Environmental advocate Chip Giller created Grist.org, an on-line media platform for delivering independent environmental content free of charge to new audiences. Giller is one of the winners of the 2009 Heinz Awards, which recognize outstanding individuals for their contributions to society. This year, the awards commemorate the late Senator John Heinz's long-standing commitment to the environment by bestowing $100,000 awards to 10 individuals whose achievements have helped bring about a cleaner, greener and more sustainable planet.
A Tiny e-Newsletter Morphs Into a Popular Web Site
Grist.org began just 10 years ago as a digital newsletter sent to 100 e-mail addresses. You might say interest has picked up considerably since then.
"We're reaching about a million people a month through our web site" Chip Giller says. "Through media partnerships, we're reaching many millions more per month."
Over the past decade, Chip Giller has turned his eco-site into a unique media model, delivering serious environmental news and views in a way that makes big issues like climate change relevant to people's daily lives.
"So it's not just a topic that policy makers and decision makers think about, but also regular people," he says. "We did a whole series on poverty and the environment because very often it's the most disadvantaged who are the most at risk from environmental pollution. So we sent out reporters to lots of different communities in the U.S. to really give a report on the ground of what's going on in these communities. And now these communities' voices get more attention."
A Forum for Young People and Old Folks
In addition to material gathered by its own reporters, Grist.org compiles environmental articles from other news agencies. It also allows readers to become contributors. They can tell their own stories through comments, blogs and photos. That, Giller says, is what engages young people.
"We're reaching people in their 20s and 30s," he says. "That's the gen[eration] 'X' and gen[eration] 'Y' folks. When I began Grist, I began it as a response to a trend that concerned me. Here in the United States, the membership rolls of the larger environmental groups you might think of, like Sierra Club or Natural Resources Defense Council - they are doing amazing work - but the average age of a member has really crept up to about age 60 or above. I saw a need to really repopulate this movement with the younger folks."
But those older folks, Giller says, have also been an important part of Grist. The site has become an activist forum, not just a source of news.
"We also have a number of people like Al Gore, or Carol Browner [Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate], or journalists like Bill Moyers," he says. "They are reading our work also and learning from it. They often come to us to connect with this younger audience that we're reaching."
Whatever environmental problem readers might be facing, a solution is usually just a click away on Grist.org, Giller says. He points, for example, to an an offbeat advice column at Grist.org called "Ask Umbra."
"Umbra Fisk answers all manner of green questions from our audience members - serious ones like, 'How do I reduce my climate foot prints?' to maybe less important things, but still fun, like, 'Can I recycle a beer bottle with a lime wedge stuck in it?' And I'm here to report that you can recycle a beer bottle with a lime wedge stuck in it," Giller explains. "But what's interesting about that character [Umbra Fisk] is that it led to a book that we produced with lots of different forms of environmental advice.
Giller's Baby Sitter and Role Model:
For someone as passionate about journalism and the environment as Chip Giller is, Grist is a dream come true. He credits the renowned American environmentalist, Bill McKibben, for inspiring his passion and success.
"I was lucky enough, or maybe it's just a funny coincidence," Giller recalls, "that an early babysitter of mine growing up in Massachusetts was a fellow named Bill McKibben, who is one of the foremost environmental writers in the U.S. I feel that I was almost learning about global warming from day one. He set a wonderful model for me, for a career that joined these two passions."
On the personal level, Giller is leading an environmentally friendly life. His family has only one car, which runs on biodiesel, and they grow some of their own food. Giller encourages everyone to try to make similar environmentally-friendly choices.
"When you're making a big purchasing decision, like a car or an appliance, that's when to take environmental considerations in mind... get an incredibly efficient washing machine, or efficient water heater," he says. "Then, when you go to vote, when you're thinking about selecting public officials, keep the environment in mind as well.
Chip Giller believes the worldwide green movement is gaining momentum and changing politics, economics and culture -- and he says he is excited that he, and Grist.org, are playing a part in that change.