Creating Awareness of Environmental Issues with EcoWatch’s Stefanie Spear

October 22, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Stefanie Spear. She’s the CEO and Founder of EcoWatch. To learn more about EcoWatch, you can go to ecowatch.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Stefanie Spear. STEFANIE SPEAR: Thanks so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Stefanie, as we were talking about off the air before we started this conversation, I am a huge fan of EcoWatch, and I’m so thankful you came on to share your story with our listeners today. STEFANIE SPEAR: Well, thanks. I, of course, always love hearing about huge fans of EcoWatch. We work really hard every day, so I’m glad that you enjoy the content we publish each day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, it’s important content. Before we get talking about your great website and the content you’re putting out every day on ecowatch.com, I want you to share with our listeners first your fascinating journey, the Stefanie Spear story, before you even came to starting EcoWatch, then we’ll get into talking about your great business and what you’re doing over at EcoWatch. STEFANIE SPEAR: OK. My journey really started when I was a college student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I was not raised by hippie parents on an organic farm, so I came from a pretty traditional childhood, and really wasn’t conscious of my impact on the Earth. As a college student at such a progressive college, I started looking around and it was really solid waste issues that initially got engaged on environmental issues. The student union at the University of Wisconsin is just an incredible place. It’s on a lake. There’s Lake Mendota and Lake Minona, and just a beautiful place, but I always saw the garbage cans overflowing, and just felt like if I’m on such a progressive campus where people are more conscious, then it really triggered a consciousness level in myself. I really felt like if I can have that, so can everyone else. Why aren’t more people conscious of their impact on the Earth? So, I decided it was due to lack of education, and all we’d have to do is educate more people, and we’d have that tipping point where we have more people conscious than not. I was in a class, and they wanted you to create a pretend company that would help with marketing ideas, and so instead of doing something pretend, I decided to launch an actual company and I launched a newsletter that would educate students on environmental issues, primarily focused on solid waste at first. What I quickly realized as I launched the first issue and people started to get copies and were interested in what I was doing is that there are a lot more environmental issues than just solid waste. People started wanting me to promote issues about the watershed project they were working on and energy issues. This is well before — I’m going to give away my age here — but well before sustainability, that word wasn’t even around, and a lot of other issues, and climate change wasn’t a top environmental issue. I got the bug of publishing environmental news. That was 25 years ago, and just continued on with that mission and that passion all these years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just wonderful. What year did you start EcoWatch? STEFANIE SPEAR: Well, I published an environmental newspaper 10 years in Cleveland, took a five-year hiatus when I had my kids, and then I launched EcoWatch a little more than eight years ago. It was to educate and motivate Ohioans to become aware of environmental issues, get engaged in helping create environmental policy, and just a personal consciousness level on their own, to adapt sustainable practices in their everyday life. So, I launched EcoWatch. It was a newspaper, and I had printed 80,000 copies and distributed the newspaper in 2,200 locations, movie theaters, laundromats, doctor offices, coffee shops. The idea was always to reach a broad audience with these environmental issues, people who wouldn’t otherwise be privy to this information, and mostly because, truth be told, when I took my hiatus to have my kids, I really believed that the mainstream media would have taken over what I was doing, and that you’d see the metro section and you’d see environment, and they would realize that they had to educate people on these issues. That didn’t happen, so I launched EcoWatch and kept filling that niche of providing that kind of education. The paper did well, but it was very clear to me about four years ago that I needed to hop online. Far from an early adopter in the online space, but I knew that to continue what I was doing, I needed to do that, plus I had always wanted to reach a more national and global audience, but as a newspaper, there’s more challenges than just hopping online. So, I took EcoWatch online three years ago this fall. I did that with a big event on the shore of the Cuyahoga River with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. I launched the online news site in partnership with his non-profit, Water Keeper Alliance, and it’s been a pretty intense road transitioning from print to online. A huge learning curve, but I’ve come a long way, and we’re growing rapidly, so it’s very exciting. