I was shocked (as was everyone else at Racepoint) last December when I found out that Marc Gunther was being let go from Fortune. At the time, Gunther had been with the magazine for more than 12 years. During that time he penned cover stories on the greening of Wal-Mart, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and spirituality in the workplace. He has also by-lined feature stories on CEO Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reshape the values of General Electric, the business of carbon finance, the rise of corporate social responsibility, the zero-waste movement, genetically-modified rice, environmental activism, corporate governance, AIDS and gay rights in corporate America. However, he became most well known during his last several years there for his weekly column on sustainability.
The timing of his exit was especially baffling given President Obama’s recent election, which foreshadowed green becoming an even bigger storyline for businesses and the country as a whole. While Gunther still contributes to Fortune from time-to-time he’s moved onto “greener” pastures in growing the online distribution of his stories on sustainability.
Yesterday, Ben and I got a chance to catch up with Marc, who is in the process of penning a likely cover story for Fortune, to find out what he’s up to these days, his thoughts the upcoming Fortune Brainstorm: Green show and how he’s utilizing his blog as a sustainable-news wire.
Here’s part 1 of our conversation.
RaceTalk: On December 16th you wrote an eloquent post for the Huffington Post, entitled “The Recession Hits Home,” in which you discussed being scooped on your own layoff from Fortune and the current perils of the media industry. The news came as a shock to many as the demand for news around green has skyrocketed – and Fortune had been leading the charge with you and Todd Woody (who was also let go as well, but still contributes). I thought you made some interesting points in your post, and I know one of the first bloggers , who scooped you on your exit, shed light on the possibility of environmental reporters being endangered. Wondering your thoughts, as it seemed to be a strange move on Fortune’s end with the focus on green stories only growing.
Marc Gunther: I mean, was I surprised that Fortune let go of the 2 people who had most focused on business and the environment? Yeah, I think it’s obviously a big important issue both on a kind of global, social level, which should matter, but perhaps even more importantly for a business magazine, I think it’s becoming a really core business issue as well. I also think it’s a job of newspapers and magazines to write about things that are really important and I don’t think there’s much that’s more important than the climate change issue. Even if the midst of this terrible economy.
RT: I guess one of the things that crossed my mind is, is that it’s obviously a horrible time for the media, too, so you know they’re thinking of their magazines as businesses. Do you think it’s still hard, to sell advertisers around leading edge, green, story-lines?
MG: I don’t get involved in the sales side of the magazine at all. However, I actually don’t think it’s that hard. I think there is advertising that’s ready to be paired up with reporting around environmental issues. That should be a help to people who want to write about the environment – the fact that there are advertisers out there who want to associate themselves with that. I do think there’s advertising interest in the topic and you can tell that just by watching even broadcast television, cable television or looking at magazines and newspapers. I mean look at the huge branding campaign IBM has been running for months around a Smarter Planet. I think it’s really a good campaign and fortunately for them it actually matches up with what they’re doing.
RT: It matches up with what the administration is saying, too.
MG: That’s the other reason it seems to me that newspapers and magazines should be paying more attention to this set of issues because of what’s happening in DC.
RT: Right, it’s on the front of the agenda.
MG: It really is. I mean in a way that it has literally never has been before.
RT: So now that you’ve left Fortune, you’re over at Greener World Media?
MG: I’m not actually. I’m writing, speaking and consulting for a variety of people, but I do have a great relationship with Greener World Media. They’ve given me a title of Senior Writer and I’m doing some work for them, but it’s not my employer. I’ll tell you what the model is because there’s nothing secret about it. Basically what I did was, I went to Joel McCauer, who runs the editorial side of Greener World Media, and I basically said I’d like to license my blog to you because the blog is mostly now about sustainability. In exchange for having the ability to run my blog content I would like you to pay me $x per month. We had some negations and in both cases, we worked it out in a really good way where they’re paying me a certain fee per month to run my blog, and then I’m also going to do some original content for each of their sites. But, I’m not an employee of anyone. Other than myself.
RT: That makes sense.
MG: I’m actually hoping to expand the model and be as widely distributed as possible with anything I write on the internet and supplement that with some exclusive content.
RT: So you’re continuing to kind of choose your own beat. Are you trying to stay focused solely on sustainability?
MG: Yes, definitely. Not only trying to. I’m going to.
RT: How often are you still contributing to Fortune?
MG: I have what I believe will be the cover story of the next issue, because it’s an issue tied to the environment and the Brainstorm: Green conference in April. I’m still working on Brainstorm: Green as a sort co-chair of and helped to create the agenda. I’m really leading with Brian Dumane – the guy who is the environment editor there. Beyond this story though it’s not clear what, if anything, I’m going to be doing for them. We haven’t really worked anything out. I’m hoping to do more writing for them, but the challenge is, again, it’s a skinny magazine these days. They have a good staff of talented people and we just don’t know what the appetite will be for freelancers. We have a good relationship and everything – it’s just a question of what they need.
RT: As far as the conference this year, I was reading that you have Former President Clinton speaking as well as Bill Ford. Who do you think is going to create the big buzz there? What major themes for the conference should we expect?
MG: In terms of the big buzz, let’s just say I managed to avoid moderating the panel that comes on after Bill Clinton. That was my major accomplishment having to do with the conference. It was not doing that.
RT: Who’s interviewing him? Andy (Andy Sewer, Managing Editor of Fortune)?
MG: Andy is going to interview Clinton. Although I don’t think it’s really going to be an interview. I think he’s just going to talk. I mean I’m really happy with the event and how it’s shaping up. I think we have the right auto chairman in Bill Ford because Ford could end up being the last US automaker standing and I think they haven’t gotten as much recognition around environmentally friendly cars as they should have. I also think he’s a fascinating guy because he wanted to do a lot more with Ford than he was able to. So I’m hoping he will be able to talk about what the forces were that stopped him from making Ford more the green car company 5, 6, 7 years ago when it wasn’t just rhetoric on his part. It was a really sincere desire to make that happen and he didn’t make it happen and I want to know why. So that will be good. We’re going to do a lot of Washington stuff. We haven’t yet got confirmation, but I’m pretty confident we’ll have some administration people there to talk. I mean I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m doing a panel called Sustainable Consumption, which is going to include the CEO of SC Johnson, Smith Johnson, who’s a really progressive environmentalist; Carl Bass from Autodesk; the CEO of the big architectural firm HOK; Bill Valentine, who also is very passionate about the environment. I really want to dig down there into the question of how do you have growth companies that want to sell more stuff and do it in an environmentally sustainable way. That to me is sort of the core challenge for business, which is how do you mesh the growth imperative with the sustainability imperative? That’s what I’m going to talk to Paul Hawken about at our first night dinner. Sort of why going green isn’t enough. What the difference is between green, a term that really doesn’t mean anything, and sustainability, a term, which actually has a specific meaning, which should be the goal companies. That means, essentially using all renewable resources, all renewable energy, zero waste. That should be the model. Throw nothing away. Don’t use anything that can’t grow again.