For three years, it’s been our mission to create journalism that you can trust about the U.S. South and its changing environment—stories that serve and empower people and offer indispensable information so they can live healthier, safer lives. It’s essential work, especially as we see more intense and frequent storms, drastically changing economies, and crumbling systems of every kind: disaster aid, housing, healthcare, infrastructure, information.
Coverage of environmental issues has changed a lot since we launched. There’s more of it, which is great. News outlets are finally showing how these topics intersect with others like health and business, which is even better. But most still don’t prioritize reaching the people actually facing environmental injustices like disasters, pollution, and failing infrastructure. The people who do not have time to read 3,000 word pieces because they work long hours, or have no regular internet access. The people who are overwhelmed trying to figure out what is true and what is false, especially as fossil fuel companies and politicians push misinformation or biased information at them. The people who don’t see themselves represented in stories about the South: Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; immigrants, low-wealth families, rural communities.
Southerly has become a trusted source of information that provides thoughtful insight and context to stories about climate change, pollution, and more. But to have a substantial and meaningful impact in the communities we serve—to equip people with the resources they need to be healthier and safer, hold power to account, and have agency over their future—we must do more than tell beautiful, representative stories. We need to respond to urgent information needs, build trust in the places where the media has abused it, and create connections between organizations and people in this region who are oppressed by the same systems but feel alone in their fight.
At Southerly, we believe the value of journalism for our communities, our livelihoods, and our democracy, lies in what we can give. Tools, so you can learn how to get information that should be public, learn how to more effectively navigate bureaucratic systems, put pressure on leaders who should be serving you. Guidance, to help you navigate the difficult and often scary changes to our ecosystems and places, while still remembering that this world is magical and beautiful. Access, to places and people and systems designed to ensure you are kept out.
So in 2022, we’re digging deep on three main topics and working with community partners on information access projects around them. These choices, as well as the changes we’re making to our structure, publishing schedule, and vision, are based on more than a year of listening sessions, feedback on stories, learnings from other outlets and information sources, and surveys of our readers, staff, and board.
The topics are:
Disaster preparedness and recovery: We’ve spent the last couple years covering hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, flooding in Appalachia, and other disasters. We’ve repeatedly heard there’s a need for more information about how to access FEMA aid, accountability on disaster relief and mitigation spending at the local and state levels, connections to organizations and people who have shared experiences, and outreach to those who aren’t being reached.
Air, water, and soil pollution and its impact on public health: There’s a lot of reporting lately on major polluters and how they’re harming communities, particularly those of color. But there are countless places where people know they’re at risk of disease and illness but may not have the scientific studies, or the lawsuits, to back them up. We plan to focus on these crises that often fly under the radar: landfills seeping noxious gases and harmful chemicals; crypto mines and coal mines proposed near neighborhoods and schools; highways being built through historic towns.
The right to basic, functioning infrastructure: The rural South has long faced a crisis of failing or nonexistent civic infrastructure. In some places, like rural Kentucky or Jackson, Miss., it’s contaminated water; in others, like Alabama, it’s a lack of working septic systems; in many places in between, it’s dangerous bridges, roads, and dams. Climate change effects like heavy rainfall and storms are putting more stress on these systems and our communication infrastructure. As the U.S. government funds major investments in our built environments, we want to ensure Southerners have the tools they need to access information about these changes and reap the benefits.
We’ll still cover 13 Southern states, and will continue to work with local journalism outlets when our values align (we won’t partner with just any national outlet so they can say they have a “local” angle). Each step of the way, we will always work alongside community partners: nonprofit organizations, libraries, schools, citizens’ groups, local residents, activists, and leaders, to better understand what folks need, want, and find useful. We want to build on the information channels people already trust in their communities.
Each story will be part of a larger community engagement project. Some may include a Zoom panel, Q&A, listening session, or offline event. Others may include a printed version of the story, a guide that meets urgent information needs, SMS-based reporting, or community members writing and publishing alongside trained journalists.
This allows us to focus more deeply on responding to urgent information needs around environmental injustice. We’ve been working hard to experiment with this work in 2021, and to build back trust in the places where the media has broken it: flyers about lead poisoning, a printed zine about mental health after hurricanes; long-term reporting partnerships with outlets like Enlace Latino NC that put Spanish-speakers first; a print newsletter in N.C. distributed via libraries. Our latest projects, about landfill pollution in Bristol, Va., and biogas development in eastern N.C., combine a lot of these ideas.
I don’t know what the future holds for Southerly or journalism, but I do know that to have lasting impact, we have to slow down, listen, and respond to what we hear. We will probably lose out on funding we could get if we focused on investigative reporting or making more people believe in the science of climate change. And we can’t cover everywhere and every issue all the time.
We can, however, offer potentially life-saving stories and resources, tools folks need to ask the right questions and pressure the right people, and infrastructure for information systems before they’re in a moment of crisis. We have a new website and a new staff structure with a smaller team as we figure out what works for us. We still have a tiny budget—under $200,000—and no full-time employees.
But we have you, and that’s what really matters. If you can afford to donate, any amount helps. If you lead or work for a journalism organization and want to partner on this kind of work, please read about our partnerships and reach out. If you lead or work for a non-journalism organization that can help distribute information or collaborate on projects and events, contact us. And if you live in a place you think our work is needed and want to be part of informing your community, let us know. We’re here to serve you.