications come to mind. These aren’t necessarily the perfect ‘fit’ but may offer some food for thought. The Environmentalist, published on behalf of the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Management. By contributing this publication it is possible to reach tens of thousands of primarily UK-based environmental professionals working in the private and public sector. Many of its readers are involved in developing local, national, EU and/or corporate environmental policies. A similar organisation, but one that serves environmental professionals working within the water and wastewater management sectors is the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management. They have a range of titles, including a membership magazine called WEM.
Marianna Dudley – in order to fulfill the requirements of the AHRC, Marianna will write two academic journal articles. In addition, she would like to write for regional newspapers/ magazines (ie. Pembrokeshire Life-type journals or the Swansea local newspaper) and journals published by civic society/ amenity organisations. She already has plans to write for the Gower Society’s journal. Historians’ research regularly involves the unearthing of stories that are of interest to the curious lay reader and regional and NGO publications can be ‘hungry’ for such copy. In particular, local magazines that exist primarily to sell advertising (esp property ads) are often put together by small and sometimes quite inexperienced editorial teams. They need articles to ensure their publications’ are not filled with nothing by adverts and they often welcome local history articles (though you may have to write for very little or nothing – but be sure to begin by asking about freelance payment rates).
One of the biggest UK publishers of glossy county magazines – which are surprisingly well read, if only because they are free and in every hairdresser’s and local tea shop – is Archant Life. If you want to write about history for real people, the likes of Kent Life and Lancashire Life are a good option. It can be a challenge to reach editorial staff on these magazines, but don’t give up. They desperately need editorial content. When I am determined to reach someone who is being evasive I use a technique I like to call ‘polite persistence’ – brief emails, regular calls to the switchboard, etc until they know you won’t go away. And be ready with what you want to say & propose for the unexpected moment when you’re suddenly able to speak to someone relevant.
Paul – there are a range of topics that Paul could write about, including forestry issues, since people like reading about trees. However, Paul also has an interest in writing opinion pieces that could help to inform policymaking. Potential topics relevant at the moment include the history of energy efficiency, energy transitions and natural capital accounting (including exploring the idea that we’ve become more, rather than, less sustainable in the way we use natural resources since industrialisation). Discussion about Paul’s ideas included an exploration of how Twitter can help an individual academic develop a reputation for being a credible voice within a specific policy area. Examples of academics that have built such reputations, in part by using Twitter include @AliceBell and @DavidLambert and @PlanktonMath.
Since the workshop I have begun using the hashtag #envhist for some of my tweets – ie. those that discuss the importance/ relevance of environmental history or feature an example of environmental history linking to contemporary issues. Feel free to use #envhist, too, and to search using this hashtag. It’s one way of creating an environmental history Twitter community.
Peter Coates – one of Peter’s responsibilities is running University of Bristol’s public history MA?? programme, which includes links with a heritage site, an independent film company in Bristol, the war ship-turned-tourist attraction SS Great Britain and BBC History Magazine. One of Peter’s fears is that there is a popular historian inside him tempted to emerge, and part of him would welcome the opportunity to write things such a regular column for the public, etc. But with so many other demands on time and with no ‘official’ support for such work is it a wise thing to be interested in? On the other hand, why not devote some time to writing that isn’t for the REF? If an historian has been writing all the ‘right’ things for decades, isn’t there a point at which you can experiment and try new forms of writing/ speaking/ collaborating? The problem is that there may not be any money and/or time off to pursue it, especially in the early stages.
David Moon made the point that seemingly ‘extra’ work that doesn’t have official sanction can develop in ‘useful’ ways. David’s podcast about his visit to Ukrainian nature reserves evolved into the epilogue for his latest book.
Joseph Da Costa – wants to be able to comment in some way on how ideas about the environment and identity can shape access to resources. His own research into how Portuguese views about man’s role as the dominator of nature shaped Portuguese colonial attitudes has alerted him to this connection. One option open to Jo would be to begin to respond to what he reads online by posting comments. This would offer an outlet for his reactions and give him an opportunity to practise opinion-based writing in ways that he can shape himself.
