Isabel Esterman is a Senior Editor at Mongabay, an environment and conservation news site. She’s been working from Egypt for around 10 years and she commissions stories from Southeast Asia and Africa on topics like extremely rare great apes and the impacts of infrastructure development on biodiversity. Before Mongabay, Isabel worked for Mada Masr, an independent publication in Egypt. She also worked in Jakarta, Indonesia for a number of years after completing her graduate studies at UC Berkeley.
We called in a favour with Isabel because we’ve previously enjoyed working with her on videos and articles. So we knew she’d have some good insights on what it takes to be a good environment editor.
Here is the interview, conducted over email:
In Old News: At what point did you decide to pursue journalism and why?
Isabel: The idea of journalism has fascinated me since I was a child making pretend radio shows on a portable tape recorder with my younger brother. I definitely had a National Geographic photojournalist type fantasy; it was that or astronaut, really.
On the more practical side, when I was in my early twenties I made a decision to pursue higher education in general, and to train for a career in journalism specifically. I wanted to get on a path that would allow me to pursue and develop my interests — among them biodiversity hotspots and Indigenous land rights — while also building a career that could be meaningful as well as physically and financially sustainable in the long-term.
It was probably naïve to think journalism was a good choice for a stable career, but it's worked out okay so far. I started out at part-time at community college, transferred to UW-Madison to complete a bachelor's degree, and then into a graduate program at UC Berkeley and straight from there into a magazine job in Jakarta.
In Old News: How did studying journalism at UC Berkeley help you with the work you do now? Or have you had to learn mostly on the job?
Isabel: I do think I got quite a lot out of having formal journalism training, both as an undergraduate and later when I went to Berkeley.
There are aspects of journalism that I'd qualify as craft rather than art: structuring different kinds of stories; sourcing and verifying information; working with data and numbers; public record searches; building an investigation from the ground up. These are skills that can be taught in a classroom and I definitely gained a lot from having a period in my life in which I had access to excellent teachers and could dedicate myself to studying, rather than stumbling around trying to figure skills out on the job. Likewise, having benefitted from solid (albeit US-centered) instruction in media law and ethics has been immensely helpful throughout my career.
I do get asked fairly often by young journalists whether journalism schools, and particularly master's programs, are worth it. There isn't a simple answer. If you have the talent and the drive, you can absolutely have an excellent career as a reporter without any formal training. You can also get trained up and develop your skills inside a newsroom rather than in J-school.
However, if you are thinking in terms of a career that's going to span four-plus decades, at some point not having a master's degree (in something, not necessarily journalism) is likely to be an obstacle. It's often a tick-box requirement for senior editorial or management roles within media organizations, and even more so if you decide to make a lateral move into teaching, policy or NGO work at some point. I'm not endorsing this, but it is a reality.
That said, it is possible to do a master's program later in life — I know several mid-career journalists who've done this — and a degree in a specialized subject like public health or environmental science or international relations may be more valuable than one in journalism. I have a master's in Asian studies as well as in journalism, and that's been at least as useful to me in my career.
In Old News: Have you always been interested in being an editor (vs a reporter)? What part of the work gives you the most satisfaction?
Isabel: I wouldn't say I've always been more interested in editing, and I do still try to work on my own reporting and writing when time permits. But I have found that I really enjoy working with and supporting writers, and being able to create opportunities and take chances on people and their ideas. I also really value being a part of decision-making that shapes the kinds of news and stories that get covered.
Additionally, I find it satisfying to take something that's a bit broken or twisted up and figure out how to make it work.
The best moments, for me as an editor, come in helping someone transform writing that's already good into something great, or in pushing writers to really stretch themselves to write in a deeper or realer or more nuanced way.
In Old News: What are some skills you think are essential for a good editor to have?
Isabel: It depends on the kind of editor. I'd be a terrible copy editor, and I'm fortunate in always having worked with great ones who can backstop my occasional lapses in detail-orientation before stories go out into the world.
For the kind of editing I do, I think the key skills are being able to identify an interesting and important story — or the most interesting and important aspects of a story that's in front of me — and help a reporter shape what they've found in the field into a piece that readers will connect with. So, a feel for story and narrative, really. And, with that, having a sense of responsibility to the subjects of a report, to making sure their story is told in a way that's truthful and responsible.
Quite a lot of the job also consists of verifying information, confirming that source material has been interpreted correctly, making sure the right people have been contacted to get a well-rounded story, and probing to see whether claims made in a story hold up to scrutiny. This requires strong research skills as well as, I think, a sort of innate skepticism.
There's also quite a lot of working and communicating with people. Often this means putting in the time and emotional energy to make sure reporters feel supported when necessary, while also not being afraid to push them and nitpick at them and have them hate me a little bit sometimes.
On the practical side, a lot of the job involves budgeting and planning, so editors or aspiring editors need to be highly organized and able to manage a variety of short-, mid- and long-term tasks simultaneously.
