Published on April 7th, 2019 | by Scott Cooney0
From The Founder’s Desk: The Business Of CleanTechnica
April 7th, 2019 by Scott Cooney
Many regular readers turn to CleanTechnica as their #1 source of cleantech news. However, I’m guessing that most readers, regular or otherwise, don’t give much thought beyond that. Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes here in our digital and globally dispersed offices? Or thought, “I wish CleanTechnica would do….”
Well, Zach and I talked about doing something a little different — discussing in transparent terms the obstacles, challenges, opportunities, and trajectory of our media company, with the goal of engaging you, our readers, in a slightly different way.
Zach is well known and globally respected as a leader in the cleantech conversation. His chops are impressive by any measure (and the guy just recently shook hands with Mr. Musk himself). So, at this point, I don’t blame you if you’re wondering, “Zach is amazing, so … who is this person?”
The answer is, I’m mostly a behind-the-scenes kind of businessperson. Zach and his team (Derek, Ben, Andrea, Kyle, and so many more) are primarily responsible for making CleanTechnica into the force for good that it is today. I happened to start the company almost a decade ago, and perhaps the best business decision I ever made was to turn over the reins to Zach almost 5 years ago, when I spun off a home efficiency company, where I am still working full-time. But I love CleanTechnica and obviously care deeply about its mission, and I support the team in any way I can. And that includes writing this piece, and if it’s interesting to readers to be involved in our business strategy, who knows, maybe an occasional column. I welcome comments of all kinds and look forward to interacting with you in the comments below this post.
The business of media
I started this company on Earth Day in 2010. It was symbolic, of course, planting our flag right from the beginning and casting a vision of a better world around which I hoped good, smart people would rally. It has always been my hope to use business as a force for good. I grew up in a conservative environment, and was exposed to free market ideology from an early age. Back then, conservatives like my dad could be very respectable people, and by the time I was old enough to argue about things like market failure (the concept that “externalities” like plastic waste, environmental degradation, and people’s health don’t show up on the balance sheet, and therefore free market zealots aren’t seeing the whole picture … perhaps deliberately), he was receptive and interested in helping make the world a better place, and supported my vision of using business for good.
Previous to CleanTechnica, I had started and sold two mission-driven companies, and gotten a book published by McGraw-Hill on the subject of green entrepreneurship. But when it boiled down to it, it seemed that what was really needed was a megaphone. You could have a great product, but if people didn’t know, or if they weren’t educated as consumers, they might not buy — and worse, they would spend their money buying single-use plastics or fossil fuels unnecessarily. This naturally led to the founding of the media company you are reading right now. There’s not much money in running a media company, especially when you’re just starting out. Both Zach and I put in a lot of time at wages that most would laugh at. If I were to look at the number of hours I’ve put in to this point, and calculate out my hourly wage of what I’ve been able to pay myself over the 9 years, I would say it’s a safe bet that it would be well below the Mendoza line, or minimum wage if you’re not a baseball fan.
But that’s America, right? You work hard, put in your time, work two jobs, stretch budgets, and eventually, you have something. Well … maybe. As it is, I’m very interested in the media world, having attended a number of AdTech and other industry conferences trying to find financial models to keep our writers paid over the years. I’ve talked to (and tried out) so many advertising and other monetization technology companies and strategies that it’s hard to even remember most of them. And I have networked with other publishers, many of whom haven’t survived or sold out at a level that was well below what they were hoping for.
Suffice to say, it’s a tough industry. So, when you find out that some have it easy, it makes you wonder. Consider this — why do so many people believe that coal is a good option that is “less expensive” than clean energy? It’s clearly documented that that just … ain’t so. Why aren’t people up in arms when the Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment says that the health care costs caused by the coal industry would add 9–27 cents per kWh produced if they were properly accounted for? Well, part of it is that it’s a complicated concept on some level. And part of it is likely creditable to what could be called deliberate misinformation.
