To introduce our all new digital publishing blog, we were delighted to catch up with Jude Isabella, editor-in-chief of Hakai Magazine. Along with her extensive freelance work for various periodicals, Jude recently published a work of creative non-fiction, Salmon: A Scientific Memoir. Based out of Victoria, B.C., Hakai has established itself as an essential, scientific segment of our changing media landscape. It’s in-depth, educational, and sustainable journalism— and that matters, maybe now more than ever.
DPAs: Hakai Magazine, an online publication dedicated to coastal sciences and societies, launched just under two years ago. Give our readers a little introduction to the magazine’s mission, the Hakai Institute, and the Tula Foundation.
Jude: The magazine’s mission reflects the mission of the Hakai Institute, and more broadly the Tula Foundation. The Institute focuses on the coastal margin, taking a multidisciplinary approach to the ecosystem. From physical sciences to social sciences, the researchers at the institute make the most of each other’s expertise. No science is an island, and the institute puts this idea of connectivity into practice. At the magazine, we approach our beat the same way. We explore science and society—looking at coastal cultures from multiple perspectives.
The Tula Foundation’s guiding principles are something we all feel strongly about and support in our own way:
Science is at the heart of everything Tula does. No program will be sustainable without the engagement of the communities in which Tula works. Our work must by its very nature support social justice in the communities Tula serves.
You can see, as science journalists we appreciate Tula’s commitment to solid journalism as well, which is integral to issues of social justice, community engagement, and an informed citizenry.
DPAs: Can you discuss the processes of launching an online magazine— including any successes you’ve had or struggles you’ve encountered— and what might you suggest to someone who plans to embark on a similar pursuit.
Jude: First, you have to find someone who is very very good at project management, understands how process helps get things done, and knows a thing or two about Excel spreadsheets and budgets. That someone is Dave Garrison, our publisher. Next, you find someone who is very good at organizing, editing, writing, and highly networked with the coastal science community. That someone is Adrienne Mason, our managing editor. I might have had the big idea, but that’s all it would have been without Dave and Adrienne. My advice is, secure a good core team of complementary talents. With such a solid foundation, a stellar team follows.
DPAs: Hakai Magazine has a lofty goal: to start and sustain a global conversation about the world’s coastlines. Why are these conversations so important right now, and how has the digital platform facilitated these conversations on national/international scale?
Jude: People tend to forget that borders are amorphous; they have little meaning when it comes to the environment. As the world’s second largest country by landmass (and rich in natural resources) that shares a border with an economic and global politics powerhouse, Canada has a unique perspective on the world. And now, with the current isolationist attitude and anti-environmental stance of the United States government—that funds research all over the world and where so much coastal research happens—a Canadian-based publication with a global beat is essential. As an online publication, we are available to anyone in the world with an internet connection. New digital outlets focusing on serious journalism are somewhat of a departure from other digital natives since we expect more from readers and by concentrating on high quality content we have a tremendous opportunity to institutionalize the practice of serious journalism as a societal pillar, vital to healthy democracies. With a global audience we have an opportunity to raise, across the board, the overall quality of serious content, and keep it elevated.
We know we’re reaching people well beyond our borders, even though we write a lot about North America (it is the place we know best). We publish diverse voices from diverse ecosystems—South Africa, Japan, India, and northern Europe.
We would love to cast our net wider, but there are constraints: language and journalistic traditions are not the same the world over.
DPAs: Coastlines are indeed interesting concepts. In “Who Controls the Coast?” you write, “Coastlines are the ultimate commons with countless users who claim the shore for myriad, and often conflicting, purposes: trade, recreation, investment, livelihood, or habitat.” Despite this wide range of potential enthusiasts, would you say your publication attracts a niche group of readers? Or has an online platform helped to spread the interest in science journalism.
Jude: After almost two years in, I think Hakai Magazine attracts people who love to read, who love to learn, who love to share solid journalism with others in their social network, and who love the coast. If great writing and great stories appeals to readers, then that in itself is niche. I don’t think the coastal beat makes us niche—except for audiences that we are very particularly popular with: ocean and environmental organizations and foundations, marine scientists, archaeologists, ecologists, and graduate students.
And yes, I think having an online platform, and the fact that we surprise our readers with diverse stories—about the language of Newfoundland, the disappearance of a fisheries observer, and the life history of a quirky animal (the shipworm)—helps to spread around science journalism to a general audience.
DPAs: Your piece, “Embracing the Weirdness of Waterless Waterways” (great alliteration btw), was an honourable mention at the 2015 National Magazine Awards. There is no doubt you have a way with words. How do you transfer your talent for traditional journalism into a digital website with a focus on interactive features, videos and design etc.?
Jude: Aw, shucks, thank you! I think a digital platform supports these long form traditional pieces like my intermittent stream piece. Mobile phone users are accessing these pieces more and more, they can pocket what they’d like to read for later so when standing in line somewhere or just waiting, or needing a break, these creative non-fiction stories are perfect for passing the time. The stories are super easy to share on their smart phones. They are satisfying stories in your pocket. We are still readers! A way to transfer that talent for traditional journalism into a digital website is audio: we’ve started recording audio editions of our long form pieces. People enjoy listening to great stories too, especially when engaged in busy work. So far we’ve had a fair amount of people tuning in. Transferring that talent to video is also possible, story telling is story telling — but it certainly helps a writer to sign on for training in how to shoot video and record sound. It’s really tough to juggle being a videographer and traditional print journalist in the field – you need the luxury of time. If you only have a day or two, something has to give. And editing video is a whole other skill and very time-consuming.
I think, however, we can all do more with interactivity features. The problem for journalists is avoiding bandwagons and gimmicks. We want to do something truly meaningful, which often takes a lot of work. Video is one place we take advantage of our digital platform. But still, video is time intensive and expensive and we want to do it right. We do, however, have a couple of things in the works which will be posted in the next few months.
DPAs: At the inaugural Digital Publishing Awards last year, Joshua Rapp Learn won a Silver award for his short online feature, “Beating Back the Crazy Ants.” How does recognition, from the DPAs and elsewhere, impact Hakai?
Jude: Awards help us attract the fantastic creators that a publication relies on: the writers, the videographers, the photographers, etc. No matter what anyone says about how silly awards might be, it means something to be recognized by your peers. Even being shortlisted is such an honour. So many creators work in isolation, the feedback of an award is a validation of the hard work spent crafting the perfect piece that you send out into the nether, hoping someone likes it, hoping it changes someone’s perspective, hoping that what we do truly changes the world for the better. Would any of us do this job if we weren’t idealists?
Jude Isabella is the editor-in-chief of Hakai Magazine. Hakai won a silver award at last year’s inaugural Digital Publishing Awards. Follow Hakai on Twitter @hakaimagazine and Jude @judeisabella.
This interview was conducted by Krista Robinson of the Digital Publishing Awards.