January 20, 2015

A Q&A With Midwest Energy News

As the latest member to join the Investigative News Network, Midwest Energy News is a news nonprofit aimed at covering "the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system."

Midwest Energy News was launched in 2010 as a media project of RE-AMP, a consortium of nonprofits focused on climate change and energy policy. The team is spread through out the Midwest—as implied in its name—but we took some time to catch up with its editor Ken Paulman who is based out of St. Paul, Minnesota.

INN: What’s Midwest Energy News’ origin story?

Paulman: It started as an aggregation portal—energy is as much a regional issue as a state/local or national one, and there was no single place to keep track of everything happening in the Midwest. It was a way for advocates in Minnesota and Wisconsin to learn more easily about what was happening in Michigan and Ohio and vice-versa.

But in doing that aggregation work, I noticed stories that were going uncovered or undercovered. We obtained some money for freelance reporters, initially publishing one deep-dive story per week. Now we have five part-time reporters around the region and publish new work daily.

We’re published by RE-AMP, which is a network of nonprofits throughout the Midwest working on a common goal of reducing carbon emissions. We’re editorially independent from that work, but our journalism helps inform those policy discussions. Midwest Energy News has become a go-to source of information not just for nonprofits, but people working for utilities, private industry, government and other media outlets.

INN: What is the mission of Midwest Energy News? How are you achieving that mission?

Paulman: Our mission is to tell the story of the region’s transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy system, in a way that’s solidly based in fact and science.

INN: What projects were you most proud of in 2014?

Paulman: We elevated a lot of important stories last year, including efforts by Ohio utilities to win legislation friendly to their business interests and conceal data from the public in the process, as well as an energy crisis in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that was flying under the radar. Last year we also published our first ebook, Closing the Cloud Factories, which tells the story of the grassroots movement to shut down Chicago’s coal plants. The book was released in both English and Spanish.
INN: What are your business goals for 2015?

Paulman: We’re launching a new service in the Southeast as well as a national newsletter, beyond that we will continue growing our audience and building our case for expanded funding for investigative work.

INN: What is your approach to making your nonprofit more self-sustainable and less dependent of foundations?

Paulman: I disagree with that definition of “self-sustainable.” Philanthropy has a responsibility to advance the public interest, including journalism, and our foundation partners are excited to be a part of our work.

That’s not to say we haven’t tried other revenue sources, but most of our readers see Midwest Energy News as something they use in their professional lives, so they’re not generally willing to dip into their own pockets for it. And relying on corporate money brings with it a whole host of other problems.

I’m not saying foundation support is the answer for everything, but after five years of operation it’s still working just fine for us.
INN: Why do you see it necessary to cover energy news as a nonprofit, as opposed to a for-profit newsroom?

Paulman: There’s plenty of room for both. For-profit news organizations are still doing good energy coverage, but it’s sporadic, narrowly focused and often overly reliant on conflict narratives. Also, energy is a slow-moving and difficult topic—if your job is to move ad inventory and make money, it’s hard to justify doing energy coverage.

Our mission is to show the big picture, and the reality is that while there’s an important audience for that it’s not a very big one. There are for-profit companies doing excellent energy coverage (such as SNL and E&E Publishing) but their work is firewalled and their subscriptions are prohibitively expensive for most people.

Working in the nonprofit community not only gives us valuable insight into what’s happening on the ground, but our model also means our work is 100 percent free to access and can be distributed easily and broadly via email, social media and other channels.

INN: What do you see are your biggest challenges as a nonprofit, and what are your ideas to overcoming those challenges?

Paulman: Despite our strong foundation support, you can’t keep all of your eggs in one basket, so moving forward we’re continuing to bring new funders to the table.

INN: What do you hope to get out of your membership with INN?

Paulman: The added technical support is huge for us, and we’re also hoping to partner with other organizations to expand the reach of our coverage. It’s an exciting time to be in the nonprofit media space and I can only see the need for INN and its members continuing to grow in the future.

Laura Bertocci is INN's membership coordinator. For membership related questions, Laura can be reached via email at laura@inn.org.