Mitchell Beer is the founder and publisher of The Energy Mix, an online publication dedicated to getting crucial climate news to a wider community. Mitchell has worked as a journalist, a commercial writer and a sustainable energy and climate specialist. As lead content producer, curator and researcher for The Energy Mix, he’s returned to his journalism roots. Our conversation been edited for length and clarity.
CL: How did The Energy Mix get started?
MB: By accident. No truly. I started my career in journalism, but at the point when The Mix began, I had been in consulting for about 30 years. But I remained concerned about the fundamental shift in the way media of all kinds worked. As of 2014, there was basically no business model for a successful news media organization. Big outlets were hemorrhaging money and journalists were being laid off in droves. Obviously, I was really concerned about that because I think a functioning society needs a media system that works.
I got wind of an experiment in “newsmags” [suggested by a group called Newsana], which basically found subject specialists who follow the news anyway and for whom it wouldn’t be a big stretch to start a small publication off the side of their desk: maybe publishing two to three times a week, finding news stories that were interesting, writing 30 to 40 words about each one, then sending it to friends and family and seeing if they could get people to subscribe for $6-10 a month.
Well, they must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel, because they asked me to be their climate subject specialist. But I thought I’d give it a try. In the end, Newsana failed—the problem was the newsmags couldn’t raise the money they needed to operate. With me, six to eight weeks in they said they were happy with the content, but the financial situation was terrible because I wasn’t marketing it. To me, it felt really presumptuous to contact friends, colleagues and neighbours and ask them to subscribe. I thought it was a good way to lose friends. So, we mutually agreed that we would part ways and that I would take the content and move it to my own site. That was the original core of The Energy Mix, and it gradually grew and expanded from there.
CL: And how many people are you working with now?
MB: We’re about a dozen people, plus or minus one or two. Only a few are full time. Everyone works remotely and we’re all geographically distributed. There’s a cluster in Ottawa, in B.C., our webmaster is in the UK. And we just merged with Climate News Network, which was started eight years ago by veteran journalists in the UK, so now we have four amazing colleagues, two of whom will be covering COP26 on the ground [COP26 is the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference which begins Oct. 31st].
CL: That’s exciting! So, do reporters work on stories in their regions?
MB: No, we generally aren’t writing about what’s going on in our geographies. The way our story lineup gets set is that I typically scan through 1,200 incoming news headlines each week, maybe more, and from that we develop the core lineup. Then on top of that, we get pitches from the reporters or from people writing in. We put together assignments that prioritize the lineup so we’re covering as widely and consistently as we can across climate science, climate policy, impacts and solutions, clean energy and other solution spaces, but also—which I wasn’t expecting—the rapid collapse of the fossil fuel industry.
CL: Tell me about your plans for COP26.
MB: Well, the COP itself—it’s so important things go right—but if we really meant that, then why would be put Boris [Johnson] in charge? Our reporting plans are still taking shape, but it looks as though we’ll have the two reporters in Glasgow because of our merger with Climate News Network. I have accreditation as virtual media, and then we have four other reporters handling content in other ways.
During the COP, we’ll be producing five days a week. Big picture, if there’s any chance of the COP going the way we need it to, we will be telling the story from the starting point of knowing and understanding the COP process and I hope trying to explain it to people, because it’s totally opaque.
If the COP fails—largely or entirely—then I think our role and obligation as a climate news outlet will first of all be to tell that story in a timely, fair and evidenced-based way, and right alongside that tell the story in a way that points back to what we can do and keep doing to make up the deficit. To the extent that the COP fails, it will be up to all of us to get this done. We have nature-based solutions, finance solutions, municipal-based solutions, all of that exists whether or not the COP succeeds. In our reporting, it will be our duty to move away from climate despair.
With “fake news” the most talked about type of news information these days, what do you think climate news offers people, and what power does it have in this era of extreme views and increasingly fractious debates?
I hope our work has power. But that’s for others to say. What I hope we can contribute is bringing our work back to the basic principles of journalism. You follow the evidence, fairly and accurately. You tell the whole story to the extent that you know it and if you don’t know enough, you try to find out more. If you get it wrong, you correct it and say so.
To your point about fake news, if I take this back to the definitions of journalism that I learned at Carleton University, Fox News is not journalism. OANN [One America News Network] is not journalism, it’s fascism. But journalism is also not hardcore advocacy for its own sake. It’s telling a story so that people can form their own conclusions, so that people can understand the way you have done the analysis and how you made those connections. One of the adaptations to those principles that we’ve come up with at The Mix, almost by accident, is that it’s about being tough on issues but gentle on people.
We’re advocacy-oriented in what we’re trying to achieve—our mission is to do whatever we can to help drive faster, deeper carbon cuts. The best thing we can bring, I think, to the advocacy community is an ability, a set of skills and training that are based in conventional journalism; but only the best of it. It has to be right, it has to be accurate and it has to generate a conversation.
The Energy Mix publishes three times a week. You can subscribe here and get a free e-digest right to your inbox.