Brady Walkinshaw, Grist's new CEO, on a future that doesn't suck

Two Steps Forward

Brady Walkinshaw, Grist's new CEO, on a future that doesn't suck

Grist

Grist, the nonprofit environmental media organization best known by its namesake website, has just brought on a new CEO — its first new leader since journalist Chip Giller founded it 18 years ago. Giller is stepping into a new role taking on special projects.

Giller's successor as CEO is Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, a Cuban-American who, until earlier this year, served in the Washington state legislature. He brings a rural, agricultural worldview and, equally important, a fresh perspective on the future of a media organization that prides itself on being the voice of the people — a voice that's equal parts smarts, snark and as much mirth as one can bring to the covering the end of the world as we know it.

I caught up with Walkinshaw recently to learn more about his vision, the company's shifting mantra and to compare notes on what it's like to be part of an 18-year-old media organization.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: So Brady, first of all, welcome to Grist.

Brady Walkinshaw: Well, thank you. I’m really excited to be here. It’s an exciting kind of fusion of my passions and different parts of my career.

Makower: What did you see as the big opportunity there for you and for Grist to come on board?

Walkinshaw: As you may know, I’ve worked a lot in local politics for the past several years up here in Washington state and was a state legislator and spent several years before that. Actually, my background is in food and agriculture; my dad worked in organic vegetable farming. My mom is a public-school teacher. So I grew up in pretty rural Washington state and found my way into a real passion around food and sustainability, worked at the Gates Foundation for many years on food issues and then found my way into politics.

One of the things that really excites me about Grist is that looking at the media today — whether you’re thinking coming out of the presidential election, whether you’re thinking about where we are on this environmental movement today — I think it’s a really exciting time at this intersection between technology, the environment and independent journalism.

Makower: So how did the 2016 election affect the Grist playbook?

Walkinshaw: It was interesting because we were having this conversation with our board in 2016 around the new strategy and looking at a CEO transition — of having Chip Giller, who started our organization back in 1999, transition to a different and exciting role within the organization. And then the election came around and I think that shook up a lot of the paradigm and kind of the strategic thinking that we had here at Grist.

There are two important pivots for us going forward. One is that we as an organization are excited to focus more on the solutions journalism space. There are a lot of exciting innovations in the areas that we cover — whether it’s cities, whether it’s our food system, whether it’s clean energy or environmental justice — where we might not be seeing a lot of leadership from the federal government over the next four years.

The second is the kind of work that Chip is going to be leading within the organization, which is actually kind of outside of journalism.

We’re starting a new product here at Grist. We’re going to be talking about how we can bring together convenings of environmental leaders and people who are next-generation leaders in different areas of the environmental space. And having focused conversations and convenings that can hopefully lead to action, to bring together unlikely partnerships and look at how we can build the network that we built up at Grist over the last 18 years to facilitate some of these connections.

Makower: How do you describe the Grist audience? I'm asking in the context of how do you make sure that we’re not just talking to the choir?

Walkinshaw: I could not agree more with that question. I mean that’s a personal priority for me. I’m someone who grew up in a deeply, deeply conservative rural area in Washington state. I went on to represent the most liberal progressive district in Washington state. So I think a lot about how media doesn’t further polarize us — and on issues like climate, environment and clean energy [we] can also find ways to extend their audience and build bridges to groups that may not be our readers today.

Our vision statement for Grist over the last year or two has become this idea that we’re working toward a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck. That has been the vision that you’ll start to hear from us.

I was just talking to one of our senior food editors this morning about ways that you facilitate conversations in our editorial pages between rural farmers who are explaining why it is they’re using synthetic fertilizers and also finding ways that those same groups can hear audiences in urban areas who are talking about demand for different type of food crops. I’m excited about that and I think it’s something that is incumbent on many of us in journalism, and I think specifically something that we’ll be thinking about at Grist.

Makower: Let’s talk about that tagline — "a planet that doesn’t burn, a future that doesn’t suck." I mean, it’s classically Gristonian and cheeky. It’s also kind of negative. Part of the challenge of this movement has always been, "Tell us what you’re for and what’s the story that you want to tell if we get things right." Are you concerned about "a future that doesn’t suck," in that context, or is it just sort of the glib and snarky way that you like to talk?

Walkinshaw: Good question. I think the way we got here is that a lot of us have said the kind of positive reverse of that, which is we want a future that is more just and more sustainable, right? That we’re working toward a more just and sustainable future. A lot of us have said those words before, which we wholeheartedly support and agree with. But we thought it would be nice to put up the counterfactual of that, which is we’re also working to avert something that could be really bad.

And when we say "a future that doesn’t suck," I think a big part of that for us is environmental justice — that we’re thinking about not only do we create that transition to a clean energy economy and carbon emissions and so forth and set back the ocean acidification, but that we also are doing that in a way that’s equitable and just for the future.

Makower: So Grist is 18 years old now. It was founded in 1999. I can’t help but just think of the parallels. GreenBiz was founded in 1999, too, at least as the website that became the company that we are today. We’re at that point where we’re old enough to start to see what we want to be when we grow up. I’m wondering where you are at Grist in terms of what you want to be. Are you there? Is this what you as CEO and this new generation of projects is all about?

Walkinshaw: I believe that there is a real sizable opportunity here for us to take this moment and build on it — to build this legacy but also grow. And I think if look at historically our reach — into a very influential, important but fairly focused environmental audience — I believe there’s a chance here to broaden that reach beyond where we’ve historically been and look at different opportunities like the ones that we’ll be looking at around these convenings to kind of drive impact with the type of urgency by being a little bit more applied than just writing stories.

But looking at how we can bring those people creating change together in creative ways and can have a vast impact. So I see us expanding and growing in some exciting ways as we bring in more support. It’s just an important time for independent media.

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