‘Page views are not real impact’: Mongabay founder Rhett Butler

The founder and CEO of a news portal once called ‘the most depressing website on the internet’ tells Eco-Business about journalism with impact, reporting on unpopular but important topics, and the pernicious rise of environmental news trolls.

Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler
Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Butler has just been awarded the 2022 Heinz Award for the Environment for his work advancing environmental journalism. Image by Christopher Paino/Mongabay Indonesia.

Rhett Butler is about to head off to Indonesia to meet his Jakarta bureau chief, and dive back into the rainforests he has missed for more than two years, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But before he goes, he is in Singapore to talk to potential funders about Mongabay, an environmental and conservation news website he founded more than two decades ago that he fondly admits has been called “the most depressing website on the internet”.

Mongabay’s unflinching reportage of environmental abuse and social injustice can be eco anxiety-inducing, but Butler points out that Mongabay’s stories have played some role in protecting the tropical ecosystems that have fascinated him since he was a child.

The publication’s investigative reporting has pushed back against illegal logging in Madagascar, exposed dubious palm oil practices in Cameroon, and illegal mining in the Peruvian Amazon, says Butler, who argues that hard-hitting environmental journalism can draw an audience.

Mongabay – which takes its peculiar name from the English pronunciation of an island off the coast of Madagascar – reported its one billionth lifetime page view after 23 years of publishing in February.

“One billion pageviews is a small number compared with platforms like YouTube and Facebook or mainstream news outlets like The New York Times, but for a niche provider of environmental news like Mongabay, the interest in our content has far surpassed my wildest dreams,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

Even if it doesn’t find a big audience, it is still an important topic [Indigenous peoples] to report on. These stories give a voice to under-represented communities.

Rhett Butler, founder and CEO, Mongabay

What started out as a information source on tropical forests written from his apartment in the San Francisco Bay area has sprouted into an environmental news journal that covers issues from species discoveries to renewable energy in 10 languages from five international bureaus.

In the early days of Mongabay, which was inspired by Butler’s sorrow at the destruction of a rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, he earned an income through advertising and selling his photos. Mongabay became a non-profit in 2011 and Butler says that the contribution of advertising to the site’s finances is now neglible.

“We aren’t friends with anyone,” he says of Mongabay’s ability to report freely on the corporate world without upsetting potential clients.

But he does need to make friends with funders. In 2011, he raised US$80,000. This year, he expects to raise US$10 million, to be invested in multimedia content produced in Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese by a team of 800 journalists.

Butler has been able to raise funds because of good connections in a country that is home to deep-pocketed foundations willing to back environmental causes, such as Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. But to secure funding he has had able to show Mongabay’s journalism has impact.

Impact is not about page views, he says. It is what journalism achieves in the real world, by shining a light on problems and solutions and holding powerful people and corporations to account.

Over the past few years, Mongabay’s journalism has helped to stop a uranium mine ruining a tiger reserve in India, exposed abuses in the palm oil sector in Brazil, and nudged Microsoft to invest in agroforestry, among other impacts that help to bring in funding.

Impact has also helped Mongabay get broader recognition. In September, Butler won the 2022 Heinz Award for the Environment for his efforts to advance environmental journalism. On receiving the award, Butler said it was a critical time for environmental journalism, “given the planetary challenges we face and the shrinking of press freedom around the world.”

The award recognised Mongabay’s investigative journalism, which Butler says does not always find a big audience. “We need to incentivise investigative journalism,” he says, adding that awards raise the bar by making environmental journalism more competitive. 

In this interview with Eco-Business, Butler talks about dealing with trolls, how unpopular but important topics can find an audience, and measuring the impact of environmental journalism.

What are your criteria for working with funders?

We wouldn’t take money from those who are actively trying to destroy the Earth. A fair portion of wealth in the United States is derived from oil. But a lot of the US foundations have moved on and are putting money into ending the fossil fuel era. Those tend to be fine. Navigating Asia is trickier. A lot of the family foundations are linked to conglomerates which can be involved in [environmentally] conflicting areas. 

Mongabay attracts climate deniers and troll groups attempting to subvert the conversation about conversation. What’s your view on trolling?

Over the past six months, there’s been a noticeable increase in negative comments in social media about renewable energy. For example, how mining [for the minerals needed to produce clean technologies] is worse than oil and gas, or how power outages or fires at battery factories show that there is a problem with renewables. There seems to be a coordinated strategy behind it. 

While there is less climate denialism now – because the effects of climate change are so obvious – there’s been a shift in strategy. Rather than deny climate change, they are denigrating the solutions needed for the energy transition. The Russian invasion should have been an opportunity for the world to move away from fossil fuels. But that conversation has been highjacked and used as a reason to drill for more oil.

How do trolls work?

They target specific topics. For instance, if we run a story about the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil, we’ll see troll activity. Ridiculous arguments will be made in favour for him that are inconsistant with everything we know about him [the Brazilian President who refers to himself as “Mr Chainsaw”]. When we write about mining in the Philippines, we’ll see very derogatory remarks made about the people involved in anti-mining activity.

