Eco-Muckrakers, Dig In — Writing for Nonprofit Ecology and Conservation Magazines

February 15, 2023

Magazines published by environmental organizations can offer the space for thoughtful reporting, suggests the columnist. Photo: Francesca Lyman

Freelance Files: Eco-Muckrakers, Dig In — Writing for Nonprofit Ecology and Conservation Magazines

By Francesca Lyman

What’s your “origin story” as an environmental journalist? Mine was as a young newspaper reporter for The Record in northern New Jersey, pursuing a hot lead from a local antinuclear activist. According to unconfirmed reports, nuclear power plant operators didn’t have enough space to store nuclear waste, it was believed, so they were carrying the waste around in heavy trucks, endlessly circling.

That put me on the trail of a long, front-page investigation into the transportation of radioactive cargo, exposing some of these hidden hazards on New Jersey and New York interstate highways and even local roads.

But not until I left newspapers in my 20s, and became an editor and staff writer at a monthly magazine published by a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization, did I find the time and column inches to report on complex environmental issues on a regular basis.

That magazine, the former Environmental Action, ran long enterprise stories, covering everything from Agent Orange and nuclear power plant decommissioning to asbestos and workplace hazards, at a time when few newspapers had regular environment beat reporters.

That gave me and my fellow editors, all professional writers, the ability to be ahead of the curve of the mainstream press with environmental stories. Case in point: I wrote a long cover story about global warming in 1984, at a time when the issue had been all but buried by the media.


In recent years, new magazines published

by environmental organizations have sprouted,

joining the venerable, old publications of the

conservation and environmental movement.


Magazines published by environmental organizations can offer the space for thoughtful reporting. In recent years, new ones have sprouted, joining the venerable, old publications of the conservation and environmental movement, like Audubon, Sierra and others.

These publications offer great opportunities to freelancers: long-form feature articles, investigations, opinion pieces, profiles, book reviews and more.

“These are good magazines that pay well often and treat their writers well,” says Jane Braxton Little, a freelance writer focused on science and the environment who writes for many publications, including Audubon and Scientific American.

However, because these news outlets are published by advocacy organizations that may conduct some lobbying, and sometimes even political campaigning, it’s important for writers to be aware of what they do so they can know how to guard their journalistic independence.


Hustle with some specialty muscle

Writing for such magazines offers many advantages for environmental journalists, particularly investigative reporters wanting to dig deeply into these subjects. With more space in their pages to devote to specialty topics than magazines for general audiences, these publications also have a readership of committed and well-educated people eager for in-depth material.

With this kind of readership, “You get to be a little more nerdy and more in-depth with them than with a general readership,” says Braxton Little.

Unlike independent media organizations, these outlets are published by organizations dedicated to preserving nature (whether it’s birds or forests) or eradicating unsafe chemicals and dirty practices. Their readers include card-carrying members, activists, academics, students and the general public. They have large national and even international circulations.

Sierra magazine, published by the Sierra Club, for example, boasts a print circulation of more than 500,000, with another 60,000 subscribers viewing the digital rich-media print replica. Nature Conservancy Magazine, published by The Nature Conservancy, has a print circulation of more than 830,000.

They’re not news organizations first, but may consider themselves the media arm of their organizations. Sierra calls itself the “storytelling arm.” Editors of Audubon magazine describe the magazine as “an independent journalism enterprise within the National Audubon Society.”

They don’t just cover their organization’s news, of course. ”We aren’t a Sierra Club newsletter. We are a magazine whose interests extend to the environment writ large,” says Sierra magazine Editor Jason Mark. “While many of our stories do reflect the priorities of our publisher, we also publish a great many stories that are unrelated to Sierra Club campaigns.” Examples include the magazine’s “cultural coverage of environment-related films, books, tv shows, podcasts, etc.”

The Revelator, a relatively new publication covering conservation and wild species, put out by The Center for Biological Diversity beginning in 2017, specifically asks writers not to pitch stories about their parent organization “or issues in which they have an active involvement.”

Editor John Platt says the magazine likes stories that focus on “wild things and nature, big-picture stories that examine trends or wrap up several related studies, local examples that illuminate international issues, and stories that other publications aren't covering. We also like to look at new and emerging threats and, of course, solutions.”


Maintaining a firewall

Most of these flagship publications are published with an independent stance, by a board of editors who are primarily journalists, careful to separate environmental news and feature stories from “house organ” news about their own activities. And many, like Audubon, can tout journalism awards.

Magazines such as Audubon, says a former editor, Rene Ebersole, “are staffed by journalists and editors equipped to understand the difference and appreciate the need for a firewall between the publication and the organization.”

Audubon’s editors say explicitly that “While Audubon publishes stories that reflect the organization’s priorities of birds and conservation, including the work of Audubon [Society] itself, its editors retain authority over editorial content to uphold the journalistic integrity and independence of its reporting.”

