In an Age of Sound-Bite Dumbing-Down Journalism

Miller-McCune — Nonprofit Publisher … ‘Intelligent and Compelling Journalism’

Most journalists these days would love to have the choice John Mecklin faced three years ago.

As editor-in-chief of High Country News, Mecklin was attending a workshop on covering climate change when he received word that Sara Miller McCune wanted to speak with him about launching a public policy magazine. McCune, founder and chair of the 45-year-old academic publishing house, Sage Publications, Inc., had been considering the idea for years.

The goal: to create intelligent and compelling journalism that reports on how academic research can be applied to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. “Smart Journalism. Real Solutions,” the 8×11-inch full color magazine says on its cover.


“If you’re a journalist, you just don’t often get a chance to have somebody say, ‘I want you to make a national magazine doing serious journalism of exactly the kind you’ve always wanted to do,’” said Mecklin, now editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune, published six times a year.

A little more than two years after it launched its first issue in April 2008, the magazine has won several journalism awards and is building an audience among a select demographic at a time when newspapers and magazines are struggling.

With lead stories addressing issues such as the jobs crisis in science (“The Real Science Gap”) and how family planning can help make the world more peaceful (“Make Birth Control, Not War”), Miller-McCune is intelligent and provocative.

A ‘Doting Grandmother Doing My Bit’

Online, it divides coverage into nine areas: politics, legal affairs, business, science, environment, health, culture, education, and media.

Miller-McCune is clearly committed to covering the climate issue. Its breadth of stories on climate change science, sustainability, energy issues, politics, and policy has been impressive.

McCune, interviewed recently by telephone, said covering environmental issues is an important part of her magazine’s mission.

“At the end of the day, the environment is for better or worse what we’re bequeathing to our children, our grandchildren, their children and their grandchildren,” she said. “If we muck it up, then we are doing them incredible harm, and I’m a doting grandmother, a very proud great-grandmother … I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do my bit to try and change things.”

No Punditry or ‘Happy Talk’ … Focus on Solutions

In a Q&A that introduced Miller-McCune on March 4, 2008, Mecklin distinguished the magazine from other journalism outlets with this characterization:

“Most public interest journalism focuses on revealing or explaining problems, the theory being that society will respond appropriately once journalists make the problems known. But the modern American experience (particularly the last 10 years of it) has proven the theory to be insufficient, maybe even delusional. Serious problems — think of global warming and health care, just to name two — have gone unaddressed over achingly long periods of time because the ‘solutions’ put forward by government really boil down to partisan advantage-mongering, thinly disguised as policy.

“… Miller-McCune and Miller-McCune.com will focus on practical options for solving serious problems, particularly if the options are backed by quality policy research and researchers and the research goes against common Beltway wisdom. The magazine will be eclectic in terms of anything that might be called ideology, making no attempt whatever to please the left, the right, or the center. In an age of fact-free spin, blowhard punditry and abject truthiness, I honestly think there is a huge potential audience for well-researched solutions provided in an engaging way that doesn’t descend into happy-talk or ‘good news.’”

During a recent week online, top environmental stories included a July 20 piece on how computer modeling designed to optimize the flow of traffic in commercial aviation and telecommunications can be modified to help conservationists plan better for the migration of plant species as climate change alters their habitats.

Another reported on efforts by Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac to block municipal programs seeking to make solar roofs affordable for homeowners. As the article explained, citing an Associated Press story: “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will not buy or guarantee mortgages on properties where homeowners are paying for solar panels or insulation or other energy-efficient fixes through long-term property tax assessments. They argue that the assessments would get in the way of their repayment rights if a loan defaults, default being a concept they certainly understand.”

California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for Governor Jerry Brown has sued the federal government over the matter.

Examples of Recent Features

A July 15 piece dealt with the question of why communities blighted most by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster are opposed to Obama’s ban on offshore oil drilling. A July 13 story reported on a solar power project, and two others covered the wind power industry — one on July 11 and another on July 25.

The magazine is not shy about tackling big-picture issues as well, such as a terrific review in May 2008 of how industries have cultivated seeds of doubt to shape public opinion over cigarettes, chlorofluorocarbons and climate change, among other subjects. The piece was written by well-known science writer Michelle Nijhuis.

