Broken Ground | Season 6 | Episode 1

Lyndsey Gilpin and Tajah McQueen on Empowering Community Reporters

Hear what spurred the founding of Southerly, an online publication focused on environmental justice, and how it evolved from more traditional reporting to an outlet focused on putting reporters’ tools in community hands. 

Episode Transcript

Broken Ground Season 6, Episode 1: SOUTHERLY



Host: This is Broken Ground, a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. I’m Leanna First-Arai, your host. Here at Broken Ground, we dig up environmental stories in the South and introduce you to the people at the heart of them.


Host: In our last season, we told you the epic story of the fight against the Byhalia crude oil pipeline project in Memphis, Tennessee.


Host: One of the people we interviewed was my colleague Carrington Tatum, a young journalist at the nonprofit newspaper, MLK50, who wrote nearly 40 stories about Byhalia. For his reporting, Carrington won two national awards – truly a remarkable feat for a journalist in his first full-time gig. More importantly, so many of the folks we interviewed last season said Carrington’s reporting was essential to the fight.


Host: So, like so many others, we were devastated when Carrington announced that for financial reasons, including overwhelming student loan debt and increasing rent, he’d be leaving journalism to find a job that would allow him to pay his bills.


Host: It’s a big loss – not just for his sources and readers in Memphis – but more broadly for our collective understanding of environmental justice, which Carrington brought to life in his stories.

There’s also this: according to the Pew Research Center, the environment and energy reporting beat is already THE whitest beat. 84% of reporters on it are white.

The perspective that Carrington brought to his stories – as a Black man, as a first-generation college student, and ultimately as a reporter committed to exposing the systems responsible for producing injustice … his perspective was invaluable.

And yet, his personal story is an example of how the precarious nature of journalism is itself an environmental justice issue. Carrington wrote about his decision in his final piece for MLK50:

“When these systems overlap, it’s not just me losing,” he wrote. “It’s about the stories I could be writing and serving my community with. I will be fine, but will journalism?”


Host: Carrington’s departure and OUR ongoing work to bring environmental stories to listeners got us thinking – not just about growing gaps in environmental news coverage, but also about the importance of who gets to tell those stories, and how THAT influences which voices are amplified or ignored. So this season, we’ll be talking to southern storytellers who are filling gaps in environmental coverage.


Cameron Oglesby: We’re just students learning how to be journalists and we had become THE news source.

Tajah McQueen: You can’t predict when a disaster is going to happen or where it’s gonna happen.

Paola Jaramillo: This information is very important for our community, especially in the rural areas, because in the rural areas our community is alone.

Cornell Watson: Taking your camera to a place like that and being able to just kind of show the world, like, what’s going on, things start to happen, people start to be held accountable.


Host: Those are a few of the voices you’ll hear throughout the season. But today …


Host: Our first guest is Lyndsey Gilpin, the founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly. Her colleague Tajah McQueen will be joining us a bit later, too. Southerly is a nonprofit news site focused on environmental justice stories in the South. Over the last several years, it’s done some remarkable reporting on environmental justice issues, from industrial hog pollution in North Carolina, to septic issues in Alabama. Lyndsey links right into the last season because, back when I was pitching that very first Byhalia pipeline story to media organizations and getting no bites, Lyndsey was the first one who finally said yes.


A quick note before we introduce you. So we first spoke with Lyndsey in early 2023. Between recording our interview and releasing this episode, we got some surprising news about Southerly, but we’ll wait until the end of the episode to bring you up to speed. Now, here’s Lyndsey Gilpin.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Hey Leanna!

Leanna First-Arai: Lyndsey, hi! It’s so good to see you.

Lyndsey Gilpin: You too!

Leanna First-Arai: Maybe you could just start with telling us kind of how you got into journalism in the first place.


Lyndsey Gilpin: So I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was 11 years old.