I’m reading a book called Dark Money, The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. National bestselling author Jane Mayer goes into great detail and does incredible investigative research to document just how much the “bullhorn” I mentioned earlier is being used … for less than wonderful ways. We’re probably all familiar with Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s empire of right-wing media. Maybe many of us have seen how Sinclair Media forced anchors from local news across the country to all read the same script, telling listeners not to pay much attention to what it says is “fake news” … which would be good if what they were attacking was actually fake news. In addition, we’ve seen an explosion of media that doesn’t rely quite so much on facts as it does on opinion, and it seems that the ones with the biggest advertising budgets to recruit readers tend to be angry and right wing. How? Well, it does seem to be intentional.
According to Mayer,
“several of the wealthiest members of the Koch network launched media ventures during this period, widening the exposure for partisan attacks. Foster Friess, the Wyoming mutual fund magnate, for instance, committed to spend $3 million to found The Daily Caller in 2010 after a single luncheon conversation about it with Tucker Carlson, its prospective editor in chief.”
Ooof. Now that would’a been a nice way to start CleanTechnica … way easier than how we did it! What fools we were to think that working for our money was the American way when really we could’ve just started a “for profit think tank,” which, I’m guessing, got seed money to write The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Yes, that’s really a book, which, amazingly, turned into a New York Times bestseller! How??? Oh, right, probably because some oil tycoons bought 50,000 copies to get it onto that list and then gave it away to help win people over to their side. It’s pennies for them, and the return on investment is obvious when they can push candidates to the right on issues like pollution, climate change, and environmental justice.
The global conversation is being influenced in negative and unhealthy ways. Say what you will about CleanTechnica, but we obviously love clean energy and clean transport. We do our best to check things, double check things, and report on facts and actual trends — and yes, we’re probably helping push clean energy forward by talking about solutions and getting people excited. If we are wrong and this whole climate disaster turns out to be a hoax, well, the harm we would’ve caused would be to help clean the air, shift money into local economies rather than oligarchies, create resilience from power grid disruptions, and create independence for those who adopt energy efficiency, solar, and electric vehicles. I’ll take that risk. Even if we are wrong, those seem like worthy outcomes.
But the conversation is often dominated by those with the loudest voice, and these days that probably means the most money. And they work in a lot of ways you might not expect.
Trolls, trolls, trolls
Several years ago, our media company included a website about sustainable food. We’ve since sold that site, but the then editor found something really interesting. Every article she published about genetically engineered (GMO) foods got negative comments. There she is, presuming she’s writing to an audience who subscribed to get good recipes for low-carbon foods and industry news about organics, sustainable farming techniques, and the like, but consistently — there they were. To her credit, she would engage them, trying to see what their sources were, and consistently, to her credit, she would be able to debunk them. (Note that their citations and studies were easily traced back to industry-funded research or think tanks.) And then, at one point, she realized that the commentary and back and forth stopped and started on a regular schedule. So she tracked one of the commenters, and the guy hadn’t really covered his tracks very well because she nailed him as a trolling grunt employed by a PR firm that worked for GMO companies. After that, he stopped commenting, but other trolls kept the industry talking points coming.
We’ve got active moderation on CleanTechnica, and have had to block people who lacked any sound reasoning and were reiterating disproven industry talking points over and over. It was almost like there was a troll school out there, and a centralized source of talking points. Oh wait, that seems like it is in fact the right wing playbook these days — see the Sinclair broadcast link above for maybe the most mind-boggling example, but they are really good at getting all their dogs to start barking in unison, or read Dark Money if you really want to dive in.
We at CleanTechnica answer negative and ungrounded comments, then with repeat offenders, we can end up blocking them. The same commenter may decry Tesla’s tax incentives (while ignoring that tax incentives are pretty ubiquitous and the fossil industry is perhaps the biggest recipient), then seamlessly move on to a solar article to chime in that solar made mold grow in his house. One by one, we dive into the facts and dispel these absurd rumors, which even if completely ungrounded or 99% ungrounded are perpetuated routinely across the internet like patchwork. There are various ways trolls operate, but it’s often in waves. A wind energy article will get a swarm of anti-wind comments, a Tesla article will get bombarded with Tesla critics pushing a couple of clear talking points, a nuclear article will see an influx of pro-nuclear commenters repeating decades-old myths.
