Daily Maverick funds climate journalism project with bank sponsor

By Peter Bale

INMA

New Zealand and the U.K.

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In 2018 Cape Town, the coastal South African city of 4.6 million people, nearly ran out of water — not just a shortage or a drought. It went close to having to ration water. It’s a problem other cities, notably Los Angeles and others fed by the Colorado River system, are confronting.

For Jillian Green at the Daily Maverick, it was the year the media company it had to get serious about covering climate change, which is already having a big impact in Africa.

“In terms of our motivation, Cape Town’s drought three years ago really put it into sharp focus that it’s [happening] now. We approached Day Zero so closely because of drought, not anything else. And tied in with the fact that everything that was happening globally, it felt the right time,” Jillian told me in a conversation ahead of the November 9 INMA Webinar, The Business of Climate Change Reporting.

The Daily Maverick's special project Our Burning Planet has a team of 10 reporters focused on climate change.
The Daily Maverick's special project Our Burning Planet has a team of 10 reporters focused on climate change.

Our Burning Planet vertical

Since then Jillian, who is managing editor at Our Burning Planet and is also deputy editor editor of the Daily Maverick, has built a team of 10 reporters focused on climate change and its impacts. The vertical is fully integrated within the wider offering of the Daily Maverick.

Three critical elements have made that possible: 

  1. Sponsorship directly for climate coverage.

  2. Engaging readers in a way that makes them feel hopeful rather than defeated.

  3. And trust: reporting on climate change in a way that is responsible and honest.

“It's giving people information that they can use to make informed decisions,” Jillian said. “There’s a fine balance between putting in front of people what’s happening with the climate crisis and also empowering people, giving them hope.”

Data and content analysis are helping Our Burning Planet address climate subjects in a compelling and engaging way.

“People often think climate change is somewhere in the future and they don’t have to deal with it now. We’ve got to think about how do we do headlines that will attract the reader to read but are not clickbait — that is a true reflection of the story. I think there’s an extra responsibility on journalism not to do clickbait, that there’s that level of trust. With climate crisis, the issue so so big that we can’t afford to stuff it up,” she said with classic South African understatement.

A no-strings-attached sponsor

As with any editorial project, the business model for Our Burning Planet is critical. In this case, the project is driven by sponsorship from the South African bank ABSA, itself a lender to the fossil fuel industry among others. Backing Our Burning Planet is part of ABSA’s in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment.

Jillian says ABSA has no editorial influence and understands that Our Burning Planet may write about its clients and its investments. She says will do so without fear or favour.

“They’re not allowed to greenwash through us. We focus on the bank’s support of fossil fuels. We ask the same hard questions we do of anyone we write about… .We bite that hand that feeds us constantly,” she says.

The Our Burning Planet approach appears to be working with readers as well as the sponsor. Green says the section has grown by 300% in pageviews in the past two years and brings in about 400,000 unique users a month.

So, maybe it’s possible to combine must-read reporting on climate change with good business.

Register here for the free INMA Webinar on The Business of Climate Change Reporting on November 9.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Peter Bale

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