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Mónica Guzmán

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May 10, 2014 at 8:00 PM

15 years of green: As Grist covers sustainability, it proves its own

Green and hardy: Lisa Hymas, center, is senior editor of Seattle-based online environmental magazine Grist, which marks its 15th anniversary this year. (MARK HARRISON/SEATTLE TIMES)

Green and hardy: Lisa Hymas, center, is senior editor of Seattle-based online environmental magazine Grist, which marks its 15th anniversary this year. (MARK HARRISON/SEATTLE TIMES)

In an eighth-floor office of the downtown Dexter Horton building is proof that covering one of the most pressing concerns of our time can be fun.

“Laugh now,” reads the About page of green news magazine Grist.org, “or the planet gets it.”

For 15 years, Seattle’s most influential issue-based media outlet has told a story of sustainability — and not just the environmental kind.

The snarky, nonprofit news site that seemed so oddball when it launched in1999 today runs a staff of 30, reaches 2 million monthly readers with stories about everything from climate policy to toilet water, and models for anyone paying attention how to earn and keep a prime spot in an ever-busy marketplace of ideas.

At least, for now.

This week, Grist is in fundraiser mode. A virtual gong sounds in the office whenever a reader gives a gift to support the site, like the $15 birthday bucks it started asking readers for Tuesday. The goal is 2,500 gifts by May 20. As of Thursday, 700 readers had already pitched in.

Senior editor Lisa Hymas was here at the beginning. She didn’t think, back then, that Grist would last this long.

“At first, people were like, ‘What? Green media? Only online? Nonprofit?’” she said. “Now we have people coming to us, ‘How did you make that happen? How do we do that?’”

It helped to be small, scrappy and willing to experiment when the Web threw its curveballs, founder Chip Giller told me over coffee that he had the staff at Trabant pour into his reusable cup. It didn’t hurt, either, when pioneers like WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg joined its board.

But looking back, Grist’s resilience probably started with its voice. Giller was tired of a glum, self-righteous environmentalism that preached guilt and sacrifice and took itself too seriously. As Grist grew, so did a sense that green living wasn’t for hermits or hippies, but maybe everyone. Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” helped make climate consciousness hip in the mid-2000s, social media synced Grist’s conversational tone to a growing vernacular, and by the 2008 election cycle every major presidential candidate was going to Grist to present his or her views on climate policy.

Grist was a culture fit. Staffers like editor Greg Hanscom, who showed me pictures of the utility bike he rides with his kids, and Grist fellow Samantha Larson — who in 2007 became the youngest person to hike all seven continents’ highest summits when she reached the top of Mount Everest at 18 — bring something raw and relatable to their writing.

But like any digital media outlet that knows what’s what, Grist doesn’t rely on gut feel to stay relevant. That’s where the science of online media metrics comes in. A short survey that used to pop up every year, then every quarter, now reaches readers on a regular, customized schedule. Developers track the demographics — half of Grist’s readers are under 35 — and experiment to find the best configuration of items on the site.

It’s the new reality of a noisier world: Digital audiences tend to scatter if you don’t learn all you can about how to keep them.

“The more engineers we have,” Giller said, “the more we grow.”

The eyeballs, though, are not the target. Grist’s nonprofit status means that when its many funders ask about the site’s impact, the staff needs to have an answer, and it does. Sixty-five percent of Grist readers do something as a result of what they see on the site, including passing it on through social channels like Facebook, where Grist stories soar.

Those are the places staffer Hanna Welch spends most of her time, browsing dashboards and social-analytics platforms on three monitors to track story spread, new rising topics, and — maybe the trickiest — Grist’s influence on the larger green conversation. When a politician, large environmental organization or celebrity shares a Grist story, Hanna is the first to know.

No one at Grist drives to the office, but when I griped to staffers in the office last week about the sad state of downtown parking, they sympathized anyway.

That seemed to fit the Grist way.

“Working toward sustainability shouldn’t be about making you feel guilty,” Hymas said.

Giller likes to say Grist’s vision is a world where living green is second nature.

The way to it — sustainably, at least — could be pretty laid back.

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