Leanna First-Arai: Oh! Wow.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Which was incredibly early, and it was because I wrote an essay about my grandmother, who I had never met. She passed away when my mom was really young.

Leanna First-Arai: Mmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: She was from rural east Kentucky in Appalachia, little unincorporated area called Greasy Creek. So desperately wanted to know her and the story of the mountains she was from. So I wrote this essay, turned it in in school, then they entered it into this little contest with the, the newspaper in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. And it appeared in there and I saw my byline, and I was like, ‘Oh, that feels good.’

Leanna First-Arai: Mmm-hmmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: It was the kids section, which I did not realize at the time.


Leanna First-Arai: Oh, irrelevant.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Yeah. It doesn’t matter though. I saw my byline and, um, and just loved that feeling and loved the feeling of writing.

Leanna First-Arai: Totally feel you. So, Lyndsey, I know that you got your Master’s in journalism in Chicago, but then, instead of coming back south, you headed west for a while. What was it that pulled you in that direction?

Lyndsey Gilpin: That was where people went to go write about the environment. They didn’t do that in Kentucky or, you know, in the South in general. But I moved out there and started freelancing and then eventually worked for High Country News, which is a magazine based in Colorado.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, High Country News is sort of the preeminent environmental publication out west. You did some really beautiful expository writing there. You did some hard-hitting reporting. Um, there was this exposé on sexual harassment in the National Park Service. So, given that things were going really well,  the importance of the work you were doing out there, what was it that made you then pack up your bags and leave and come back south in 2016?

Lyndsey Gilpin: So, in the background of that was the presidential campaign and election. And I, so I was in Colorado watching this sort of play out, and especially watching journalists from New York or DC or wherever parachute into West Virginia and Kentucky and everywhere in the South, and, you know, kind of, like, blanket blame that region for voting for Trump.

Leanna First-Arai:  Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin:  And it was such a fascinating thing because I was also in this county that was incredibly conservative, that had a history of coal mining. Okay, you’re blaming the South, but I’m sitting in a place where, I mean, they’re flying confederate flags! Makes no sense, but we won’t even get into that. And you know, I was hearing people say like how bigoted it was, how they can’t believe that people could live there in the South obviously.


Lyndsey Gilpin: All of that, just watching that happen and really knowing the history of how parachute journalism has harmed the South. Um, specifically, you know, if there’s a hurricane, if there’s a chemical spill, if there’s a coal mine disaster, journalists coming in, reporting on it, leaving and just kind of abandoning everyone there. And I just realized, like, I could do all of this in a place that I know more about and I care about. It seems like such a cliche thing to say, it just sort of, like, clicked in my brain, but it really did, like, I think I just realized I don’t have to be far away to do what I love or to write about the things that I think are important.


Leanna First-Arai: I love that. Alright, so you move back to Louisville and you start this newsletter, which you called Southerly. What were you thinking at the time?

Lyndsey Gilpin:  At that time, Scalawag was becoming big …

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Bitter Southerner was becoming big, and, you know, I was seeing these other Southern-focused publications succeed and grow their audience, and I was like, ‘But we could do this just focused on environmental justice, and no one else is doing that.’ And so that’s the gap that I saw.

Leanna First-Arai: Makes so much sense. And then eventually your newsletter becomes an official online magazine. How is it that you made that transition?

Lyndsey Gilpin: I had a friend of mine build a website.

Leanna First-Arai: Nice.

Lyndsey Gilpin: We eventually got a small grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. It was 5,000 bucks. I was like, let me do this series of stories. I hired a friend to help me do video. I hired a friend to help me edit. Published. And we had an event where we invited the community, we went to Lowndes County, had a panel of people talking about, sort of, everything from organizing to technological solutions, had the health department there.

Leanna First-Arai: Right. So, for listeners, this was a series about what you called an “invisible public health crisis” in the rural South. Ultimately, we’re talking about some really shocking things here, about the lack of working sewage infrastructure, and how that’s led to the emergence of tropical diseases in places like Lowndes County, Alabama.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Yeah.

