009 No Ordinary Business with Mongabay

In today’s highly politicised climate, it is a struggle to find media coverage that is purely fact-based. Even across the conservation world, much of environmental news is published by advocacy groups and is therefore focused on particular agendas. On the other hand, there is Mongabay, a fact-based non-advocacy online news service dedicated to informing the readership of social and environmental issues related to forests and other ecosystems. 


Gina: Today's guest on No Ordinary Business is Rhett Butler, the Founder of Mongabay. Rhett, welcome to No Ordinary Business!  I am really excited to have you join me today, thanks for taking the time from your busy schedule.


Rhett:  Hi Gina, Thanks for having me today.  I really appreciate the opportunity.


Gina:  Before we jump into Mongabay, I’d love it if you could give us a bit of background about your journey with conservation.  


Rhett:  My interest in nature began very early.  I was very lucky as a child to have a mother who was a travel agent and a father who travelled a lot for business and accumulated a lot of travel mileage.  Because of their professions, we had more opportunities than most to travel.  My parents prioritised travel for my sister and I as we grew up and we went to places like Venezuela instead of Disney Land. I always loved reptiles and amphibians and the best are found in the rainforest, so I would always lobby to go to the rainforest.  It was really special to me.  

As I grew older I became more aware of what was happening to the environment and it touched me personally when I was 12.  I had an experience when I travelled to eastern Ecuador and stayed with an Indigenous community.  I had a wonderful time.  Then after I left I learned about a huge oil spill on the Rio Napo upriver from where I had been.  The whole area I visited was coated in oil and all I could think about was what happened to my friends and the animals in the forest?


Gina:  It must have been very upsetting and I imagine it hit close to home.


Rhett:  It did.  

I had another similar experience when I travelled to Malaysian Borneo.  A particular moment from that trip stuck out in my mind.  I was sitting next to a natural pool of water pulling leeches off my socks when this male orang-utan came down to the branches over the pool. He was in my line of sight and it was really spectacular.  Some of my fondest memories come from hiking in those forests and swimming in those crystal clear rivers.   When I came back, I kept in contact with one of the scientists working there, and a few months later, the forest was cleared to make pulp for paper. 

Once that happened, I decided I wanted to raise awareness about what was happening to tropical forests and so when I began college I started writing a book about tropical rainforests.  My major was actually Management Science Economics, which is essentially math and econ, but on the side, I would work on this book. After I graduated, I spent a year working on the book and on the side I was trading derivatives to pay the bills.

The book was my passion.  I contacted a bunch of publishers.  One academic press was very interested.  The book went through peer reviews and the publisher came back and said it was ready to go to print except that there wasn’t money for pictures, so it would essentially be like a textbook with some greyscale images.  For me, that defeated the purpose of what I was trying to do: raise awareness of the rainforest.  I didn’t write the book for money, I wrote it for impact so I decided to post it on the Internet so that people could read it for free.  That was the origin of the website, Mongabay.


Gina:     What was the inspiration for the name, Mongabay?


Rhett:  I chose Mongabay as the name for the site because it was unique and easy to track. There is an island off of Madagascar that is very special to me so I sort of Anglicised the name of the island and turned it into Mongabay.

I wasn’t planning to run a website for a living so I started working in Silicon Valley for a startup.  I’d work on Mongabay during nights and on weekends and over time it grew popular.  


Gina:  What was your vision for Mongabay when you originally established it and what became the mission that evolved over time?


Rhett:  I didn’t set out on a mission other than raising awareness.  I didn’t plan to build a popular website.  I was on the standard Silicon Valley track at that time.  This was a side gig. And then it became popular and in 2003 I started to put ads on the site and generating revenue. After about six months the income earned from advertising was equal to about half of my take-home pay so I decided to quit my job and pursue my passion.  I’ve never looked back since then.  Once I started to work on Mongabay full time in 2004, that was when I became strategic about the direction of the site.


Gina:  What was that transition like?


Rhett: For the first five years of Mongabay, it was me in my pyjamas in my apartment writing articles. It was a very small endeavour. But the site was popular and people thought it was a much bigger organisation than it was.


Gina: At that point, how did your strategy unfold?


