Mi'kmaw artist Melissa Labrador

Telling ugly stories beautifully: a new look for The Narwhal’s third birthday

With a raft of photojournalism award nominations at our back, and just in time to celebrate another turn around the sun, we’re upping our design game

Exactly three years ago today The Narwhal was launched with a bold mission: publish award-worthy journalism that not only holds power to account but re-enchants an exhausted, despairing public’s relationship with the natural world. 

At the time of The Narwhal’s big reveal to the world in 2018, well into the era of climate and environmental crisis, my colleague Emma Gilchrist and I were very sensitive to the complex psychological mechanisms people use to survive the grim daily onslaught of bad news about our world. 

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It’s not only understandable but sometimes necessary for our own mental well-being to, well, tune out. 

But we know the antidote to despair isn’t disconnection — it’s engagement. 

How could we, as environmental journalists, find a way to reengage a disenchanted public that was not only disheartened about the state of our environment but also with the state of click-bait, profit-driven media?

The dream of The Narwhal began to emerge in the cracks of a broken relationship between ordinary people and the journalists who serve them. We also recognized that while Canadians across the political spectrum held strong environmental values, reporting on the environment was fractious, deepening rather than healing the divides in our society over the big questions around policy, natural resource management, the protection of species and some of the Earth’s last intact wild spaces. 

Was it possible, we wondered, to get back to telling the rich stories of our shared natural values? Of what makes Canada’s natural spaces so valuable and so worth protecting? Of the complex human realities at the heart of our industries as they face transition in a changing world?

Telling these kinds of stories isn’t easy. And telling them well, in a way that truly does them justice, is even harder. But three years in, it’s incredible to reflect back on those early ambitious dreams and how our team and our readers have helped make them a reality. 

Over the years as we’ve grown, I’ve often found myself talking about how The Narwhal “tells ugly stories beautifully.” What that means for our staff on a day to day level is that we strive to weave more complexity into our reporting to more accurately reflect the diversity of people and lived experiences that belong in these large social narratives. We want a broad spectrum of Canadians to see themselves and their values and concerns reflected in the (virtual) pages of The Narwhal. Reporting on climate change or environmental issues from the inside of a coal mine’s union hall or a small oil and gas town requires a level of sensitivity to how big issues like “the energy transition” bears down on what it means to have a home, to have security for your family, to have the ability to tuck your children in at night. 

“Here’s a job I can be home every night with my kids. I can tuck them in, I can say prayers with them. Now that’s coming to a close. Now I have to go — to get that kind of money and full benefits — I have to leave this area. I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave my kids.” Martin Tinney,
Alberta coal miner

Telling ugly stories beautifully means, in part, reflecting the humanity at the core of our shared human struggles, even when these battles seem designed to pit us against one another. 

But we also believe strongly that telling these stories requires an investment in the visual aspects of great journalism. That’s a part of the reason why you’ll see The Narwhal working with talented photographers across the country and investing in arresting imagery that allows us to tell a deeper story about the people and the places impacted by the environmental crisis and the decision-makers who hold the most responsibility for its perpetuation. 

When we launched The Narwhal we also knew it was important to fight to keep our website ad-free. This allowed us to create the beautiful, sleek pages of The Narwhal you’ve come to know and love. The entire design of our website is created in service of our readers. When you arrive on The Narwhal’s website, you are welcomed into an immersive and beautifully crafted experience designed not for clicks or for ad revenues. The beauty and simplicity of the website is a reflection of our deeper mission to provide the public with one thing and one thing only: public-interest journalism about our natural world.

Our ability to deliver on all those big dreams we started dreaming in 2018 is largely due to the incredible generosity of The Narwhal’s monthly members. Because of a collective of just over 3,000 beautiful souls, we have been given the incredible privilege of serving you and building out our dream, while staying in line with our founding principles. 

Amy Cardinal Christianson
Amy Cardinal Christianson, Métis fire scientist, is revitalizing the Indigenous art of cultural burning as a method of wildfire prevention. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

This is a rarity on the Canadian media landscape. And within our team conversations we talk about this act of public generosity with reverence. On our third birthday, every single new member still feels like a gift and even a miracle. (Want to join in on the miracle? Become a member today.)

We’ve learned our investment in the public and our relationship with the ordinary people on whose behalf we report is a two-way street. The more we give, the more our members give back.

The outcome of this reciprocity is now making its mark on the Canadian media landscape as a whole. In the last two weeks, The Narwhal won a World Press Freedom prize, was nominated for the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jackman Award and has received 25 individual nominations for excellence from the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Digital Publishing Awards and the National Magazine Awards

As we celebrate our third birthday, we’re also thrilled to be rolling out a series of website upgrades to level up on our mission to serve our readers with the finest quality journalism on the environment in the country.

We cannot promise the ugly stories will go away. Since our launch, we have reported on the accelerating climate crisis, the local extinction of at risk species, on government secrecy and corruption, on industry malfeasance and dirty dealing, on disaster, disease and the growing phenomenon of ecological grief. 

But we’ve also found that our in-depth reporting on these deep problems is unearthing deep solutions. We’re coming across communities getting creative about protecting their watersheds, meeting scientists hunting to save the seeds of endangered trees, learning about Indigenous Guardians working in 24-hour shifts to protect the newborns of endangered species from predators and covering new and emerging technologies that can lessen our impact on the planet.

We can promise we will continue to show up to tell these stories in a way that reflects the beauty of the communities at their core, that demonstrates the resilience of the individuals most vulnerable to environmental instability and the humanity of everyday people who fight against the despair to build towards the future that is yet to come. 

As we continue on with our work, we do so in a humble spirit, knowing we stand on the shoulders of thousands of ordinary people who still believe in the beauty of this world and the role of journalists in making it visible. 

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You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired five journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 3,500 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

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