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, to learn more about EcoWatch and to sign up for its great newsletter, which I get every day, it’s ecowatch.com. So, now that you’ve put it online, if you were to put in a sentence or two, the mission of your company, Stefanie, what’s the mission of EcoWatch and ecowatch.com? STEFANIE SPEAR: It’s to educate and motivate people to care about human health and the environment. We work really hard to promote the work of the people who roll their sleeves up every day to protect our water, protect our air, make sure we have access to healthy food, so that’s what we’re doing. In doing that, we’re promoting the work of 1,000 grassroots environmental organizations worldwide. Our fracking page is renowned, as well as our climate change page, but also our renewables page. We’re also about the solutions that can turn these issues around. We’re really active with making sure our finger is on the pulse of all the news, and that we’re putting out what we consider the most important environmental issues, be it showing what the problems are or celebrating the solutions. That’s what we do day in and day out. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’ve got to just share this with you. Here’s a shameless plug. I read EcoWatch every time it comes into my inbox, and I always find unbelievable articles, so you’re producing such a high-quality newsletter and website. How do you do that? How do you go get so many great people and writers and organizations to bring such high-quality content together and deliver it to the public at large on a regular basis? STEFANIE SPEAR: Well, in two words, hard work. It doesn’t come easy, but it’s all about creating an efficient and effective streamlined day-to-day process. I’m very business-minded, even though I also am a big advocate of environmental issues, so it’s really about just the efficiency and the effectiveness of how the process works each day. Then it’s all about our partnerships. We have incredible partnerships with other media sites, with organizations, with events. We’ve worked really hard at building those type of networks, and we still are doing them every day. We’re extremely fortunate to have an incredible cast and crew for our insights writers. They’re all incredibly renowned people who are working hard every day to really create the shift that we need to get more people educated on these issues, so we do have some incredible, insightful writers that provide us content regularly, and we’re constantly bringing in new, exciting people. I brought on just last night Dr. David Guggenheim, who is renowned in his work with oceans and coral reefs. He runs a program in Cuba. He’s just remarkable. So we bring in these very high-level people, but at the end of the day, it’s about scouring RSS feeds and making sure that our finger is on the pulse of everything going on. At the end of the day, we’re a true news site. Though I launched EcoWatch as a non-profit a little more than a year-and-a-half ago, I took EcoWatch for profit out with partners in New York. Our main office is located in Cleveland. We also have a New York City office. I did that because I knew we needed to grow quickly in this online news media marketplace, and one of my goals has always been to reach a broad audience. I’m not going to work this hard each day and only preach to the choir, and we’ve worked really hard to bring on the right staff and move forward so that we can reach the millions of people that we’re reaching each month. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who’ve just joined us, we’re so excited to have Stefanie Spear on with us today. She’s the CEO and founder of EcoWatch. To learn more about EcoWatch or sign up for their newsletter, it’s www.ecowatch.com. Stefanie, talk a little bit about what you’ve learned in this process. Talk a little bit about the University vertical and millennials, and where are we going in terms of our next generation? Folks like you and me are the sustainability immigrants. Our children are the real sustainability natives, and they’re going to take this to a whole another level. Share a little bit about your insight and vision as to the university vertical and millennials and the intersection of where they’re going to take this whole movement next. STEFANIE SPEAR: Couldn’t agree with you more. The future lies with the work of the millennials. I’ve had some incredible interns from different colleges this summer. We need to impress upon the younger generation the importance of preserving our resources, our commons. One of the main reasons that I did a shift in business model was I realized when I went online, unlike the newspaper where I could distribute in Laundromats and know I was reaching a broad audience, once we went online I realized that our readership grew significantly overnight and as it continually grew, that we were reaching what we coined the darkest of the dark green people, who are already engaged and already connected, which is fantastic. We still service those readers and love them, but we wanted to bring in what we call all shades of green, so we started implementing additional content in. It’s gone really well, but I woke up one day, and I’m like, “OK, so we’ve run our content, brought in our readership, but where are the millennials?” and I realized that the younger generation that’s so active and so keyed into the realization that we have to act now, they just didn’t attract them as much. So we launched a vertical called University, and we’re now featuring content from students all over the world. It’s really exciting. Though it’s already launched, we know this fall when the students are back in town, it’s really going to ignite. Now we have university partners — Duke University, the Nicholas School for the Environment was the first to sign on, and you can go to our partner page under University and see our other partners. We just know that there’s really no venue out there for the voice of these students, and so EcoWatch is that. We’re really excited. In September, Connor Kennedy, who’s with us in Cuba diving the gardens of the queen, and he’s going to be at Harvard this fall, and he’s one of our students providing great content, but it’s open to everyone, especially our partnering schools. All the professors are encouraging these students to make content. But at the end of the day, it’s their planet, and they