Rhett:  I started looking at areas where I could have the most impact.  Where there are gaps.  One gap that I identified was an absence of reliable, non-advocacy news coverage of tropical rainforests.  Mongabay became a news service, which was me writing fact-based articles about tropical forests. I wouldn’t tell people what to think but rather put the facts out there so that people could decide for themselves.  Part of it was communicating science, part was reporting on news, but I was deliberately trying to avoid the advocacy side.  I didn’t want to be in the advocacy arena, I wanted to be in the information-providing arena.  


Gina: Why did you not want to get into advocacy?


Rhett:  There were a lot of advocacy groups around at that time so I felt that that sector was well represented.


Gina:  So you filled a gap by focusing on non-advocacy news coverage.  When did you expand the organisation beyond yourself?


Rhett:  As time went on, someone approached me as an intern from grad school and I hired him to write for me.  In 2008 his programme was ending and he approached me and asked whether there would be a position in Mongabay for him when he graduated later that year.  At that point, revenue was at a point where I could hire someone so I committed to that. 

Then the financial crisis hit in 2008, which destroyed the green advertising market worse than other advertising markets but I wasn’t going to leave him hanging so he started and I paid him. I didn’t draw a salary for over a year and lived on savings.  For the next few years, it was just the two of us.  The site became increasingly popular.  


Gina:  What was your focus at that time?


Rhett:   One of the areas was Indonesia.  Indonesia in 2010 and 2011 was at a tipping point.  It seemed like it could tip towards the direction of Brazil where you could have a reduction in deforestation without hurting the economy.  Brazil had proved this model was possible because it had a huge reduction in deforestation between 2004 and 2009 while at the same time agricultural output multiplied three-fold so that blew up the argument that you had to chop down your forest to grow your economy. 


Gina:     So you figured that this could happen in Indonesia?


Rhett: Yes, I thought that the same thing could happen in Indonesia, but one of the challenges in Indonesia is corruption, especially in the natural resources sector. That was somewhere Mongabay could have impact because we could drive increased transparency, which could lead to increased accountability.  If there was an Indonesian news service perhaps we could have an effect at an issue level so I decided to start a non-profit in 2012 in order to make that a reality.  


Gina:  What did that look like?


Rhett:   I got my first grant and with that hired three individuals in Indonesia and launched an Indonesian-based Mongabay site. Two months after that we had the most popular Indonesian language environmental news service.


Gina:  So you created an Indonesian Bahasa language website?


Rhett:  Yes, exactly.  The website took off really fast, much faster than I ever expected. What’s great about Indonesia is that it’s a place where you can test things.  Indonesia had much higher social media penetration than the United States, for example, or than the global market so we could experiment there with trends that were further ahead than elsewhere in the world.  We took our lessons learned there and brought it to the global site.  


Gina:     Can you share some examples?


Rhett:   We built this network of contributors. Today we have fifty contributors in forty cities and towns across Indonesia.  On the global site, under that model, today we have about 250 correspondents in about 50 countries.  It’s worked really well and was born out of the experience in Indonesia.


Gina:     Did you replicate the Indonesia model elsewhere?


Rhett:   In 2016 we launched a site in Spanish with a team in Peru who cover issues and stories across Spanish speaking Latin America. Brazil is a different market for us. Their environmental coverage is mainstream and they have dedicated outlets.  It’s also a very difficult place to do business, so our approach in Brazil is different.  We haven’t established a bureau there; instead, we work with partners and leverage their distribution networks.  


Gina: How do you decide what stories that are placed on the local platform are also published on Mongabay’s global site?


Rhett:  There are stories that work well for an international audience and those that are too local.  In Indonesia perhaps 5-10% of stories are adapted into English.  In Spanish, it’s about 10%.  It’s also in part a capacity issue.  The volume of content coming out of Indonesia, for instance, is about 2000 stories per year, which is too much to republish on the English site.  We cherry-pick the stories we think will work well with an international audience.  We have journalists all over the world that are reporting in English from different countries.  


Gina: Is the readership interest different or the same depending on local context?


Rhett:  There are some universal themes that are popular across all sites like fluffy wildlife. Stories about the ‘underdog’ versus the big guy also do well universally.  Between the different markets, we have different user groups.  For the mass market, the fluffy animals are popular stories.  But we have our niche audience as well.  For instance, we have a big following from international aid organisations. Within Indonesia, we might have someone from the US government or the German government reading our stories about Indonesia. So it’s a little difficult to generalise about content interest. There’s not that much distinction other than an interest in local stories. We write for a general interest audience and rely on content selection to reach critical decision-makers.


