Editor’s Desk: Stepping down after a decade

By Samuel Fromartz

I’ve had quite a run at FERN, with more than a decade as editor-in-chief. But I’ve decided to step down later this year and bring in new blood so FERN can move ahead in the next stage of its evolution. The decision was difficult, but the timing was right: FERN is in excellent shape, with a good and stable staff, valuable partners, solid financial support and a reputation for producing important journalism.

Looking back, I can point to scores of stories I’m proud of (the 10th Anniversary collection of The Dirt is a good place to find many of them) and the impact they made. But what I’m most proud of is the sense that we created a “FERN story,” one which looked in-depth at food/ag/environmental issues and presented those issues in narratives that people could grasp. In other words, we were first and foremost storytellers. We always asked how the piece would be received by someone with no background in the issue. Would they keep reading, or listening? Because that is central to our mission: amplifying stories beyond our core audience and influencing the discussion.

I saw this with climate change — which for years was hardly connected to agriculture in mainstream discussions and which we hammered away at until it was. I could list many other areas in which I felt we broke ground, whether our livestock series, biodiversity coverage, water issues, environmental justice, food access and the like, but it was less the issues I recall than the way we tackled them. 

Our journalism tells only half the story, because I’m also proud of the organization we built, one that values the people who work with us. We came up with a model to provide stipends to freelancers who worked on especially complicated pitches. We often paid rates for stories that were above our peers. We invested in photographers who could bring stories to life visually. And being a virtual organization, we depended on our people to take initiative, to do their work with minimal oversight and to achieve impact. We offered guidance and advice, and also sought to create a humane workplace, ensuring that people had the time they needed away from work. None of this was developed in a manual or through an HR course. It reflected our own experience in trying to define what a good workplace might be, if only because we had worked in ones that fell short.

Those values will remain part of FERN’s enduring culture and be the renewable energy that keeps the operation humming. In part, that’s because my co-founder and partner Tom Laskawy will stay on as executive director. Our other staff also have years of experience and understand our model. We’ve launched a search for a new editor-in-chief and I’ll remain through that entire transition. I’ll also still sit on the FERN board and contribute as needed. But my work feels complete and I have an awesome sense of accomplishment. I’m glad that you, too, as our audience, had the pleasure to accompany me on this journey. And I expect that you’ll be as excited as I am about what comes next.