Ten days after Transocean’s Deep Water Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Miller-McCune re-published a June 17, 2009 article that traced the history of offshore leasing arrangements, shaped significantly by Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt.

The magazine’s print circulation in mid-2010 stands at about 115,000, Mecklin said. Paid subscriptions cost $24.95 for six issues a year. The companion website, led by editor Michael Todd, enjoys about 200,000 unique visitors a month, up from about 75,000 a year ago. The site has drawn as many as 400,000 visitors a month in the past, Todd said. A recent 84-page issue, dated July/August 2010,  carried few display ads — most of them from Miller-McCune affilliates or from nonprofit interests such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, The Press Institute, or the Ad Council. The back cover carried an ad by Rosetta Stone, the translation software company.

The magazine and website are published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, a nonprofit public benefit foundation that McCune founded. Sage Publications, known for its highly scholarly and academic specialized publications, has committed $2.2 million to fund the enterprise for the first five years.

More Private Support vs. Paid Ads

“We’re … talking at our summer board meeting about extending that support because they’re all terribly pleased with the results, as am I,” McCune said. McCune said continued private support is vital.

Miller-McCune relies on a small staff and 50 to 75 regular contributors, including a team of bloggers.

“We’re … gaining paid circulation (but) I don’t want to be terribly dependent on paid advertising at the moment because I think the economy is soft and the recovery will be slow,” she said.

In the meantime, the magazine is striving to build an audience, although it clearly has a ways to go before “Miller-McCune” becomes a widely recognized brand.

“I must confess I haven’t had a chance to really curl up with the magazine,” Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, said in a recent e-mail. “I do subscribe to their newsletter, which, when I click through, I find leads me to a variety of satisfying stories.”

David Plotz, editor of Slate, said he’s “generally an admirer,” but he doesn’t read the magazine religiously.

Todd said he’s encouraged by the steady rise in readership, particularly inside the Washington Beltway.

“I’m really excited that we are being noticed, and that what we’re doing isn’t silly or forgotten or irrelevant, which would be the real crime,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been able to grow and thrive in what has been a very, very difficult time for media properties has been the most gratifying thing for me.”

In its coverage of climate change issues, Miller-McCune has demonstrated an expertise in a wide variety of subjects. It’s also sought the views of climate change skeptics, sometimes quoting them liberally. In a December 5, 2009 online piece, Montana freelance writer Joan Melcher relied heavily on comments from Princeton physicist William Happer, chairman of the board for the George C. Marshall Institute, a free-market think-tank significantly funded by the fossil fuel industry.

In that piece, Happer, who is not a climate scientist, claims that CO2 is a “bit player” in the climate change seen today. “I think it’s some natural phenomenon that we don’t understand very well,” said Happer.

Happer testified before a House Committee on May 20 as the choice witness of minority Republican members. In his testimony, he expressed doubts that the burning of fossil fuels is driving much of the warming we see today and said he does not think continued warming will profoundly alter the planet — contrary to widely accepted climate science supported by the other witnesses.

Todd said in a recent telephone interview that he wanted a skeptic quoted in the story. “I absolutely understand the concern about people speaking out of their area, but I also don’t like when we have straw men — ‘Well, skeptics say …’” he said.

“You know what? Let’s find a skeptic, even if they’re speaking out of their area. Let’s clearly identify who they are and what their possible conflicts are.”

Todd added that “it was difficult finding somebody with any kind of credentials in the appropriate field that we could use.”

Evidence-Based Information ‘You Can Trust’

As it continues to cover climate change, Mecklin said he wants the magazine to more closely examine alternative energy strategies — the ones that don’t appear to be viable for the longer term and the ones that could be a big part of the solution (solar energy and electrified vehicles, among others, in his view).

Mecklin also expects Miller-McCune to take a closer look at the influence of lobbying in Washington — when it works and when it doesn’t, and why.

As both an editor- and writer-driven magazine, Miller-McCune will continue to profit from writers with “really good, lively minds who come up with good story ideas on a regular basis,” Mecklin said.

“As time goes on, what will be valuable … is information that you can trust, that is actually based in what educated people would call evidence, not just ideological spin.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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