Leanna First-Arai: So, you launch this very first series for Southerly. Um, what happens next?

Lyndsey Gilpin: I was like, okay, I guess this is a thing.


Lyndsey Gilpin: I guess this is out in the world. And I think that because of imposter syndrome, being a woman …

Leanna First-Arai: Un-hunh.

Lyndsey Gilpin: … that felt fake for so long. Like, I wasn’t legit, but it was legit. I mean, we had a website, we had stories publishing.


Leanna First-Arai: So one of the very first pieces that I came across of yours was not actually in Southerly, but it was a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review. You called it, “A Pipeline Runs Through Southern News Deserts.”

Lyndsey Gilpin: Mm-hmm.

Leanna First-Arai: So can you give us some basic information about what a news desert even is and what that looks like on the ground for southern communities?

Lyndsey Gilpin: It means that there are a lack of reported sources. Public radio stations. Sort of death of consistent daily newspapers, weekly newspapers in an area. The southeastern US has more news deserts than any other region in the country.

Leanna First-Arai: Woah.

Lyndsey Gilpin: The South also has a lot of – as you probably know, um, media conglomerate papers –  so a lot of Gannett papers, a lot of, uh, McClatchy papers. So those are run by the same corporation who wants to improve its bottom line. Isn’t necessarily thinking about the people it’s trying to reach or the people who it should be serving. So reporting on the environment often falls way down, uh, on the list of priorities. And that leaves a big space for industry, whatever that is, whether it’s fossil fuels, utilities, agriculture, to fill that gap by sending press releases and information and oftentimes disinformation about what is happening in those places. And sometimes, you know, they’re just reported, like, as is, because there’s nobody on staff to do it or there’s no time to do it.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.


Lyndsey Gilpin: That story that you’re talking about for CJR came out of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was slated to go from West Virginia to North Carolina, was eventually canceled. But I traveled sort of the route to talk to people about the organizing they were doing against it, why they didn’t want the pipeline, why they did want the pipeline, what the actual job numbers and impacts were gonna be, what the environmental impacts were gonna be. And so, through that reporting, kind of realized, oh my gosh, all of the counties it goes through are super rural, because that’s often where these industrial projects are placed because there’s nobody there watching and there’s especially no media there watching. That means that people are left to their own, kind of, like, assumptions about what’s happening, the press releases that are happening, the information that they’re getting at like community meetings or other events that the project was putting on. This was Duke Energy, um, and Dominion Energy.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Or they were just investigating it on their own, like with binders full of information in their houses and just waiting for a journalist to come there and be like, ‘Hey, what’s happening here?’ I think that really shows how many connections there are to, like, where the dearth of newspapers, media, information, and where the industry is and where rural, BIPOC, low-wealth communities are. That really shows how many things are working together at once to make people feel isolated.

Leanna First-Arai: Absolutely.


Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, so one cool thing that always sticks with me about Southerly is how you do so much more than just publish an article on your website and then amplify that on social media, you know, hoping that people will find it there. You’ve also partnered with other local newspapers, you’ve partnered with public radio stations to co-publish content.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Yeah.

Leanna First-Arai: Really, it’s, it’s pretty hard to imagine the big, for-profit newspaper brands sharing content and sharing credit like that.

Lyndsey Gilpin: That was sort of the foundation of Southerly was, like, how do we get into a place and build trust and credibility and make sure that the people who need to see this story are actually seeing it? Let’s find the news outlet that’s there, that they’re reading, that they’re paying attention to, and work with them to bring more environmental reporting.

Leanna First-Arai: Who were you thinking about as sort of being at the receiving end of the stories you were telling and the information you were getting out in that first sort of, like, Southerly 1.0, ‘Oh my God, we’re a publication. I am a publication and I am a reporter.’