Gina:     I wanted to explore with you any barriers to entry that you’ve contended with or are still working through as an organisation.


Rhett:  One of the big challenges for Mongabay is capacity. We are growing very rapidly and its been challenging to find the right people in the right places.  

Another challenge is that the media landscape is changing very rapidly so what might have worked on Facebook three months ago can be obsolete now.  Because Facebook and these other social platforms are critical for distribution, we really have to do well on them to reach people.  

The migration from desktop computers to mobile phones and social media is driving much shorter attention spans so it’s challenging to get people to engage in content.  In the past few years alone, there’s been an 80% reduction on time spent on a page.  Many news organisations are having the same experience, so it is not unique to us.  


Gina: How are you responding to that challenge?  


Rhett:  The whole media sector is trying to figure this out.  One of the ways we are responding is by launching short-form videos, which people seem to be engaged with.  It’s just a different way to communicate.  That’s one example.  We try different things on different media platforms because we know that people behave differently on different platforms and consume different types of content. It can be a matter of tailoring the content at the front end to hook readers within those platforms.  It is challenging and depressing to see time on page among readers declining.  But I am guilty of it myself sometimes when there’s a fire-hose of things coming at you and you spend all your time scrolling through the list.

One of the ways we’ve responded to these trends is by adding bullet points on the key points to the article.  Then we have feeds where you can read all stories for the day through the bullet feeds.

Another approach is that sometimes we have pieces that are super in-depth.  For example, one piece was 27,000 words in length and read by the President of Indonesia, who must have spent an hour of his day reading it.  It was the opposite of what most people are trying.  We debated whether to cut it up but decided not to.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of repackaging the content. There is a lot of experimentation going on because it is a new area.


Gina:  I appreciate the readership challenge that you are facing and I am very impressed that you managed to get President Jokowi to read a 27,000-word piece – congratulations on that accomplishment!  Is it your experience that there is a better readership with longer pieces?


Rhett:  We track that data as well. Longer pieces get better quality readership, not more readers.  You might have a mass-market article where the average reader is spending 30 seconds on it.  Maybe 10% get to the end of the page but with the higher quality longer pieces, you might get a higher percentage of people getting to the bottom of the page.  We haven’t found the magic sweet spot.  It’s a balance.  Sometimes if we run a 5,000-word feature, we might make a short version of it to engage readers who don’t read long pieces.  


Gina:  Like an executive summary.


Rhett:  Exactly.  


Gina:  How are you achieving sustainability as an organisation?  


Rhett:  The approach that we take is a service-based model. We have two customer bases: our readers and our supporters who are typically philanthropic foundations and individuals. Typically, we are providing a service and getting contracts from the philanthropic world.  We are different from other NGOs because if you donate to Mongabay you have no editorial control.  You are investing in us it’s because you are in agreement with our model but you have no influence.  For the traditional non-profit, donors have more influence on how and where the NGO applies the donations.  That’s not how it works with us.


Gina: What’s the response been across the philanthropic community?  


Rhett:   So far it’s worked really well.  In our first year, 2012, our revenue was US$88,000 and we’ve grown steadily since then.  I think our budget this year will be US$3.3 million.  That’s a pretty fast growth rate.

We try to over-deliver on investor expectations and have high quantitative targets such as readership and republication numbers but we also target qualitative objects like influencing policy, if there’s been law enforcement action, what media arises subsequently on the topic because of our coverage.  This information demonstrates impact that instils confidence that there is a return on the investment.   


Gina:  You’re also offering philanthropists an opportunity to engage you to investigate issues related to areas of interest?


Rhett: Philanthropists use us for due diligence and to raise awareness.  For instance, they may be interested in finding out what are the most effective ways of conservation intervention in Borneo.  By supporting our reporting, we can dig into that issue for the philanthropist and have the potential to surface things that are not necessarily picked up by a scientist.  Journalists ask different questions. 

If a Foundation is supporting a portfolio around an issue and they engage us, our journalists are going out and reporting on that issue and will dig up work that grantees are doing on that issue.  That can help inform future grant decisions for a foundation.  

The other thing that we are launching is what we call “Insider Content”. For a small amount of money on a subscription basis, people can have access to this content.  We don’t want to lock up news behind a paywall, that defeats our mission of raising awareness, but we want to have a way for people who are using our content to support us.  The stories we want to include in the Insider Content are the stories behind the scenes. The journalism experience itself. It’s a way for people to support us.


