It’s fair to say, I think, that when we first began to talk with Jocelyn Zuckerman about investigating the rampantly growing palm oil industry it was by no means a slam dunk that we would move forward with the project. Yes, the topic was unquestionably a worthy one: The clearing of rainforests and burning of deep tropical peatlands in Indonesia transform one of the world’s most important carbon sinks into a massive carbon spewer, while the building of palm plantations gives poachers easy access to Helmeted Hornbills and the prized “golden ivory” casques on the upper part of their bills. And I could personally attest—as someone who had somehow remained mostly ignorant of the palm oil menace—that the story had real potential to open readers’ eyes and spur them to action. But it’s also a costly story to produce. To report it, Zuckerman would have to go to Sumatra, where locals could show her firsthand the industry’s devastating effects.
We take great care here in our cost-benefit considerations around how we spend the money that you generously provide through your membership fees and donations. And so it was our great good fortune that Zuckerman was able to connect us with the folks at Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), an independent, nonprofit journalism organization whose mission is to help bring just this sort of underreported, critically important story to light.
Founded five years ago, FERN is among a growing cadre of organizations (Propublica, Climate Central, InsideClimate News, among many others) that have sprung up to foster public-interest journalism during a period of disinvestment by revenue-challenged mainstream outlets. “At the same time that newspapers and magazines were cutting back on the environmental beat, there was an insatiable appetite for these kinds of stories among readers,” says Sam Fromartz, FERN cofounder and editor-in-chief. “We knew the demand was there; it’s just that the model for supplying it was broken.” Rather than rely on advertising revenue to stay afloat, FERN and other such nonprofits mostly raise funds from foundations and, increasingly, direct donations by individuals who care deeply about the subjects they cover.
In the case of Zuckerman’s palm oil proposal, FERN agreed to cover half of the writer’s fee and half the cost of her reporting trip to Indonesia. Zuckerman’s powerful investigative report is a tribute to FERN and the new model of cooperative journalism it’s pioneering.