Lyndsey Gilpin: I think since the very beginning, I always wanted the audience to be rural communities, um, BIPOC communities, low-wealth communities in the South. And we covered 13 states. So …

Leanna First-Arai: That’s a lot of states.

Lyndsey Gilpin: A big area.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: A lot of people. At the beginning, that wasn’t the audience. I can confidently say that now that’s the audience.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Had to draw a line eventually where it was like, okay, if we wanna reach rural, low-income communities, then you need to go to them, which means sometimes printing off a brochure, or partnering with local organizations rather than a newspaper or public radio station. Rather than waiting on bigger, fancier, legacy places to, like, do the work, you just have to go directly to the source and do it with them.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.

Lyndsey Gilpin: In theory a lot of funders and people in the journalism industry support that. Like, ‘Yeah, we have to reach underserved audiences!’ But when it comes to the work, it doesn’t play out for them, right? It takes much more time. It’s much more labor intensive. You have to be on the ground. You have to fight back against all of these myths about journalism like that it’s objective, that people only wanna read investigative stories, that they have time to read investigative stories. Like, in truth, it’s like, no, a lot of people just need basic information.

Leanna First-Arai: Mmmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: But it’s the journalism that is necessary so that they can live healthier, safer lives.


Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, that Lowndes County septic story that you mentioned earlier, I think it’s a super good example of what you’re talking about here, right? So you go out into communities and you make sure that people are getting the information that you’re publishing, um, like hard copies of it. Are there any other examples of that kind of work that you might be able to share with us?

Lyndsey Gilpin: We had a freelance journalist named Sarah Wade, who approached me at the beginning of last year. She was in Bristol, Virginia. She said, ‘My community has a landfill, and there’s a Facebook group where everyone is complaining and reporting, uh, issues with pollution coming from this landfill because of a chemical reaction that was happening very deep inside this landfill. People had headaches and nosebleeds and they were getting sick. Pets were getting sick. They had to keep their windows closed at all times. And people were literally trying to figure out what was going on via Facebook.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: I was like, okay, ‘Well, let’s talk to some people first and see what they’re missing.’


Lyndsey Gilpin: We found out that a big portion of the community that was being affected was the Black community. They weren’t necessarily on the Facebook group. There were a lot of elderly folks that were getting their information from church.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: They were like, ‘Well, a story doesn’t really help us. Like, it might help some of those people on Facebook, but, like, doesn’t reach my mom in her eighties sitting in her house.’ So that’s why we decided to do the pamphlet. Um …

Leanna First-Arai: Right, so Sarah Wade writes this article about the landfill, and you publish it pretty traditionally at, your website. But then you go and you create this hard copy pamphlet, like a pretty old school piece of paper. You can stick it in your purse, you can pull it out. It all has that same information for people who wouldn’t – or who might not log on to the internet and see that article. Did I get that right?

Lyndsey Gilpin: Yeah. Had the most important parts of it – chemicals that might be in the air, and the ways to report things if you smelled something, um, or you wanted to report an illness. How to, like, get an air purifier that they were giving out for free. And then we printed out like a thousand and then distributed them.

Leanna First-Arai: Wow.

Lyndsey Gilpin: And then Sarah handed them out at stores and they took them to city council meetings. But some places wouldn’t take them because they were like, ‘This is too political. You can’t have have this in here,’ which was really fascinating, because there are so many barriers to getting information out.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.

Lyndsey Gilpin: We did a few update stories and we’ve kind of kept in touch and that landfill is no longer accepting trash – I mean, it’s still bad, but they’re trying to come up with a plan. And they took a lot of the community’s suggestions into consideration in that, because, I hope, in some small part, they couldn’t ignore the fact that people were like, ‘I know what I’m talking about. I’m holding it in my hand. I know the name of that chemical that’s being released.’

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: That to me is such empowering information.

Leanna First-Arai: Totally.