Gina:  What is your vision for Mongabay in five years?


Rhett: There are certain geographies where it would be strategic to expand in terms of our current readership and level of problems like the Philippines, for example.  There are certain markets where Mongabay can do really well and have real impact on the ground. In five years I would like to expand into some of these markets.  This year, for instance, we launched Mongabay India.  It’s off to a great start. There’s a wide English speaking population, there are a lot of conservation issues and solutions, and India is diverse not just biologically but also culturally. 

Video content is another arena that we will venture more into if it continues on this trajectory.

Things like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are also possibilities depending on whether they go mainstream.  

There are other areas like looking at the data.  We are asking if there are other ways Mongabay can use big data, working with the scientists who are collecting it and turning it into stories, visualisations or content that is more accessible.  It’s the whole idea of increasing transparency through journalism and data science.  

We also want to build capacity.  We are still a small organisation and we are virtual so we run very lean and don’t have much overhead.  We want to strengthen the capacity of the organisation and capacity internally.  Building the capacity is the hardest thing to fundraise for because no one wants to cover those costs.


Gina: This is one of the biggest problems that I think cuts across all of philanthropy today. Conservation is no exception.  There is resistance to supporting infrastructure and a perception that miracles are supposed to happen off the back of good will. The mission that I am on is to break down those walls.  If you were investing in a for-profit, you would never deny that organisation the opportunity to build a strong infrastructure.  Somehow in the non-profit world, that seems to be not only tolerated but also advocated.  This is why non-profits are looking to develop different revenue streams so that they are less donation reliant and able to allocate revenue to strengthening the organisation.


Rhett: Certainly.  That’s one of the reasons for our launching the Insider Content subscription model.  I don’t kn#ow how successful it will be but people are more receptive to subscription models for content today and so that’s an additional earned income strategy for us.  

Also, our impact tracking system is really unique and we’ve had a funder who licenses the technology we built to track our impact and are applying it to tracking their impact monitoring and evaluation systems. That’s another potential earned income stream for us.  We are a little different because I see what we do is to sell a service versus relying on goodwill.


Gina:  I want to explore the state of conservation generally with you. I understand that less than 3% of philanthropic donations are going to conservation in the US.  That is very scary given that the quality of human life is dependant on the health of our planet.  What do you think is behind this absence of support?


Rhett:  I think the number is actually worse than that. I think that the category includes both the environment and animals.  Within that number, two-thirds are going to animal welfare, which is domestic animals like cats and dogs.   It’s even a smaller pie when you are talking about international conservation.  It is distressing!  Supporting environmental conservation is a form of health insurance.  If we lose the environment we have a whole set of knock-on effects, social conflict, health problems, all sorts of things.  

Part of the solution is to make environmental issues broader.  For instance, looking at the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide us, ecosystem services.  We need to make environmental issues more about people, which is where things are headed. We see a lot of conservation groups doing that and it is a key part of broadening the constituency.

One of the sad things to watch is how environmental issues have become politicised especially in the past year and a half. It’s become a political issue, which is wrong and should sit on both sides of the aisle.  Mongabay tries not to take political sides but rather stick to the reporting on what is happening.


Gina:  Do you think the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are putting conservation more on the foreground as a priority for sustainability?  


Rhett:  I think they’re helpful but their impact is limited.  It’s always good to have a UN push in order to get governments on board but I think in order to drive change you need the private sector and the general public on side. I think you need companies to be serious about driving climate change, or plastic solutions, or cutting out deforestation if you want to make a significant change.


Gina:  To what extent is your coverage examining corporate conduct?  


Rhett:  We do a lot of coverage on companies.  You have the environmental transgressors and the more positive stories.  One of the most interesting things to watch over the past decade has been the transformation around forests.  Companies have been adopting zero deforestation, zero peat, and zero human exploitation agreements.  Many of these companies had done a lot of damage and by signing these commitments it is very significant.  It’s another thing to do the implementation, but at least making a commitment is a starting point.  It’s encouraging and gives NGOs a new point of leverage for engaging with these companies. 

That said there are still a lot of companies that aren’t a part of that system and bad actors who try to cheat the system.  For example, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a plantation company in Indonesia was recently caught using affiliates to deforest large areas of peat forest.


