Want to be a conservation journalist? Find a niche or two, don’t be afraid to make a stand and strap yourself in – it’s going to be bumpy ride: An interview with conservation journalist Jeremy Hance

Five years ago, conservation journalist Jeremy Hance found himself on a research project in the Dominican Republic. He was deep inside a forest and night had fallen. In his hand was a bag which contained a solenodon – a venomous shrew-like mammal, which had been caught to be collared for a research study.

Typically, this is not a defining moment in people’s life, but Hance had obsessed over this “living relic” for years. Overwhelmed to be in the presence of an animal which had survived dinosaurs, he knew he had made the right career choice. 

For those passionate about conservation, the prospect of becoming a journalist in this sector is an attractive one. And, rightly so, educating and informing the public on environmental issues is a worthy career.

But, it is a hugely competitive industry and to break-in takes dedication, determination, a thick skin and, often, a healthy dose of good luck.

Hance is living proof that having the nerve to approach editors is vital – while it can be daunting, taking a chance and putting yourself out there is the only way to get noticed. He advised others to be prepared for knock-backs, for emails to go un-answered and most importantly, to read good writers, in both short and long form.

After studying English and history at university, Hance’s love affair with conservation was reignited following a two-week trip to the Amazon in Peru. Hungry for more information, he began reading articles on the environmental science and conservation news site Mongabay. Eventually he “got the gall” to write an op-ed, which he sent to the site’s editor.

It paid off, his work was published and, after a year-long internship, it eventually resulted in a permanent position within the company, where he stayed for six years before going freelance.

“What is weird is that I have had zero training in journalism and I don’t have a lot of science background. But, what I did have was knowing how to write and I just had passion for the environment… I don’t want to give the sense that all you need is drive for the job – I got lucky. I got in at the ground floor, put in a lot of years working pro-bono and learning by doing,” Hance told Conservation Careers.

Unsurprisingly, the first thing a budding journalist needs to do is to write – a lot. Then, pitch ideas to editors or approach them for an internship.

“Be realistic that you are pursuing a career that is incredibly competitive… start small, have another job, see how it goes. Because, financially it is going to be a struggle, but we do it because we love it and because we think it is worth it,” he said.

Have a niche and discover your own voice

With so many clamouring at the door, a good way to stand out from the crowd is to have a couple of niches. Instead of being an all-encompassing “environmental journalist” concentrate on the subjects you are passionate about and become a voice for that.

“It is daunting as there are a lot of big places cutting back but, there are tons of niche places that you have never heard of that are worth exploring. Even if you don’t write for them, it’s worth reading them. The small places produce incredible work and that’s the way to start… it is worth building relationships with a number of these,” he advised.

Also, don’t be afraid to write commentaries and op-eds, often these can get you more noticed, particularly if you are prepared to take a stand.

“The media plays a powerful role and anything that has power should be subject to criticism. But, I would say without journalism the world would be a really dark, dim place… you have to have journalism that is willing to speak some kind of truth to power. And, as an environmental issue, that means saying that climate change is real, that means saying that mass extinction is happening, that means not trying to do this false balance stuff,” he said.

First step – science papers

When it comes to generating story ideas, often it is scientific papers that provide inspiration – so networking, building and maintaining contacts here is vital.

Once you have found a paper that sparks your interest, the first step is to reach out to the author for further comment.

“When you reach out to scientists, just be nice and polite – don’t be demanding, even if they are a little curt, keep-up the niceness and politeness.  Also, don’t barrage them with 30 questions, send four or five questions and be easy to work with,” said Hance.

Once you have done this, look for other scientists who work in similar fields and contact them. From here, you can start building the story. Then, it is time for the hard work – trying to capture an audience’s attention.

“I try and push scientists to tell their story and they are often really surprised that I want them to talk about field work and the conditions they endure, but it is just so much more interesting to read…Try to ask scientists about their experience – what did they eat? What did they sleep in? What was it like? Give it a sense of place and then get into the paper’s findings.

“I learned to ask point-blank those questions. They often say ‘wait, you want to hear about this animal’s sex life?’ and I say ‘Yes!’ That is fascinating, that makes such a richer story,” he said.

Day-to-day grind

Many enter the industry believing they will get to travel the world, writing about environmental crisis and interviewing people face-to face. But, in today’s digital age, the reality is most of your time will be interviewing people via email or telephone.

A typical day for Hance starts with responding to emails. And, as a freelancer, finding a work/time balance.

At the beginning of his career he would read a scientific paper, do some research and then contact possible sources. Now, however, Hance is fortunate that most of his work is from sources reaching out to him.

“I have been doing it almost 10 years, people know me… I am not pitching a lot anymore and mostly working on writing which is really great. That’s not the norm and that’s not something that happens early in your career – you need to make those contacts,” he said.

Writing for conservation

It is a common misconception that conservation journalists need to have a strong science background. But, Hance believed coming from a non-science discipline can work to your advance – particularly as you will be writing for a broader audience, often with no prior subject knowledge.

Your job is not to simply reproduce scientific papers but to explain to readers why it is important, what the findings are and what the policy involves.

“That is when you really learn how to communicate, you still want to do it in a way that a 12-year old can understand…. You can communicate complex, difficult science, clearly, to a general audience and not lose all the complexity… If you write like a scientist and you try and reach a broad audience then that is not going to work,” he said.

Emotional rollercoaster

If you are covering conservation, prepare for an emotional rollercoaster. Often the topics can be gloomy and despairing and, while passion is essential, so too is some form of detachment.

“There is something [in conservation] that drives journalists but can destroy them – it’s the balance of being driven by the various crises but learning how to go on with day-to-day life,” Hance said.

And, it is important to note, there are a lot of positive stories.

“It is very easy to get super depressed, super negative. But, the fact that there are people out there that are willing to devote their lives [to conservation] is so uplifting and says something really beautiful about humanity, and I am not sure that has always been expressed,” he enthused.

Finally, be prepared for preconceptions to change. Often, a journalist will go in with one perspective, only to find that the deeper they dig, the more complex the issues.

“Part of your job is to try and capture the complexity and most of these issues are very complex – there is the human element and the environmental element. They are interconnected, but there are often many players wanting and needing different things. A lot of times you come away and you don’t know what the best answer is. And that is fine, you can tell a really good story that way, it does not have to be answered – there can be questions that can be left open,” he said.

Jeremy Hance is a wildlife blogger for the Guardian and a journalist with Mongabay focusing on forests, indigenous people, climate change and more.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Communicator