Leanna First-Arai: So Lyndsey, I just wanna point out for listeners that though you’ve been hiring freelance writers and editors on and off since you started the magazine, since the beginning, you’ve basically been running the publication on your own.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Yeah, yeah.

Leanna First-Arai: So maybe now’s a good time to bring in our next guest, Tajah McQueen.

Tajah McQueen: Hi! Thanks for having me.

Leanna First-Arai: Can you introduce yourself for us?

Tajah McQueen: I am Tajah. I am the Director of Engagement and Outreach at Southerly. I’m originally from Queens, New York, but I’ve lived in Louisville, Kentucky for a while. Um, you can probably tell because I say Loo-ee-ville and not Lu-el-ville.


Leanna First-Arai: I was just gonna say …


Tajah McQueen: Yeah. That is something that will never change. That’s me.


Leanna First-Arai: So I’d love to know from each of you what do you think makes good – or  bad – environmental journalism?

Tajah McQueen: I feel like in a lot of stories you usually get the experts. You get the company involved if you can.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.

Tajah McQueen: But you really don’t get the people who are dealing with the result of that situation. That is something that I would like to see more of –  actually including the voices of the people who are affected by those situations in a way that’s not exploitive.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: To Tajah’s point about the experts, like, I think the best environmental journalism that I see, treats the people who are living with whatever challenge they’re facing, treats them as experts of their own lives.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Oftentimes environmental issues feel so abstract. Uh, when people get frustrated with folks for, like, not understanding climate change or not believing in climate change, it’s like, that is so hard to wrap your head around. And how do you show those people how climate change affects them? That’s why we work on such a local, very specific level. Um, cuz it looks different for everybody and they might come to it from a different perspective. Like, maybe they’re worried about their farm or maybe they’re worried about their kid’s health, or maybe they’re worried about what their future job looks like, that sort of thing. And so if you can kind of connect those dots, that to me has become such a powerful way of telling environmental stories. And it also, like, broadens it so that you can include more people in the conversation. Because if you’re just talking about, like, a climate march or, like, who believes in climate change, you’re leaving out most of the population that doesn’t have time or money or whatever to think about what federal climate policy is. And so I think that those stories feel really important to me. Um …

Leanna First-Arai: Mmm. Such a good answer. One of the reasons that we were so interested in talking to y’all first this season is because you’re no longer just producing in-depth stories about environmental injustices, um, but you’ve also allowed Southerly to evolve over time. And Lyndsey, there’s something that you wrote on the website recently that caught our eye that I wanna quote. “The journalism landscape is changing just as quickly as our natural and built landscapes. That means we are always learning, evolving, and responding to what we hear from readers we serve.” End quote. So in the spirit of this quote, Lyndsey, could you tell us a little bit about the, the pivot that you made last year?

Lyndsey Gilpin: Um, that really came from wanting to take this a step further and say, okay, we’re saying that we’re investing in communities, that we’re partnering directly with local organizations. How do we make sure that, like, we’re building a pipeline of people that can do that work.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Lyndsey Gilpin: And so that is how the community reporting fellowship came to be.


Leanna First-Arai: This is a super interesting program. Before we get into the details though, um, can I ask you, Tajah, I know you and Lyndsey developed this together. What motivated you?

Tajah McQueen: You have to jump through so many hoops to become a journalist. You have to jump through so many hoops to become a reporter. And journalism sometimes can be a toxic place. Further promote really negative stereotypes, really negative viewpoints.

Leanna First-Arai: Mm-hmm.

Tajah McQueen: Believing in the mission and the idea that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard and to be able to provide that space for others is really the fuel.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah. I love that. So you launched the fellowship program last fall. Did you get a lot of interest?

Lyndsey Gilpin: We had 80 applicants for a 12-week program.  Seven fellows. And they got paid $3,000 to come do 10 hours of work a week for 12 weeks. We would basically bring in other journalists to teach people how to report, edit, what the ethics of journalism are, how to take photos, how to do video. It was a different topic each week.

