Storytelling Is at the Root of Making Change: Nicholas Jackson of Pacific Standard
Nicholas Jackson is the editor-in-chief of Pacific Standard. He previously served as the digital editorial director at Outside. Before that, he was an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he launched the magazine’s health coverage online. He is also an officer of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism. Named one of Folio: magazine’s 15 under 30, spotlighting young professionals driving media’s next-generation innovation, in 2012, Jackson has also worked for Slate, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Texas Monthly, and other publications, both online and in print. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.
First I’m hoping you could offer just a very brief overview of the history and mission of Pacific Standard – I know that it's gone through a few big changes in the nine-plus years of its existence. What’s the current business model? What are the big focuses of the magazine? What’s the overarching objective?
Nicholas Jackson: Pacific Standard was founded nine years ago as Miller-McCune, a magazine that brought the best of the social and behavioral sciences to a general interest audience. In the years since, we’ve re-positioned—and renamed—the magazine to broaden its appeal. Today, we’re essentially an ideas magazine with a few differentiating factors that set us apart from our peers like The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker.
The first is that we’re based on the West Coast, an underrepresented area when it comes to the national press. That doesn’t make us a regional magazine—we don’t use the West Coast as a source for all of our stories—but it does give us a different perspective, and it means that our source lists often differ pretty dramatically from those of others. The second is that the social and behavioral sciences remain a core part of our DNA. We take research very seriously, and we use it to inform our work and our conclusions, rather than relying solely on anecdote or opinion. Social and behavioral science—and studies more generally—have become a very popular resource for a number of publications in recent years, but, where others often rush through abstracts and press releases, we always read the research in full, place it in context, and speak to the academics. We put in a lot of work when it comes to presenting the findings of the academy because we see a value for our audience here, and because we believe in the power of facts and figures, especially in an era of significant concern over reliability.
The third differentiating factor between us and some of our peers is that we have core coverage areas that we’ve identified as being worth our undivided attention. Internally, we refer to these as the four pillars: We tell stories that matter about social justice, environmental justice, economic justice (often issues of inequality), and educational justice, which primarily means, for us, access to high-quality education for all.
I mentioned stories that matter and that is the overarching objective—that idea guides everything we do. Every day we aim to find the stories that can make a difference. Sometimes, on our best days, we’re successful at that, and, when we are, the results can be impressive.
What’s the role, as you see it, of literary and long-form journalism, commentary, analysis, etc. – the sorts of things magazines publish, essentially – during the next four years? Should an administration that’s openly hostile to ‘the media’ – and seemingly to basic facts – be covered differently? Does Pacific Standard plan on doing anything differently?
NJ: Magazines “essentially” publish a lot of things. The kinds of work you’re talking about here are on one extreme end of the spectrum, the high end. That’s where we’re aiming—long-form narrative non-fiction, reporting, analysis, etc.—because we believe in its power.
This magazine operates from the belief that good storytelling is at the root of making change, and that an informed public is essential to a functioning democracy. That’s always been the case at Pacific Standard, and so, while we continue to have editorial discussions about what it means to be a publisher under a new administration, we’re mostly just doubling down on what we know we’re good at and what we’ve been successful at.
In order to bring our readers more coverage that’s informed by research rather than relying solely on anecdote and experience, we’re increasing our print frequency this year, from six issues to eight. That, along with the recent print magazine redesign that expanded our feature well and opened up sections for new kinds of storytelling, will give us a lot more space to tell stories that matter. In the coming months, we’ll be using those pages to put out special packages on revolutionary ideas and brilliant young minds, how women in particular are driving pioneering solutions for climate change, and much more.
We’re excited about this growth because we believe that print remains a uniquely engaging medium, which is why we’ve dedicated so many pages to immersive photography and compelling design. We hope to create magazines that are so beautiful and valuable—in their appearance and approach—that you’ll share them with friends and family. They should start informed, civil conversations, which are, this past election has shown us, in short supply.
As a much more specific follow up to that last bundle of questions: I’m wondering how Pacific Standard plans on covering the environmental policies of the current administration – is there more urgency? Is there possibly a push to offer more stories that explicitly address the intersection between the climate crisis and social justice? Asking because one of the things I personally love is how deeply baked into the identity of PS is environmental journalism.