The New Lede, a new publication that describes itself as “a journalism initiative of the Environmental Working Group,” is actively looking for writers of in-depth articles on new research. Managing Editor Carey Gillam says the web publication welcomes “stories that inform, educate and engage readers on a wide range of environmental health topics, including PFAS [long-lasting, harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances, sometimes known as ‘forever chemicals’], energy, climate, agriculture and agrochemicals, air and water quality, biodiversity, ocean health, etc.”

Mark, of Sierra, says that magazine is eager to consider “narrative-driven stories that take some important environmental issue and, through the development of character and place, bring that issue to life for our readers.” In 2023, he says, “We are especially interested in stories that can illustrate how the Inflation Reduction Act is being implemented in cities and states.”


Such magazines, says one former editor, are

staffed by journalists and editors equipped to

appreciate the need for a firewall between

the publication and the organization.


Ebersole says that, as a freelancer, she’s glad when such publications pay competitively. “I write about stories that are important and that I can make a living doing,” she says. “It’s a great thing to mix into your portfolio.”

Braxton Little wants to stay more diversified to maintain her credibility as an independent writer. “Yes, I share their mission of protecting birds and other creatures,” she says, “but some have a political mission and I don’t want to fill up my portfolio with publications that have an expressed (advocacy or political) mission. I like to keep my contributions to such publications to no more than one in five as a portion of my portfolio.”


Beware of self-promotion

While writing for such publications generally does not present a conflict of interest, it’s important for journalists to know about any political stances taken by their publishers.

As nonprofit organizations, their lobby activities are limited and their financial transactions are transparent, in contrast to many for-profit media outlets.

For more information, writers can turn to watchdog groups like, and

Another reason for freelancers to be careful in writing for such publications is that some organizations will naturally want to promote their own on-staff experts. That can prove problematic for a journalist’s independence if editors insist on including quotes from their own people or, on the other hand, requiring that rival experts be avoided.

“One of the compromises you make is that in almost all cases (and there are exceptions) many of the editors are interested in stories about their folks,’ says Braxton Little. “Many insist on mentioning their experts.” When that has happened, she says, “I no longer write for them.”

Freelancing for such publications with a clear pro-environment bent, however, can produce unexpected benefits.

When I wrote a piece on scientists studying the depletion of the ozone layer in 1991 for Natural Resources Defense Council’s The Amicus Journal (later called OnEarth but which ceased publication in 2022), their policy people helped me arrange a sit-down interview with Sherwood Rowland, one of the Nobel Prize-winning chemists who originally discovered the chemicals destroying ozone in our stratosphere. That was a real boon to my coverage.

Sharon Guynup, a longtime environmental journalist who has written for National Geographic, a for-profit magazine, as well as the magazine Defenders of Wildlife, says, “To be able to write about climate science without having to include an opposing and unproven ‘other side’ to appear to have balance, that is really freeing.”

She added: “Anytime editors have pushed me to get quotes from Exxon Mobil, or recommended a think tank that is obviously supporting industry, it’s something I’ve had to fight against my entire career.”


SIDEBAR: A Sampling of Nonprofit Eco-Publications

Many nonprofit environmental organizations publish magazines. The list below is hardly exhaustive but could be a helpful start.

  • Audubon magazine: Audubon magazine publishes a quarterly print issue with a circulation of 350,000, as well as an online daily edition. How to pitch stories, plus writer’s guidelines. Email:
  • Sierra magazine: Writer’s guidelines. The quarterly is half written by freelancers, with a circulation of 500,000, and 60,000 receiving an online rich-media replica. The magazine has 200,000 online readers. Archives.
  • Earth Island Journal: Writer’s guidelines. About 80 to 90% freelance written. Seeks shorter news reports for its online edition (900-1,500 words) and longer form narrative features for the print edition (2,800-3,500 words). Also seeks book reviews, art reviews, interviews and essays.
  • The New Lede: A journalism initiative of the Environmental Working Group that “seeks experienced freelancers” to write stories “that often go untold in larger outlets.” It may assign single stories or contract for four stories per month. Send clips and pitches to
  • Nature Conservancy Magazine: Editors approach freelancers to commission stories and prefer clips over pitches. Circulation of the quarterly 64-pager is currently 830,000.
  • The Revelator: About 30% freelance written, this magazine is published by the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • Rails to Trails: This 127,000-circulation quarterly seeks stories on unique trail destinations across the United States, as well as on active transportation infrastructure, outdoor tourism, environmental preservation and natural disaster mitigation. Pay is “competitive.”

Similar publications freelancers might want to check out include National Wildlife, Defenders (of Wildlife), Hakai, National Parks Magazine and Parks and Recreation.


Journalist and author Francesca Lyman writes about environmental and consumer protection. She has written for The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as many environmental organizations' publications. She is also the author of an early book on global warming, “The Greenhouse Trap: What We're Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming” with World Resources Institute, and a children's book, “Inside the Dzanga Sangha Rain Forest,” with the American Museum of Natural History.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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