The people who moderate the public comments posted in response to newspaper articles struggle on a daily basis in the face of waves of reactionary, angry and, in many cases, threatening statements. The occasional sane, thoughtful and/ or positive comment does a world of good. Of course, the Guardian’s environment section is an obvious place to begin, but if you’re feeling brave there is also the Telegraph’s earth section. The key is not to read too many of the aggressive posts by others. Select to read only those posts that are genuine contributions to debate and let the other stuff slip away like water off a duck’s back.
Marcus Hall – Many people have chosen to be historians partially to avoid day-to-day reactive interaction of the sort required by the media. People tend to be historians because they want to offer something more digested and better researched. Marcus is also aware that he wants to write in a way that shows people history, rather than hitting them over the head with it. He wants to write something that has ‘art’ to it, so that the writing has a life of its own. One option discussed that might work for Marcus is to stick with the traditional approach of researching and writing books, but plan to publicise/ promote his work more in the way that fiction and popular non-fiction authors now do, which is increasingly via literary festivals and readings. This would allow Marcus to be proud of the research that goes into his work, but to also engage occasionally, and for short bursts, in a more extroverted, media-friendly approach that offers the potential to increase readership and widen the dissemination of his arguments.
The literary festival that kicked off the current craze in the UK is, of course, the Hay Festival, which has become an international brand. Smaller and specialist festivals have sprung up, including the Cheltenham science festival. Trying to write a book-length work in a different style – perhaps with more ‘art’ to the prose than is normally expected of academic publications – can take time and experimentation. The Arvon Foundation offers an increasing number of short residential courses for non-fiction writers.
Lucy Veale – One of Lucy’s research interests is the history of Britain’s only named wind, which is the Helm wind. Wind is a neglected area of climate history and Lucy is looking forward to doing some oral history as part of her research. Her feeling is that the story of the Helm wind lends itself to illustration, so she may look into ways of using illustration – perhaps in the form of a film animation – to engage with a non-academic community.
The rise of Youtube has seen an explosion in short, explanatory films that often use animation. Short films are ideal for the communication of historical research – using film footage, the talking head format or animation, or a combination. The RSA has used animation to enormous effect with its RSA Animate series of talks. People watch them, upload them onto Facebook and Twitter. Amongst my favourites are the animation of Dan Pink’s talk about what really drives us in our working lives and Philip Zimbardo’s talk on perceptions of time. So many ideas in 10 minutes! Maybe we should create a similar animated film for Youtube about environmental history? Let’s win AHRC funding for that.
Chris – Is using his blog and Twitter account to generate interest in his research. Once his research has progressed further, Chris would like to write articles for magazines such as BBC History Magazine, History Today and dog magazines, including the magazine published by the French Kennel Club. Given that Chris would like eventually to publish a book about urban dogs that would be of interest to a lay audience, he could try to use his blog and tweeting to demonstrate to a trade publisher (ie. a non-academic publisher) that he has built a sizeable audience and, thus, secure a publishing deal for a ‘public’ book. Chris could also use magazine articles to demonstrate to publishers that he has a ‘public’ profile – he may not need to wait as long as he thinks to begin writing magazine articles.
There must also be a huge dog-obsessed Twitter and Facebook community out there. It takes effort to market oneself via Twitter, but it can pay off. A half-day course on Twitter marketing? It might generate ideas about practical ways to get the Sniff the Past blog known by more people. Or there’s all the free marketing tips on the interweb. The first thing that came up on a google search re: Twitter marketing was this: http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/17-twitter-marketing-tips-from-the-pros/
Leona – Leona’s experience has been that people are often interested in her research once they realise what it’s about. She’d like to write a blog and to write for the public in other ways, but her priority is to secure an academic job and that means that she needs to focus on things like writing for traditional academic publications. Discussion about Leona’s options was interesting. On the one hand, it was agreed that she will need to demonstrate that she’s writing for respected academic outlets. On the other hand, some felt that if Leona were to write a blog and to engage with the public in other ways, this might distinguish her from the competition when she’s trying to get that first job.
The rest of the flipchart brainstorming images