Q&A: Heatmap Founder Wants to Do for Climate What Wired Did for Tech

Nico Lauricella, founder and editor-in-chief of the new climate journalism site Heatmap News, talks about his vision for the outlet.

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Nico Lauricella, founder and editor in chief of the new climate journalism site Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, Lauricella was editor in chief of The Week online. Heatmap launched earlier this month, with a team of media veterans, promising to approach climate change “as the all-encompassing epic it is.” Lauricella discussed his team’s business plan, the opportunity he sees for new editorial voices in the climate space, and what it means to him to build a media company “the right way.” The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Lauricella on Twitter.

Why start Heatmap? What role do you envision it playing?

Our goal is to create an insightful and engaging second-read publication. We assume folks will get their primary climate news elsewhere; we want them to come to us for analysis and perspective.

This is a concerning time in the climate story, but it’s also an exciting time. We’re in a sea-change moment, when a lot of people are becoming very interested in decarbonization. At Heatmap, we expect that our readers will typically be people who already believe in climate change, who know it’s caused by humans, and who want to learn more and do their part. And we think this audience is quite large.

An analogy our team uses is that we want to be Wired for the climate era. Wired, when it got started in the 1990s, approached technology from a different vantage point than mainstream news organizations. It assumed some sophistication among its readers, and so the magazine was able to go into more depth in its stories. We want to do something similar in the climate space.

What led you personally to the climate story?

From a journalistic perspective, one thing that really opened my eyes on climate was editing The Week’s covid-19 pandemic coverage. For me, it was striking to watch this issue that scientists were warning about become very real, very quickly. Before covid hit, I think a lot of people viewed the concept of a pandemic as theoretical—similar to how some people have viewed climate change. But, of course, the pandemic, which started as a science story, played out as a business story and a politics story and much more.

On a more personal level, I’m from California. I’ve always been concerned about climate change, but the experience that made it real to me, that made it scary, was bringing my son home to San Francisco to visit my parents in the summer of 2021. It was his first time in California as, like, a sentient being—he’d been there before, but that was before covid, when he was just a few months old. And it was my first experience with wildfire season. The level of smoke in the sky was incredible. Millions of people have worse versions of this story, of course—we were never in danger—but seeing how the wildfires were affecting everyone in my life in San Francisco hit me on a deep, gut level.

Why did you choose to start a publication, versus seeking out a climate-related role elsewhere—particularly at a time when a lot of publications are adding climate staff?

Well, importantly, I feel that I approach this story as a reader first. I don’t profess to be a climate expert. As I began consuming more climate news—and pushing for more climate coverage at The Week—I found that the kind of work I wanted to read wasn’t really out there. Obviously, there are many terrific and seasoned climate thinkers and journalists out there. But there didn’t seem to be a great second-read publication, with lots of distinct, dynamic voices, to help me think through the day’s climate stories.

Separately, I also wanted to try building a media company in the right way, from the ground up. And I’m lucky to be working with cofounders, including our executive editor, Robinson Meyer [formerly of The Atlantic], who also feel passionate about that and were willing to take the leap with me. For one example, we want to give our writers significant equity in the company—to prize them, in the way that Silicon Valley companies prize engineers. This isn’t revolutionary, exactly—it’s not dissimilar from what Puck is building—but it’s still too rare in media.

Given all the growth in the climate journalism space, what made you sure that there was room for a new outlet?

For one thing, there’s just so much climate news to cover. When you think about how many of last year’s big stories were climate stories, it’s staggering. The biggest political story in the US was the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. In geopolitics, you have the war in Ukraine, which was launched by a petro-state and has been disrupting energy markets worldwide. And then, of course, there are stories everywhere about climate impacts and efforts to adapt to those. Climate change is such a vast subject matter that I think there’s tons of room for new voices and perspectives.

Now, if we were going into this thinking “We’re going to beat the New York Times” or something, we’d be less confident. But because our goal is just to establish ourselves as a trusted voice, we think we’re well positioned.

How do you envision Heatmap’s voice?

We’re shooting for something that feels friendly. We want there to be the sense, between our writers and readers, that we’re in this together. I think you’ll find a personal touch in a lot of our pieces. We also want to emphasize, in addition to what we do know about climate change and renewable energy, the things that we don’t know or that we’re curious about.

I firmly believe that every writer should have and be able to develop their own voice. A story by Robinson should read differently from a story by Jeva Lange [also formerly of The Week] or Neel Dhanesha [formerly of Vox]. In time, it will be the cohesion of our writers’ voices that create something unique that we’ll call Heatmap’s voice.

And critically, I would expect that our writers will often have divergent points of view. We all believe that humanity needs to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, but there are interesting tensions in the climate space about the best way to do this that we want to explore; people aren’t always going to end up in the same place on some big questions, and that’s okay. Take land use, for example. How fast should we deploy renewable energy, and should the urgent need for renewable energy override concerns around conservation? This is an ongoing debate, and people on both sides of the question have important points. As much as possible, at Heatmap, we want to feature those different views.

It’s not easy to get a startup going or to keep a new organization solvent. Can you say a bit about your business strategy and your plan for keeping the doors open?

Our plan is to scale up slowly and sustainably. We’re starting small, with a team, for now, of nine. In the coming year, we want to double that, roughly. We’re going to learn as we go and make sure we’re investing in the right places. We have quite a bit of runway [Heatmap launched with $4 million in venture capital funding, from a firm focused on media and communications], but still we don’t want to come out guns blazing, with a bunch of crazy assumptions, and hire too many people at once.

Our model will be primarily subscription-based, which provides a relatively stable revenue stream, compared to ads and donations—once somebody subscribes, they tend to stick around. Subscriptions can also result in a really great newsroom environment. As opposed to chasing clicks, or chasing eyeballs for eyeballs’ sake, you’re trying to create something that people will like so much they’re willing to pay for it. I think that creates the right incentives for writers and can encourage them to do their best work. We’ll have some ad revenue, too, but I don’t anticipate it being a major part of our business.

On Twitter, you were pointedly asked if Heatmap will accept advertising from fossil fuel companies. You answered that Heatmap has “a strict policy of zero fossil fuel advertising.” Why is this important to your team?

You know, it’s funny, that didn’t strike me as something that was necessarily worth touting. For us, it was never a question. Not accepting fossil fuel ads was just the obvious and right thing to do. Especially for an outlet aiming to help people understand climate change deeply, having fossil fuel ads on our site would be a very poor business decision.

You spoke about not coming from a climate journalism background. At CCNow, we often talk about climate change being a subject for reporters on all beats, much like covid-19, but on an even bigger scale. Having made the jump to climate, do you have any reflections that you’d share with journalists on other beats who might feel intimidated by climate or hesitant to report on it?

I was always a generalist. The Week is probably best known for its politics coverage, but we reported on business, tech, science, culture, everything. That experience as a generalist has helped me think through climate change, because it intersects with everything. For journalists, that means there are so many different angles to pursue. Thinking of it this way gave me the confidence to follow my nose, like I would any other broad-ranging story, and to lean into the questions I had and the things that confused me—because chances are that there are other people interested in climate change with the same questions. In other words, if the answers to your climate questions aren’t easily at your fingertips, those are probably stories worth exploring.