Covering Hardship in the American South: A Conversation with Lyndsey Gilpin
The nonprofit journalism movement is bringing exciting experiments and new publications to parts of the country in danger of becoming news deserts. Spotlight spoke recently with Lyndsey Gilpin, the founder and editor of Southerly, a digital magazine that focuses on environmental issues across the South, particularly those that impact the region’s low-income communities. Born and raised in Kentucky but now based in Durham, N.C., Gilpin is a reporter and editor who has covered climate change, energy, and environmental justice all over the U.S. Her work has appeared in publications including FiveThirtyEight, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us how Southerly came about?
In 2016, I was a fellow at High Country News writing about climate change in the American West. It was during the presidential election and I was watching the national media talking about people and places in the South and focus on poverty and negative statistics and conservativism. We have had prior issues with national media news coverage about the South; they would drop in and get quick quotes about how bad it was and leave. It made me frustrated during and after the election when national media vowed to do a better job at covering the issues, but nothing changed. I moved back to Louisville and started freelancing about environmental issues around the South. I started Southerly in 2017 as a newsletter, curating local news that no one was paying attention to and writing about a timely environmental topic in the South. My subscriber base kept growing – and then I got a small grant to do a series of stories about how a lack of sewer infrastructure had led to the reappearance of hookworm in rural Alabama. Since then, we have ramped up to publishing two to three times a month, specifically focusing on rural areas that lack environmental coverage.
Does Southerly mainly operate on the co-publishing model?
Southerly produces its own stories, but we also partner with other publications and host community events to talk about stories we are covering. One of our major missions is to build a stronger media ecosystem in the South and one way of doing that is collaborating with other news outlets in the region, especially local outlets. We have worked with local and regional publications: a reporter will write the story and Southerly will edit it and then share with partners in our network. We published a story on coal severance taxes that a reporter in Virginia wrote, for example, looking at how that has impacted local economies in Appalachia. After we published it, several newspapers republished it and it got a huge reception because it was an issue people were thinking about and was related to the decline of coal mining. Another example is our partnership with Spotlight and Mississippi Today in which we combined forces to do a story on electric co-ops and efforts to make their boards reflect the communities they govern. We are continuing to build partnerships like those and providing environmental reporting where its lacking and continuing to try to make people understand that environmental issues connect with and impact a much larger set of issues. We have this online presence and bring in a lot of younger people that are interested in the South. What I really want to do is reach people that have been hard to reach and the way to do that is working with local news organizations to publish these stories.
Drawing the connection between the environment and income inequality can be a struggle, but you are probably finding that less and less as extreme weather regularly decimates low-income communities. How do you make the connection about why environmental reporting is so important to low-income communities?
It is sometimes difficult to convince people that environmental stories are not siloed and that they are often intertwined with other stories. It’s never been clearer that we can’t talk about climate and pollution without talking about the economic consequences. The South is home to some of our country’s most economically challenged communities and environmental crises or extreme weather hit the region particularly hard – for example, heat waves that affect farmworkers (many of whom are immigrants) or flooding that impacts farmers’ yields in the Mississippi Delta. Environmental issues are so intertwined with economic inequality, and that to me is in the backbone of every Southerly story. When you talk about the way people live their day to day lives, it is a more productive conversation because people can see what is happening on the ground where they live. We ran a story on how nearly a year after Hurricane Michael hit Bay County, Florida, people are still trying to pick up the pieces in low-income areas, schools are still being rebuilt, and there are high rates of homeless students. Southerly plays the role of showing that once the storm is over, the aftershocks are still affecting communities that already face substantial challenges.
What’s it like being a one-woman operation?
It is exhausting! But it’s also very fulfilling managing freelancers, editing, marketing, and fundraising. I pay higher than average for freelancer rates, because as a freelancer myself, I know what it’s like. It’s important to me to make sure Southerly is doing things in a fair and sustainable way, even if it takes longer. It’s a lot for one person, to say the least, but I have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time thanks to great writers, editors, and the donors who support Southerly’s work. It’s really exciting to see people are hungry for these types of stories, and there is such a glaring gap in information about environmental and socioeconomic issues in this region that I think Southerly and our network of local journalists can fill. Understanding how people perceive and interact with the South is incredibly important to me, and working on Southerly is the best way I’ve found to move the needle on trust in journalism, on building a more just, equitable place to live, and on understanding changes in our natural world.
Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and editor of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South.