Over the past three years, nonprofit publisher Grist has more than doubled its annual revenue, while simultaneously investing in editorial talent and increasing staff size. Last week Grist also expanded its content archives, announcing the acquisition of defunct digital magazine Pacific Standard, which closed in August 2019. Like Grist, Pacific Standard was known for its in-depth reporting on issues related to social and environmental justice.
“A huge focus for me has been around the people that we’ve brought to the organization, and we’ve had the good fortune to recruit a lot of really extraordinary journalists and editors over the last two years,” says Grist CEO Brady Walkinshaw, a former state legislator in Washington state who joined Grist in 2017. “I think the talent that we’re bringing in has really been the driver for a lot of the opportunities and the impact we’re having.”
In the following conversation with Publishing Executive, Walkinshaw discusses Grist’s evolving revenue mix, membership growth, and editorial strategy – including how the news outlet is addressing the current pandemic and protests for racial justice through its coverage.
How do you describe Grist to those who are unfamiliar?
Grist is a publication and a digital media outlet that’s dedicated to raising awareness and exploring how it is that we’re going to decarbonize the planet. So really thinking about equity-based climate solutions and how is it that we can build and grow a publication that’s focused on environmental issues at large, but more specifically, what are the solutions to decarbonization? What does it look like to build a more just and sustainable future, and how are we going to report and tell that story? For us, that’s everything from thinking about food systems, to culture, to clean energy. We do an advice column that looks at individual behaviors around sustainability. We’ve covered politics and environment for years. We launched the country’s first environmental justice desk a couple of years ago to look at the intersections between race justice, disadvantage, and environment. Our focus at large is to be a publication in the country that reaches a broad public audience that is focused on issues of environment and climate.
How large is your team and your organization?
Our team is about 50 people right now, and it was about half that size. We’ve grown by 80% to 90% as a staff over the last three and a half years, and the team is now nationally distributed. We used to be based more in Seattle, but now we have a small office in Brooklyn; we have an office in Seattle. Our executive editor is based in Atlanta. We have lots of folks in the Bay area. We have people in Minnesota; Ohio; Washington, D.C.; so we’re a pretty distributed organization.
What are the benefits of having a distributed team?
Well, that’s a really interesting question. Because I think we really accelerated moving toward a distributed team as we grew over the last few years, and I’d say there’s a couple core drivers for that. One is, as we grew, it was more important to me and to the organization that we have more of a national footprint, not just in our coverage, but also in where our reporters and our editors are. The second reason that I felt it was important was from a talent perspective. I think for us as an organization, we’ve really focused on diversity and equity. All of our programmatic leadership now at Grist are people of color. And so am I; I’m Cuban American. And I’ve realized, especially in the field of environmental reporting, it is important to diversify your team and to build up a team that reflects more of society.
What are the key challenges of running a nonprofit media organization?
What I’ve learned and as I’ve gotten deeper into media is that most nonprofit media outlets, of the many there are, all have fairly different models for funding. I think at this very specific moment, Grist has been really fortunate to have a business model, or I would say revenue model, that’s really working and is very diversified. Our fiscal year ends in September and we’re projecting revenue of probably between 6.5 and 7 million for this year. That budget comes from a whole number of sources, but the two main sources are relationships that we’ve developed and nurtured over the years with philanthropists and with foundations. We have many individuals who might generously contribute $1,000 to $5,000 a year. We have individuals who might contribute well more than that, but it’s a pretty diversified base.
Leah Wynalek is editor-in-chief of BRAND United. She is passionate about creating content that engages audiences across channels – and delivering insights that help others do the same.