Trolls don’t like to be booted, don’t like having their work shut down, and probably fear for their job security a bit when identified as such. But they don’t have to stop there. There are third party websites where you can review websites, and you can clearly see there that people who are angry that their ranting and raving has been cut off here on CleanTechnica head over there to try to take us down a notch in the public eye. (We won’t link to the site, because it doesn’t deserve our google juice, but if you google “cleantechnica review,” you can find it and, if feeling motivated, can give us a nice review. We’d appreciate a comment on any sites that show up, as it would help us to drown out the trolls.) These trolls can also go to news sites that are not moderated well or major aggregators like reddit in order to trash us. It happens. The comments are usually inane, or invent complaints that simply don’t match our work.
Some claim they’re independent people who otherwise support cleantech but hate that CleanTechnica doesn’t cite sources (uh, what???) or doesn’t use numbers/data (omg, we’re number and data crazy — do they even look around our site before heading straight to give us a negative review?). The most common complaint that could be seen as legitimate is that we publish advertorials. And we do. As do most media companies these days. But each of our advertorials are clearly marked as such, and they make up less than 0.05% of our total articles. We are also super picky about what we run, as we don’t want to support anything we don’t think is worth supporting — perhaps that is what drove some of the complaints, that we wouldn’t take a company’s money that we didn’t believe was trustworthy or helpful. In addition to all of that, you’ll see the usual right-wing propaganda talking points — SOLYNDRA! WHAT ABOUT SOLYNDRA??
Give ’em hell, readers. Give ’em hell.
The bottom line
When it comes down to it, if people aren’t convinced by the head of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment and a team of researchers, those people are probably out of reach (or on a competing payroll). But most people are not. And we need to keep shining a light on progressive solutions. That’s probably what we do best.
Do some of them fail? Yes. If we could put a nickel into a pool for every failed business, we’d have enough to plant trees and build solar-powered microgrids around the world. Yep, sometimes cleantech businesses (as well as all other types of businesses) fail, and solutions fail to live up to market potential. But our global mission to move the world past fossil fuels is supported by reason, science, and data, and by the grand majority of the world’s citizens. It’s part logic, part science, but inarguably it boils down to the precautionary principle. If it’s more than likely we’re heading off a cliff, why not start to slow down and turn our vehicle around? Especially when going the other direction offers plenty of additional advantages, isn’t that better than closing our eyes and hoping for the best? Inarguably. And it’s not unlike conflicts in the past — there were monarchs who needed to be dethroned because they’d gotten drunk with power. There were whale oil industries that needed to be ravamped. It’s just that the money involved and power wielded by a tiny few is very, very different these days.
With that in mind, as we continue to shine the light, we’d like to get you more involved. I’ll be straightforward and honest. There are a lot of folks here working for well below what they’re worth. The advertising model is not a sustainable one for many reasons, and we continue to diversify our financial model and test new avenues to stay afloat. As with many publishers these days, we’ve started offering a subscription, and thanks to hundreds of supportive readers, we now have a growing pool of money that helps us pay our people to do their work. (They also get exclusive access to some events, interviews, and goodies — and the opportunity to have their voices influence the company more.) If you have contributed, thank you! If you haven’t and you care about independent media that’s working to show the world how to move forward, consider chipping in.
We’re also going to raise some investment. If you’re interested and have $5,000 or more to pitch in, please sign up and we’ll let you know when we start moving in that direction. If you happen to know other investors, please pass that link along.
It’s been a heck of a journey. We look forward to 10 more years helping move the world forward. Thank you for reading, thank you for supporting, and thank you for sharing CleanTechnica with friends and family members who can become part of the global movement for good. I’ll reply to comments below. If you have ideas, let’s hear them!
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