Gina:  Do you think that there’s an opportunity for civil society to engage with companies who are sincerely committed cleaning up their practice as well as their supply chains but do not have the knowledge how to do it?   


Rhett: There can be issues with that if those relationships influence NGOs.  One of the major criticisms of the BINGOs (big international NGOs) is that they will take a bunch of money from a company and will no longer hold them to account.  One place where this has been interesting is in the zero deforestation movement, looking at how Greenpeace worked in Indonesia.  Greenpeace is really important for pushing companies to adopt no deforestation commitments.  In the case of APP, they agreed not to attack APP while they were engaged to provide recommendations for acceptable behaviour.  That was tried for about 5 years and ultimately Greenpeace pulled out because they found out that these APP shadow companies were operating in the background and deforesting.  There’s a lot of potentials for the NGOs to come in as an implementing partner but the fee for service sometimes causes issues without the proper safeguards.  


Gina:  Perhaps what we need are more consultancy firms that may be affiliated with an advocacy group and that possess the implementing know how but do not specifically have an advocacy mandate. There's got to be a way to mitigate these risks.  I believe in cross-sector collaboration; if you leave it up to the individual sectors to make a change while operating in silos then that inherently limits impact.  


Rhett:  The other big change in recent years has been around data. The fact that there is more transparency, we can see what’s happening on the ground: that this forest is being chopped down, and that it is owned by ‘X’ company.  Who owns that company is more challenging but at least you can see things and that has been a very important step and essentially you can have a third party monitoring these corporate commitments. 


Gina: Right. To me, transparency is the new frontier that is driving radical change across society.


Rhett: Absolutely.  It’s happening across sectors and different types of ecosystems and is really exciting to watch.


Gina: What do you think is required to achieve sustainability environmentally through conservation?  What do we need to do in conservation order to attain greater transformational impact?


Rhett:  There are a few things.  

First, I would say better evaluation of the effectiveness of conservation interventions and projects.  We did a series on this last year and found that a lot of conservation interventions are based on inertia: “This is how we do things and we continue to do it.”  Funders are often also a part of the problem because they don’t support monitoring and measurement to assess how effective something is. That’s a big gap.

The other thing would be making the case for conservation around ecosystem services using sound science.  For instance, showing the specific ecosystem benefits of a forest that are utilised by this number of people and worth this amount of money. This is already happening but we can improve on this by increasing our understanding of the actual value of ecosystems and how protecting ecosystems is benefitting people.  

Another way is to build constituencies through storytelling.  So, connecting people to the oceans and wildlife.  This has been done and is evolving and is another important area.

Lastly, recognising what is working is needed such as success with traditional users and managers of land.  Granting tenure to indigenous people who live in these ecosystems and have proven themselves to be the best managers of these lands.  That’s really accelerated in the past two or three years, which is encouraging.


Gina:  How you would define a social enterprise?


Rhett:  An enterprise that also focuses on its impact. Not just looking at the bottom line but looking at the overall impact of what we’re doing besides just generating money for our shareholders or employees. It could be environmental, social, or cultural.  


Gina:  What role do you see social enterprises can play in conservation?


Rhett: Conservation will probably never have the impact it needs to have in order to make a difference unless it has a sustainable business model. We can’t rely on aid and goodwill to save the world—most people have to derive some direct economic benefit in the near-term to conserve what are ostensibly open access resources for the future. So we need sustainable local enterprises like ecotourism, financial incentives via mechanisms like ecosystem services payments, and nature-based value-added products and services like the development of non-wood forest products. We also need full-cost accounting to account for externalities and perverse subsidies that drive environmental degradation. Otherwise, we end up with situations like we see in Indonesia, where the country’s unique assets (like rainforests and endemic wildlife)—which should be its competitive advantage—are liquidated for bulk commodities (e.g. palm oil and acacia trees) that can be grown anywhere in the tropics. This approach is not a sound basis for a sustainable economy and exposes the country to long-term risk. Plus Indonesia loses the amazing things that make it so special.


Gina:  Rhett, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you. I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.  

I have one last question, if readers want to connect with you at Mongabay, how can they reach you?


Rhett: I can be reached via the website, mongabay.com. I’m not much of a social media user myself these days, but the Mongabay team is quite active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram via the @mongabay handle.

Rhett Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, an online environmental news service.