Naomi Starkman's Mission to Bring Food Policy News to the Masses
How Civil Eats co-founder and editor created an award-winning website about the American food system on a dime.
"Thinking about where our food comes from isn't just for moms who care about what their kids are eating. It's political," says Naomi Starkman, co-founder and editor of the food policy news site Civil Eats. When Starkman and Paula Crossfield founded the website in 2009, the goal was to hold a magnifying glass to the politics surrounding the food industry and raise awareness among consumers. They had no budget, no full-time employees and no salary; they ran the website on a volunteer basis. But Starkman knew there was a gap in the food journalism market, and she was determined to fill it.
Six years later, Civil Eats has earned $100,000 in funding via a successful Kickstarter campaign; it was awarded the 2014 James Beard Award for Publication of the Year; it can afford to pay its reporters; and it has cultivated a strong following of die-hard fans. (Starkman, who was named a 2015–2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, still doesn't give herself a salary.) F&W spoke to the editor about her roundabout entry into the food journalism business and the challenges of monetizing a mission-driven publication.
Your path into food journalism was circuitous. What led you to launch Civil Eats?
I started my career as a lawyer, and I worked in public policy. But over time I started to feel that when it came to raising awareness about certain issues, the media had the ability to move the needle further, faster. So I quit my job and moved to New York to find work at the intersection of policy and communications. Once I was there, I decided to throw myself into the media full force. I started off in corporate communications and spent years working as a freelance media consultant.
The food angle came up when I was working at The New Yorker, doing an event for its annual New Yorker Festival. The event featured all of these amazing chefs—Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, Peter Hoffman of Savoy. A lightbulb went on in my head: there’s a story behind all this glorious food. I became interested in agriculture, and within two or three months, I went to work on a farm in Costa Rica. While I was there, I met an organic farmer who changed my life. She was like, “If you really think you want to be a farmer, then you need to find a farm to work on.” So I went to work for Dan Barber at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. I would take the train out to Tarrytown and ride my bike to the farm so I could learn how to be a farmer. On the other days, I was in Times Square at The New Yorker—part-time media gal, part-time farmer.
Ultimately, I quit my media job to work on a farm in Washington State. When I told David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, he was like, “You’re crazy!” I said, “I know. But these issues matter.”
In Seattle, I learned so much about how food is grown. But it was also around that time that I realized I had this unusual background of law and media, plus a passion for sustainable agriculture—and that no one was writing about that that in any meaningful way. In 2008, I helped put on an event in San Francisco called Slow Food Nation, and as part of that I created a website with a blog front and center. The event was a watershed moment in the food movement, and out of that website and blog, in 2009, I started Civil Eats.
Since then, we’ve been at the forefront of sustainable food news. We’ve helped hundreds of thinkers and doers to identify the issues that are important in the field right now.
Obviously you saw an opening in the journalism industry for a certain type of food reporting. What did you think was missing? Why was Civil Eats necessary?
One thing I realized while working in policy and politics was that there are a lot of issues that affect people that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage—and as a consequence, people don’t always know about them. One of the things we do uniquely at Civil Eats is shine a light on the connection between big food and big agriculture and their influence on our regulatory framework and our government. We also try to produce stories that make the connection between food and environmental health. I wasn’t seeing a lot of reporting on those stories in the headlines and I wanted to dig into them.
When we started, there was a growing interest in trust and transparency in the food system—now that’s an issue that’s exploding. We’ve also explored topics like food justice, farm labor and food deserts. Recently we started taking a very hard look at food waste. I’d also like to think that our coverage around the overuse of antibiotics for animal agriculture has led to an increase in consumer awareness on that subject.
How has Civil Eats has influenced the food media in the last few years?
There are so many outlets that are trying to catch up with what we’re doing. Some of them are venture funded and have tons of money. Some publications aggregate our stories. Some take them wholesale. Oftentimes they will write around what we've reported, which I think is bad journalism.
Perhaps I’m a purist, but I still believe that content is king. I'm not interested in junk journalism, and I can't compete with all the outlets that are basically taking our stories and rewriting them. At the same time, I feel confident that there’s no other publication out there right now that has its finger on the pulse like we do. Our readers know that.
So many news publications are at a crossroads right now in terms of figuring out how to fund good journalism. How do you make mission-driven reporting sustainable, from an economic standpoint?
This is something I've been thinking about a lot. I took last January off to try to figure it out. The lowest-hanging fruit for me is figuring out a direct-to-consumer transaction. Civil Eats installed a small paywall so our readers can access five stories a month for free; thereafter, they can subscribe for $25 a year and get unlimited access. Another thing I'm looking at is the advent of some sort of food and environmental news wire. I’m working with a number of publications to see if something like that would make sense. Ultimately, I’d love to have partnerships and get paid syndication copy deals.
You used to rely heavily on volunteer contributors, then you raised $100,000 via Kickstarter. How have your goals—and your content—changed since getting that influx of cash?
In the beginning, we couldn’t afford to pay reporters for original reported pieces. Since then, we’ve been able to produce much more breaking news, and we’re able to pay a competitive rate for that work. Our reporters can dig into stories more deeply, and we can assign pieces that in the past we would have otherwise had to pass up. So it’s broadened our site’s coverage and our reach.
We were also able to hire some staffers. I brought on Twilight Greenaway as the full-time managing editor of Civil Eats. We also hired a part-time senior editor. In the hiring process, we got these incredible résumés from all over the country. I thought to myself, God, if we had the means and the funds, we’d just be killing it. We could have this incredible publication. So I'm in a big growth period. I’m trying to figure out what would it be like to actually have a full staff to be able to report. One of my long-term dreams is to be able to hire a reporter in D.C. to cover policy. Now that I'm starting this fellowship at Stanford, I’m really going to try to figure out how we can make mission-driven reporting sustainable for the long run. How do we invest in it? How can we care as much about food journalism as we care about food?