Q&A: Karyn Pugliese on Small, Mighty Newsrooms and Indigenous Climate Solutions

Covering Climate Now speaks with Karyn Pugliese, the new executive editor of Canada’s National Observer, a digital news outfit with a sizable audience that has put climate change front-and-center in its coverage. Pugliese is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation in Ontario.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Pugliese on Twitter.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your path to this new job at the Observer.

Well, I’ve been in journalism for about 20 years. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network was my first serious job. And that was trial-by-fire, because at the time there wasn’t a lot of money at the network. I was in Ottawa, and we didn’t have editing suites, so to feed tape to APTN’s headquarters in Winnipeg — the internet wasn’t fast enough yet — we had to “paper edit,” meaning we’d write down what we wanted to do with the tape and then put our notes with the tape in the mail. Pretty quickly, though, I found I loved working for small, alternative news agencies, because you get to be much more hands-on with every part of the story, from conception through production, than you might sometimes at a larger outlet. After APTN, I went over to Vision TV, where they had this very serious current affairs show that helped nail down my interest in investigative journalism.

Later, at ichannel, a small television network, I got to work on documentaries and some fun political shows. And then I learned APTN was looking for a news director. My heart was still there; I felt like that newsroom and the journalists there were so good, and they weren’t getting the attention they deserved. I thought I had something to give back, so I returned and I worked there for seven years, from 2012 to 2019. I was lucky to get a Nieman fellowship and go down to Harvard for a year. And then I went to the public broadcaster, CBC, where I oversaw the investigative unit. But that was more management, less editorial. So, when this opportunity at the National Observer came up, it felt a bit like what had always attracted me to APTN. There’s such a talented staff here, and there’s so much opportunity to build.

It’s often said that Indigenous people are at the forefront of climate change — both in that their communities are often first-impacted and that they’re often leading the charge on climate action. At APTN, did you feel exposed to the climate story earlier than it caught on in most news outlets?

In 2000, when I was first hired at APTN, they sent me up north to Nunavut. I’d never been there — I’m a city girl — and I found climate was being talked about in a big way. The Inuit felt very much like they were the canaries in the coal mine — they were already seeing the effects on their land. There’s one story we did, in a community called Barrier Lake, where the permafrost had been melting around a lake, and once it did melt, the whole lake just disappeared. People there were very concerned but felt like nobody was listening to them. The Inuit would say, you know, We think that you people down south think of this as some sort of benefit. You brag and joke about how much nicer the winters are for you.

Another early story I did was about logging — and that turned out to be kind of a template for a story that repeats itself over and over in Canada. In northern Quebec, a chief had cut a deal with loggers, and this split the community in two. There were people who said, “Well, development is gonna happen anyway, so we might as well get what we can out of it.” And others thought, “But this is going to destroy our land and our way of life.” The agreement that was signed was supposed to give the First Nation a lot of control over where trees were cut and how much was cut, but that wasn’t necessarily being honored. You see this now with a lot of the pipeline debates, too. Any Indigenous community that you go into, these issues drive a wedge right down the middle, because the community is often choosing between development that many don’t agree with and feeding their kids. It’s heart-wrenching.

What’s your assessment of how well the media is covering climate?

My general assessment is that we’re still not taking this anywhere near seriously enough. I sometimes sit here and think: We’ve talked about causing irrevocable damage to the planet as we know it. You’d think that would be the top story on the news every single night!

The similarity I see to what I’ve done before in my career is typically nobody has taken Indigenous stories seriously either. CBC did recently start an Indigenous unit. The Globe & Mail had zero Indigenous reporters, and now they have a few. But this has taken years. At APTN, I always insisted that our stories be very well-done, because if we got the stories right, that pushed the industry to take the Indigenous stories we covered seriously. I learned there’s a way for even a small news agency to influence not just audiences — you can get people to sign up and follow your reporting — but also other media.

At the Observer, we want to do more solutions journalism. It’s always a balance between convincing people of how important climate change is and giving people hope. Because there is hope: There’s not much point in doing anything, if we don’t think we can solve problems.

