Monday, November 09, 2015

The La Bloga interview with Brian Calvert, managing editor of High Country News

Brian Calvert is the managing editor of High Country News. He grew up in Pinedale, Wyoming, at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. Calvert studied English at the University of Colorado before starting his career as a freelance foreign correspondent. He has lived extensively in Cambodia and China, as well as in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In 2011, Calvert moved back to the United States, spending a year and a half writing and producing radio from Southern California. In 2013, he was awarded the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, at the University of Colorado – Boulder, where he studied climate change and the American West. Calvert was hired by High Country News in May 2014. He now lives in Paonia, Colorado, where High Country News is headquartered, with his dog, Perle Haggard, and cat, Luna.

Calvert reached out to me because he has a desire to explore the “hidden and under-reported connections between the natural world and under-represented communities.” I asked if he would be interested in a La Bloga interview, and he kindly agreed. 

OLIVAS: For those who are not too familiar with High Country News, could you give a brief description of the publication’s origins and mandate?

CALVERT: High Country News is a non-profit magazine that covers the environmental issues, natural resources and communities of the American West. We publish 22 issues per year in print and have a vibrant website with daily content. We have a small budget, but a lot of heart, and we punch well above our weight. We’ve been around since 1970, and were started in Lander, Wyoming, by a rancher who was concerned about the environmental despoilment of the region, and we hew to those roots, on one hand, while being the voice of the West overall, on the other.

Our approach is journalistic, which is to say that fairness and accuracy in our reporting is our top priority, though we do try to take the extra step of providing meaning from that reporting. We write with authority on a broad number of issues, and we devote a lot of ink to nuance, so that someone walking away from one of our stories will have a pretty good grasp of any number of complex issues. We’re a magazine for people really want to understand the West and all its facets.

In many ways, we work to conserve the environments of the region, and in other ways, we seek to report on issues that could use some improvement. So you might see in the same issue one story on fish conservation and another on which Western states are leading the way on higher minimum wage. We’ve won awards for reporting on deaths in the oil fields, and are currently running a feature on the war on coal. We’re just as likely to cover elections in Navajo Nation as we are to cover a mainstream politics. We cover energy—both extractives and renewables; drought and water; agriculture and farming; the recreation industry; the National Parks and other the public lands; wildlife; climate change; pollution; and a great many other issues that define the American West, sometimes through essay, sometimes through deep-dive analysis and sometimes through good old-fashioned narrative storytelling.

The American West has a diverse, yet distinct, geography, driven very much by ecological relationships between a lot of different people and cultures and a lot of different landscapes and resources. High Country News tries to make sense of that geography and of those ecologies, from Los Angeles to Portland, Yellowstone to the Rockies, Denver, the Grand Canyon, the Great Basin, Albuquerque, the Mojave, and on and on.

OLIVAS: You have mentioned to me that as the new managing editor, you are interested in the “hidden and under-reported connections between the natural world and under-represented communities.” How did you develop this interest and what are some examples of what you are looking for?

CALVERT: I grew up in a small town in western Wyoming, but through journalism I became a foreign correspondent. So I know what it’s like to live in the isolated West, but I also have had exposure to a lot of different cultures in my career. I’ve spent significant time abroad, and have lived in Cambodia, China, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and traveled to many places in between. I would say that most of my life I’ve spent looking at the way people are the same, and understanding where they are different. Ultimately, though, I came to realize that some of the biggest questions of our age had to do with our environment and our resources, and so I ultimately came back to the West, where I think they come into sharp relief. High Country News offers a great vantage from which to ask these questions, and figure out these relationships—and I’d like to take the magazine further into that space. But I know there’s a ton that I don’t understand, or can’t even see, and I’m always looking for other perspectives and vantage points.

The West is a huge place, and it would be hubris to think I understand it even a little bit.
As the managing editor, I want my writers to help our readers understand the relationship different people have with the places they live. What kind of pressure will booming demographics in the Southwest put on the region’s resources? What kind of solutions to environmental problems can new and old Western cultures provide? What does “wild” mean to someone who lives in Los Angeles? Phoenix? What is life like for a Vietnamese community that lives along a polluted river in Seattle? What is it like for a family from Nepal running an ice cream store and gas station in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming? I’m interested in finding these “new” places that many of our readers may be unfamiliar with, old wisdom, fresh perspectives. I’m interested in finding new readers, by asking new questions. And I’m especially interested in learning what I don’t know about the West’s many dimensions.

At the heart of all these questions again are these ecological relationships, and I think High Country News is devoted to exploring them and very open to new ways of seeing things.

OLIVAS: If writers are interested in pitching ideas to you, how may they contact you and what should the pitch include?

CALVERT: We have fairly extensive submission guidelines on our website at Writers can send me their ideas directly: Deeply reported stories, powerful narratives, thought-provoking essays, quick scenes or short profiles all have a place in the magazine, along with news and analysis. We’re always trying to figure out what’s new about the West, so we often pass on stories that reinforce the stereotypes or mythologies of the region. We wouldn’t really write about a cattle drive, for example; but we recently ran a story about an abbey of nuns who make a living ranching.

I’m really interested in pushing the magazine into areas we haven’t been in before, particularly the urban wild, coastal economies, and diverse cultures and communities (again, though, with the focus on these ecological relationships). We’re also interested in multimedia storytelling online, and in opinion and personal essays, as well. High Country News is really in a period of expansion and experimentation, and I think our content reflects that, so I would love to hear out-of-the box ideas. Our focus will always be on solid reporting and good writing, but beyond that, I’d like to be surprised.

I should also say that we are developing a prize for journalists of color reporting on under-represented communities of the region. We’ll be announcing the details of that in January. And we also run a very well-respected, rigorous internship and fellowship program, six months to a year, respectively, that help writers really understand what High Country News is about and gives them the skills and training they need to continue writing (or editing) for us and shaping our future.

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