Ben Jervey: Digital Journalist (Caution: Long)
This is a profile I did on GOOD contributor and "The New Ideal" blogauthor Ben Jervey for a journalism class. I think it would beinteresting to anyone who is curious about the life of the GOODcontributors we read and anyone with an interest in sustainability ornew media. I just found it in an old hard drive so parts are a bit dated.
How a young journalist is fighting for sustainability both environmentally and personally.
If you ever try and reach Ben Jervey for an interview, therescheduling process will tell you about his hectic schedule before heeven has the chance to. Try not to fret however, because he is busytrying to change the world. At 29, Jervey is part of the latestgeneration of journalists, with his work published digitally more oftenthan in print. He specializes in sustainability and environmentalism,and spends most of his time working with the Natural Resource DefenseCouncil (NRDC), editing their citizen journalism website, "Greenlight."In addition to this, Jervey also writes for GOOD, including aweekly blog called "The New Ideal," has written a book, "The Big GreenApple" on New York City's sustainability, and edits and curatessustaiNYC, a blog that keeps readers updated on the city'ssustainability. If it sounds like a busy schedule, it is, and Jerveywill be the first one to tell you it takes a "special kind of person."But if you ask him why he puts up with it, you better be ready withyour notebook and pen because his life's passion is about to come out.
Jervey grew up in a town of about 3,000 people in Massachussetts. Heattended Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in centralVermont, whose natural and mountainous setting was perfect for hisstudies in environmentalism and geography. During his junior year hetook an eye-opening journey to Curitiba, Brazil, a city internationallyknown for its sustainability. It was there that Jervey developed hispassion for urban sustainability, as he realized that "the challengesweren't in small conversational issues," but in new areas like greendesign for buildings, which account for 40% of our energy consumption.
Upon graduation from college, Jervey first ventured into the worldof journalism when he published an article in Vermont Magazine. Heexplained that he had a bit of help in getting it published, as he hada connection with Bill McKibben, one of the leading writers in thefields of climate change and alternative energy, and one of Jervey'spersonal heroes. Jervey then moved to New York City, but as he explains"I came to New York City interested in sustainability, I didn't think Iwould be writing." But as he looked around the city and found numerousgreen places and movements, he realized there weren't any definitivesources of collected information for the average New Yorker. Enter "TheBig Green Apple," Jervey's guidebook on how to live a greener lifestylein New York City. Jervey had pitched the idea to a number of people andeventually got a few publishers on board.
Publishing that book, Jervey explains, was his ticket into the worldof journalism, not that he necessarily even wanted to use it. "Writinghad been a passion, not a profession, I kind of got backed into it"Jervey explains, "There is a demand in the field for this kind ofinformation, and I became a bit of an authority on the subject." Itwasn't all downhill from there however, as Jervey quickly came to seethe realities of being a budding journalist. Two of the burdens Jerveyrefers to most are the erratic and unpredictable hours he has had towork, and his inability to be selective in his work. "There is always alow-level anxiety of how to pay the bills, and you have to be organizedto make sure you have received all the checks for the ten assignmentsyou've been working on. It sucks taking any assignment for money; youalways try to get to the point where you can say no." Jervey's reliefcame in being hired by the NRDC to edit its citizen journalism blog,"Greenlight," as it provided a steady, constant paycheck that he coulddepend on. He advises any young journalist to "try and get a consistentgig, and take the pressure off financially."
Jervey also tries to create some daily routine to fight theunpredictable work schedule. He tries to devote an hour every morningto sustaiNYC, the blog he curates and edits and his "personal mission"to help promote sustainability in the city. After that, he spends anhour or two e-mailing editors and sources, before hunkering down in theafternoon. Come 1 pm, he shuts everything down, cuts out distractions,sometimes even unplugs his phone, and gets to his main writingassignment for the next 3 or 4 hours. However, more often than not thisdoesn't happen, as editors or publishers call and force his work intothe evenings. Ironically, Jervey finds it difficult to even see theoutdoors, as a walk around the city for an hour or two becomes a luxuryon slow days. Luckily for Jervey, the work that he produces in thishectic schedule is turning some heads.
Jervey recently wrote a story for GOOD Magazine called "Train inVain," a feature story in which he took a three day train journeyacross the nation and then reflected on his trip and the rail industry.To the unsuspecting reader, this feature would be defined as a travelstory or a critique on the US rail system. To Jervey however, thispiece is green. Within the detailed and entertaining stories of thequirky passengers, long delays, and beautiful landscapes on hisjourney, Jervey tastefully sneaks in tidbits of information explaininghow train travel fits into a greener world. "A growing number oftransportation wonks, energy experts, and politicians see the railroadsas a priority for America, as a solution to congestion and rising gasprices. Per passenger mile, an Amtrak train uses about half the energyof an airplane, and can carry twice the number of people," Jerveywrites.
The "Train in Vain" article provides an example of Jervey'sstrategy for bringing green to front pages and feature stories, as heargues "if you make something a green piece it only reaches a certaintarget audience." Jervey chastises the media for what he calls its"marginalization of green," in relegating green stories to backsections and its improper handling of the issue of climate change.However, papers place articles in front pages based on newsworthiness,and as green stories aren't going to sell as many papers, you canhardly blame them. This presents a challenge to Jervey and his writing."I believe a number of green stories could be front page health orbusiness news" he proclaims. For example, a story on sustainablebuildings could front the business section for cutting energy costs,the health section for lessening air pollution, or the arts section fornew architecture. In his most telling moment, Jervey describes hisaspirations; "My greatest goal is to make people better understandwhat's at stake. Not just make them aware but understand just howserious these problems are and how these solutions work. It fits into agreater progressive plan, and we need to scrub off the green stigma."
Jervey also sees challenges in accomplishing his goals in new media.While Jervey lauds citizen journalism for having the ability to bringpeople together to share information and tell their stories, he seesthe pitfalls as well. "There is no quality control, and most storiesprobably have bias" Jervey warns, "Everyone has a blog." Thisenvironment can create a confusing and distracting environment forsomeone seeking information, and Jervey hopes that a form of"meritocracy" will develop in the coming years. "I hope to see peoplemigrate towards good blogs and be more selective in what they read;hopefully people will still see the value in real journalism andresearch."
In case you haven't noticed, there is a lot of hope and ambition inJervey's approach to journalism. If he had his way, skillfully writtenpieces like "Train in Vain" would bring green issues to the front pagesand help people understand how it connects to other areas andindustries. If he had his way, readers would utilize the tools of theinternet appropriately and journalists could successfully andfruitfully take their work to the web. But if there is one thing Jerveyhas learned so far, it is that there is a big gap in journalism betweendoing things the way you'd like and coping with the realities of theindustry.
For young journalists like Ben Jervey though, there is no other wayto help your cause but to stay on point and keep pushing through. Evenwhen asked for any general advice for a journalism student such asmyself, he stated, with a fair caution of bias, that his "Greenlight"citizen journalism blog would provide a great opportunity to startwriting a few clips that future employers could read. This is thereality of having a career in new media journalism, where you canspecialize your work and content to fit your personal passions, even ifthat means struggling to pay the bills. While critics may see Jervey'sadvocating for green to be more integrated into traditional newsmediums as "greencentric" and applicable to any area of interest, theyhave to respect his ambition and novel approach. Also, Jervey would bequick to remind them that not too many other areas of interest involvethe global implications of climate change and energy consumption. Sowith that in mind, keyboard in hand, and sustainability at heart,Jervey marches on into this strange and changing land of journalism.