From the outside looking in, the Observer is a rare case of a general interest publication not founded specifically to cover climate that has nevertheless leaned fully into climate. Are there aspects of the Observer’s approach to climate that you’ve found especially compelling?

I’ve been having one-on-ones with the journalists here, and we’ve been talking about ways of better engaging audiences. And what’s interesting is we have kind of a split. There are the people who maybe don’t have the science or technical backgrounds on climate but want to join the conversation. Then there are those who’ve been dedicated to environmental news for so long that they’re practically experts — they could read a scientific journal and follow along.

I think the answer to the tension between these audiences is to find the most impacted humans in a given situation and explain how they’re affected by the issues at hand. We’ll pick up the science and we’ll pick up the relevant policy details on the way, but first we focus on telling the human story well.

One area we’re really interested in is food, which I think is a really undercovered area of the climate story — but also one that links many different groups together. You’ve got farmers in Canada who, I would say, tend to be more politically conservative. And then in Toronto we’ve got the hipsters who eat their food, people who will pay a little more to know that the food they’re eating was grown in a way that puts less stress on the environment. To me, that’s an interesting connection we can make through our journalism between people who might not have anything else in common.

When it comes to Indigenous perspectives, which again are central but only sometimes represented in journalism, how do you think about telling those stories in ways that resonate with audiences everywhere?

I was at the Native American Journalism Association Awards last year. We were talking about recent stories we’d covered, like Standing Rock and various pipeline projects. And people were saying, “For a long time, Indigenous people have known that we’re caretakers of the planet.” They were saying, with climate change, “This is our role right now, this is why we’re here. We’re here to stand up and show the rest of the world why this is important and how to do it.”

It’s really interesting to me how separate people in cities feel from nature. Like, they honestly believe they’re not part of it. But we’re animals, just like every other creature on this planet. When we make decisions that are bad for the fish and the trees, it’s bad for us, too. When it comes to climate, I think there’s this belief out there that at the last minute somebody’s going to come up with a technological solution that will save us and allow us to keep living at the same speed we’ve been living. But there’s only so much that ingenuity can do. It’s just not gonna happen that way. So we’ve got to start doing something about climate change now.

 It’s become somewhat common to see in journalism that Indigenous solutions are essential to the climate fight. But this is often stated vaguely, like an article of faith.

I think when people imagine “First Nation solutions,” they’re thinking in this romantic way — they picture going back and living the way people lived a hundred years ago or something. And look, I don’t want to give up my cell phone. Or my coffee. But we can shift our worldview a bit, so the decisions we make about development, how we invest money, how we produce food, take into consideration Indigenous knowledge of how our actions impact the life around us.

In 2006, for example, I was walking through the bush with First Nation representatives who were advising loggers where to cut. And they were showing me that they didn’t want the loggers cutting near eagle nests. They didn’t want them cutting near a bear den. Then we came upon some staghorn sumac, and it looked nibbled on. They told me moose eat the tips of the plant when they’re not feeling well, and they said, “This is where the moose are coming to get their medicine right now. We’re going to tell them not to cut here.” Separately, they were able to tell the loggers to cut only certain types of trees, which would actually be healthy for the forest because it was becoming too thick. And they advised to replant a certain kind of tree because it grows fast and would help maintain the integrity of the forest. That shows: we can develop but in a responsible way.

Climate is a difficult beat — there are the existential aspects of the story, and then sometimes journalists grow frustrated that, however well we report the story, action remains far behind. As a leader, how do you think about keeping up morale amongst your team?

I honestly believe journalists at the Observer enjoy what they’re doing. They came here because they felt our approach to journalism can make a difference. We don’t have a central assignment desk necessarily, so a lot of times our reporters are coming to the table and pitching the stories they feel are important to cover. There’s power in that. I think it gives the team a lot of energy and a feeling that they’re really contributing to the public conversation.

My message if they ever do have that moment of discouragement is: One story at a time, one truth at a time, is how we make a difference. At the Observer, we really are helping lead the climate conversation in Canada. It’s just a matter of keeping the conversation up, and that happens one truth, even one word, at a time.