In Old News: Do you have a different approach for multimedia projects? Or is it the same as editing a written piece?
Isabel: I think the fundamentals remain the same regardless of the medium. Things like having an interesting angle and a strong narrative arc remain essential, as well as accurately imparting information.
Working with stories that involve sound or images or data visualizations creates extra layers of complexity, of course. But it also creates an interesting feedback with text editing. I find that I have started to think about how to add more of a visual feel to a story told only through words, or alternative ways to achieve the sense of character and place that good audio can impart to a story.
In Old News: What advice would you have for someone interested in becoming an editor?
Isabel: The same advice I'd have for any writing or writing-adjacent career: read, widely and across genres and formats. See what you like and don't like, what you think works and doesn't work, and try to figure out why.
If you already have an editor you like working with, you can also try to engage with them more about their process. Not in a "why did you do this to my perfect creation!?!" kind of way, but expressing interest in the decisions they've made. Not every editor will have the time or energy to take this on, but quite a few will if the approach is sincere and respectful.
In Old News: Which parts of the world have you reported from, and how has that experience helped when you’re working with journalists from different parts of the world?
Isabel: I started off working in the United States, but most of my career has been in Southeast Asia and North Africa. I've been living in Cairo for about a decade now, and before that in Jakarta.
My experience as a white foreigner with an American passport is, of course, different from the experiences of local reporters. However, I do still have a sense of the pressures and difficulties that can come with living and working in places where journalism can be very difficult, whether that is because of poor infrastructure or because of governments that are hostile to reporters.
Working in Egypt for a local independent publication, Mada Masr, also gave me the experience of being a foreigner in an Egyptian newsroom, writing about Egypt for a primarily Egyptian audience. I think that's hugely shaped my sensibilities as a writer and editor. I'd like to think it's helped foster a sense of humility and of accountability to an imagined audience that doesn't default to white and western.
In Old News: What is your strategy/technique for keeping a local reporters’ voice intact in a piece, while also ensuring that an audience that may not be familiar with the local context can follow the story?
Isabel: This is an interesting question. And it's something I feel like I'm always working toward, rather than something I have an answer to.
Part of what I do at Mongabay is literally translation. For example, taking a story originally written in Bahasa Indonesia for an Indonesian audience and putting it into English for a global audience. In that process of transformation there are some trends that are clear. Generally, you need to insert contextual background information throughout the story to make it legible for an international audience, while also eliminating details about political or legislative complexities that are just going to be too much for global readers.
Working with a story originally written in English is more subtle. The stuff about giving readers necessary background information and not getting too deep into legislative minutia still applies. Additionally, you need to find and emphasize elements of the story that will be interesting to a reader on the other side of the world — whether that be in the United States, Egypt or the Philippines — not just to someone who already feels they have a personal stake in a particular locale.
The question of voice is always complicated. Most publications have a voice of their own, in terms of the tone and level of the language that's used. Being the keeper of that voice is a big part of an editor's job. At the same time, it's important to me to always work to increase the diversity of the storytellers and perspectives we are bringing into our pages. It's a balancing act trying not to stomp too hard on stories or impose too much my idea of how they should be told, while also maintaining editorial standards and a cohesive editorial voice.
In Old News: Was there a point where you decided you wanted to focus more on environment stories? If so, how did that decision happen? Why is environmental coverage important to you?
Isabel: Working on long-form environment stories was always my professional goal, and I feel lucky to be doing it. We live in a time of unprecedented environmental change, and there are so many urgent and essential stories to be told. Environmental journalism can be depressing at times — it often feels like screaming into a void — but it nonetheless feels important.
In Old News: Are there any additional skills someone editing environment and science reporting needs to have?
Isabel: Well, there's certainly a lot of science involved, and you need a reasonable understanding of science and math in order to be able to interpret academic research for a general audience.
As a science reporter, you need to be able to work effectively with scientists as sources, which generally involves a combination of taking the time to understand their research as best you can while having the humility to ask questions when you don't. And that applies to editors too.
Most crucially, you need to have a sensibility for how to find the story in the science, and to write it in a way that is going to be interesting and relatable for a general audience.
In Old News: Any tips for freelancers on how to pitch?
Isabel: To me specifically: People tend to be skeptical, but it really is best to pitch Mongabay via the forms on our website. Pitches sent via the website go directly into our system and will be visible to all editors working on a particular topic or area, whereas direct emails have occasionally been known to get lost in the wilds of my inbox.
Pitching in general: The most important element to pitching is a good story idea. (This may sound obvious, but my inbox says otherwise.) A story idea is not a general topic; it's a description of a specific incident or idea or program or set of circumstances in a specific place, involving specific actors. If a story idea catches my interest, and the reporter presents a credible plan for covering that story, they are 90% of the way to a commission, regardless of their experience or credentials.