NJ: Yeah, it’s good to hear you call specific attention to this. A little over a year ago we decided internally to put a lot of editorial firepower behind what we call the catastrophic consequences of climate change. We take, as a given, that climate change is happening and is accelerated by our actions on this planet. That’s a fact. The question is how to move forward from that, and how to address it.
We originally conceived of the catastrophic consequences as a package of sorts, a year-long intensive look at one subject, but, after the success of our work in this area and what we feel are the needs of the current era, we’re extending that time frame indefinitely and continuing to do work at the intersection of the environment and social justice. There are a number of great outlets doing must-read journalism on climate change, but our approach is a unique one that, I think, fills a gap. Here’s how senior editor Ted Scheinman, who oversees a number of our special projects, laid out our vision for this kind of coverage a year ago:
Introducing Pacific Standard’s “Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change,” an aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects we can expect from anthropogenic global warming — and how scholars, activists, diplomats, and legislators can help stave off its most dire consequences.
After laying the groundwork with our lively and comprehensive around-the-clock coverage at COP21 in Paris (November 29–December 12, 2015), we’re dedicating a portion of our site and our daily coverage to reportage and essays from journalists, academics, and policymakers as we identify the policies and personalities that will determine, for good or ill, all global efforts to legislate this existential threat.
Along with interviews and profiles — from citizen-activists to oligarchs — we will publish photo essays that explicate the toll of climate change on developing countries alongside infographics and key statistics about climate developments, and about public opinion. Early pieces will illustrate the political landscape while anticipating the major themes of the coming year. Subsequent entries in prose will include contributions from the world’s best thinkers and writers on climate change, as well as interviews with citizens in developing countries most at risk.
Pacific Standard’s “Catastrophic Consequences” special report — appearing online and with regular dispatches in print throughout 2016 — will be the reader’s anchor in a sea of climate coverage — a comprehensive, ever-renewed resource on the most urgent policy question of the century.
One thing that’s been really interesting lately to follow is the way that large publications manage their print and digital content. Could you talk a little bit about how Pacific Standard manages that balance, and how you see that changing, or not changing, in the future? It seems like a lot of the really big news and general interest magazines – The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, etc. – have been offering more and more multimedia content.
NJ: This is something we’re always thinking about. We’re committed to the power of print, and will be doing more there in the coming year, including working to strengthen our relationship with our most committed followers, fans, and readers. But this won’t come at the expense of our digital presence.
We’ve seen increased reader engagement with stories over the past year, and that’s something we’ll continue to develop. People aren’t just reading our work; they’re responding to it as well. As a journalist, this is the highest honor, to know that your work is inspiring thought and criticism and, hopefully, sparking change.
Of course, we on staff already knew this to be the case. Far from the print article repository or a listicle-driven afterthought too common among competing magazines, PSmag.com is considered—by both editorial staffers and readers—an equal editorial product, fully capable of producing the highest quality journalism—Web or otherwise—in the marketplace today. Still, validation is always a nice thing.
Our entire editorial staff works across platforms—an incredible rarity in media, but a strategy that has encouraged us to devote just as much time and intensity to the website as to the print magazine. This has birthed dozens of Web-only feature stories throughout the year, many of which have reached print-worthy levels of acclaim within the journalism community, and among our readers at large. Add to that a robust, exhaustive daily news operation, and PSmag.com is a destination we’re incredibly proud of; it will continue to evolve alongside our print product—we won’t let one leave the other behind.
Last question: could you offer two or three publications you admire and/or tend to read, and why?
NJ: There are a lot. I regularly read select pieces from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, all thought leaders doing really smart journalism in the public interest right now. I used to work at The Atlantic and maintain a lot of close friendships there, so I may be a bit biased, but I don’t know many who wouldn’t stand behind their work. I also read a number of city and regional magazines, in places I both have and haven’t lived; the best of those—New York, Texas Monthly, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and the Washingtonian—do service journalism and packaging better than any of the big national titles. And I’m always watching what the few of us out here on the West Coast—Mother Jones, The California Sunday Magazine, GOOD, and Wired—are up to.
header image: Nicholas Jackson / photo credit: Terence Patrick