need to make sure that we’re being conscious of usage of our resources. Actually we’re just about to take live a post. It’s an Insights post by Michael Bruin. He is Executive Director Sierra Club, and they just launched a new website, and our headline is going to be I believe, “Students Demand Clean Energy.” So, the whole movement going on on college campuses with the divestment movement, divest from fossil fuels, and now this new campaign launched via the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club student organization, that’s the next step. Divest from fossil fuels, demand clean energy. So, there’s so much energy going on among these students, and we’re so excited to be the venue that’s getting their voice out. Any students who are listening, be sure to hop on ecowatch.com, get your college to join us as a partner. We also have a very exciting EcoWatcher internship program. It’s a virtual internship for students this fall just to really rally people around these issues, get more students, getting our daily blast so that they’re getting educated on the most important issues of the day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. I’m on your partners page now, and I see already Duke, like you said, and Boise State and Ball State, but this is open. For all the students out there and all the college administrators out there, you want 500 colleges as partners. Perfect. That’s a call to action if I’ve ever heard one, so students, get on ecowatch.com, e-mail whatever the e-mail address is on there, and join up and get your school joined up. This is a great platform for you, and I see here not only Michael Bruin, but you’ve got David Suzuki’s article, Gary Wockner’s article. I mean, what a great platform for students to get the word out and get their voices heard. STEFANIE SPEAR: Yeah. Our goal, like I said, is to reach all shades of green, people who are just beginning to connect the dots between human health and the environment. We’re really engaged with the health and wellness community. Keystone XL is a big issue that hit mainstream media, but what if there’s someone who just cares about their own house, but reads about why you should eat avocados every day, and they come on the site, and they’re reading that because that is what engaged them, but all of a sudden they see an article on the Keystone XL. They’ve heard about it on mainstream media, they click on that article. All of a sudden now they’re engaged in the issue. They’re getting the facts about the problem with an export pipeline. So, that’s really our goal. We’re well over a million hits a month and growing rapidly. We believe it’s this educational tool for people that are really going to create that shift. We have to get to the tipping point where we have more people on the planet who care about the future of the health and people and the planet than not. We’re not there yet, and unfortunately sometimes it seems to take a tragic event to get more people conscious, but we’re hoping that through education, that before all these huge travesties happen, we can get the right environmental policies in place, get more individuals adopting sustainable practices in their everyday life, and really get people to care. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Stefanie, we’re down to the last two-and-a-half minutes or so. What news stories are the most recurring on your site? What are the hot, hot topics right now in sustainability? STEFANIE SPEAR: Certainly climate change has been one. D.C. just had historic rainfall, I believe, yesterday. Detroit had flooding like they’ve never seen. California is in a historic drought. The Colorado River basin, huge problems with the ground water and the aquifers, and Hawaii just got hit, which was historic. This recurring theme and glaciers melting. Michael Mann, who’s also one of our insightful writers, did an incredible piece. He just was “on vacation” in Glacier National Park. He couldn’t even be on vacation because all he could think about was how the glaciers are gone. So, certainly climate change, not just the impact on the environment, but also the impact on the economy. We really have to wake up here. My favorite story, the positive renewable energy stories about communities in India who have never had power and all of a sudden, thanks to work with Greenpeace International, they now have their own solar system. They not only have electricity for the first time, but they own the system. That’s just awesome, what’s going on. In Beijing, China they are doing a war on coal. So, just really the fossil fuels and energy and renewable energy, I’d say that’s a constant recurring theme. Anything is possible, and we could transition to cleaner renewable energy, but we on a federal level don’t even have an energy policy. We don’t have a renewable portfolio standard to lead the way. Environmental policy is extremely important, but we take one step forward and ten steps back. We really have to wake up, we have to get money out of politics. Campaign finance reform is a huge issue. Our politicians are owned by corporations. That’s a big problem. So, that’s also a recurring theme, these elections. We just have to educate more people, share content in addition to signing up for a daily blast, be sure you’re sharing your content with your friends, your family, your neighbors. Let’s get more people educated about what’s the most important issues impacting life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Stefanie. For our listeners out there, go to ecowatch.com. Sign up, read ecowatch.com every day. Thank you, Stefanie, for being an inspiring eco-preneur and educating and motivating people to care about human health and the environment every day with your great website, ecowatch.com. You, Stefanie, are truly living proof that green is good. STEFANIE SPEAR: Thanks.