Previously, we’ve dealt with lobbyists from the palm oil sector. They hire individuals, some real, some fake, to post content. Among the claims are that we’re colonisers or are investigating the palm oil sector to promote the American soy trade. Which is kind of funny, because we publish lots of stories about the environmental impact of soy as well.

Journalists don’t tend to get excited writing about solutions – that’s just the way they’re built.

We generally don’t engage with trolls. But we’ve found that if you engage with them, their arguments tend to fall apart pretty quickly – there’s usually not much depth to their knowledge.

The challenge for newsrooms in finding the balance between gloomy environmental news and solutions has been debated recently. How does Mongabay navigate this problem?

In the past, Mongabay has been called the most depressing website on the internet! One way to navigate that problem is to do more solutions journalism. [Mongabay’s most-read Hindi-language story in 2021 was a piece on how rainwater harvesting is helping India to endure water insecurity]. But solutions journalism requires due diligence on the effectiveness of a solution. There’s a risk it is used to greenwash a solution. 

Another problem is that most journalists don’t tend to get excited writing about solutions – that’s just the way they’re built. Journalists tend to focus on problems. Even if a solution was 90 per cent effective, the average journalist would probably focus on the 10 per cent that isn’t. So we frame solutions stories around how an environmental problem is being tackled.

People do need positive stories. Climate anxiety is a big issue. Meanwhile, news consumption globally has collapsed; 42 per cent of Americans actively avoid the news [according to a June study by Reuters Institute, which found even stronger news avoidance in Brazil and the United Kingdom]. 

What’s your approach to reporting on topics that can struggle to find an audience, for example stories about the rights of Indigenous peoples?

There are a few angles that have worked on Indigenous peoples’ rights. One is David versus Goliath. Another is uplifting, inspiring stories. But stories about communities wiped out in floods because of upstream deforestation – that’s pretty depressing and might not find a big audience.

But even if it doesn’t find a big audience, it is still an important topic to report on. These stories give a voice to under-represented communities. If your metric for success is just eyeballs you’re not going to achieve that. We don’t measure success based on traffic. We base it on impact. It also means we can give away our content for free because we’re not worried about losing advertisers.

A landscape in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia, taken via drone in a rainbow.

Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. The photograph was taken via drone in a rainbow during Butler’s recent trip to Jambi. Image: Rhett Butler

How do you measure impact?

We don’t take full credit for policy changes or environmental wins, but we can say that we played some part in that outcome. On the quantitative side, it’s easy to show impact with readership, content syndication rates [Mongabay is published on a Creative Commons basis, so other media outlets can republish their content] and so on.

Qualitatively, Mongabay shows impact by going back to the journalist who did the reporting on, say, slavery in the Brazilian coffee industry, and asking them for an update. What has happened since the story was published? This is also beneficial to the journalist, as it gives them the chance to reconnect with their sources, which could lead to other stories.

No one remembers a story because it got 7 million page views. They remember it because, for example, a community fought back for its rights to a fishery, and now the community’s fishing yield has increased. 

Last year, you decided to stop using Facebook as a channel to promote Mongabay stories. Why?

Facebook was 80 per cent of our external referral traffic, so it was a big decision. We’d seen the quality of engagement through Facebook deteriorate over the years, and Facebook regularly blocked Mongabay posts [Butler says Mongabay content was blocked or removed by Facebook more than 100 times between mid-2020 and early 2021]. We lost 4 million page views when we scaled back our engagement with Facebook. But the aggregate time spent on the website increased by 77 per cent. Which suggests that a lot of the traffic that came from Facebook was empty page views. 

How well do you think the mainstream media is covering climate and other environmental issues?

There’s been a surge in interest in climate issues in the media. A lot of climate coverage is disaster porn, but I think environmental reporting is more sophisticated now. The quality is improving. It’s more nuanced. A lot of that is driven by philanthropic funding. For example, the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting provides grants [for stories that cover underreported global issues]. Funding will pay for the expensive part of producing these stories – getting out into the field. I think that’s having a positive impact on the quality of coverage.

Do you worry that you’ll lose your competitive edge when the mainstream media cottons on to the value of environmental reporting?

The more coverage of environmental issues the better. If deforestation is solved because the media is doing a great job of covering it, there are plenty of other environmental issues for us to cover. 

As the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change worsen, they become more relevant to more people. Sustainability can be a tricky topic for the media to cover. But if it can be tied in with disasters and what’s happening to the world around us, journalists are interested in writing about it. However, writing about a company’s corporate social responsibility policies is hard to sell [to a journalist].

Which environmental issue worries you the most?

Unsustainable consumption. Every environmental problem stems from people wanting whatever they want, now. Yes, a circular economy could remedy how we consume. But at the moment, it is a pipedream. 

Knowing what you know, are you optimistic about the future?

I’m optimistic by nature. When there’s a problem, there’s also an opportunity. Once enough people think climate change is a big enough problem, and they can make money from it, that’s when you’ll see a tidal wave of change. And we’ve seen that happen over the past few years. 

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