Tajah McQueen: It just really fell into place.

Leanna First-Arai: What are some of the challenges you’ve seen of training folks with other life experience, specifically in the skills of journalism?

Tajah McQueen: Um, we had a fellow who didn’t go to college and questioned whether or not she should be there because she felt like she did not have the finishing that she needed, or she thought that she needed. It’s heartbreaking to hear that from her because she’s such an intelligent person, and her project was incredible. But also to think about how many other folks are not telling their stories, how many other people are not, you know, getting information out because they have either been shunned because of the way that they speak, or because of their level of education or lack thereof, or just out of fear that that’s going to happen.


Tajah McQueen: That part was the most difficult, trying to, one, encourage her to continue, but also honoring that that’s a real problem.


Leanna First-Arai: Can you tell us about any of the stories that the fellowship participants produced? Is there maybe one that, that really sticks with you?

Tajah McQueen: Emily Hudson’s story about the flooding in Eastern Kentucky. There is a, a quote from a mom in that story, and she says that after she and her son went into the attic, sorry, it’s gonna … that her child prayed himself to sleep because he was so scared.

Leanna First-Arai: Uhh.

Tajah McQueen: They heard the water, they saw the water, and just to put yourself in that space – and like, I have a child – and to put yourself in that space and to be so young, dealing with something, like, so traumatic. And not knowing what’s next. Hearing that, I think it’s just so impactful, and I think that helps people to fully understand the gravity of these types of situations, the frequency of these types of situations, the urgency.

Leanna First-Arai: Yeah, goodness.

Lyndsey Gilpin: And, uh, just to add about Emily, she’s from Hazard. Um …

Leanna First-Arai: Right, so for listeners real quick, Hazard is one of the communities in Eastern Kentucky that was hit really hard by flooding last year.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Mm-hmm. She went through it. And the people she spoke to were her neighbors. Um, the representative of Kentucky that she was trying to track down lives just down her street and she couldn’t get ahold of him, you know, and so that’s a perfect example of hiring somebody who’s been through something, who knows exactly what’s going on, but might not have all the journalism cred in the world. That’s the strength of finding somebody like that to tell the story.


Leanna First-Arai: Thank you again. It’s super lovely to see y’all. Really appreciate you.

Lyndsey Gilpin: Thank you for having us.


Host: As we mentioned at the top of the episode, we’ve got to talk about a big development.

In May, before this season was released, we were surprised and saddened to learn that Southerly would be ending in its current form. “Saying goodbye, for now,” as Lyndsey wrote. So they’ll no longer be publishing articles or running their programs.

Immediately, people came out of the woodwork to voice their appreciation for Southerly’s impact, posting on Twitter about how big of a loss it was, how Southerly trained them to do journalism and allowed them to pursue it as a career.

Ultimately, in spite of Southerly’s impact and the critical role it’s grown to play in the southern news ecosystem over the last few years, Lyndsey told us it was not financially sustainable.

Doing community journalism is extremely time consuming. It’s about building trust and cultivating skillfulness. And to pay people well to do that requires constant fundraising. Basically, it’s full-time work.

At the moment, Lyndsey says she’ll be refocusing her energy – figuring out how the community-led environmental justice journalism Southerly built can continue in a more sustainable way.

Tajah, meanwhile, wants to help other groups create fellowships like the one she launched at Southerly. We’re hoping we’ll be hearing good news from both of them before too long.

In the meantime, we’ll spend the next three episodes with journalists doing their own inspirational work here in the South – storytellers helping to fill gaps in environmental news coverage, and carving out spaces for others to do so.


Host: On our next episode, we’ll introduce you to one of the young journalists whose career Southerly helped launch. And we’ll hear about a story that still sticks with her.

Cameron Oglesby: It confused the heck out of me, right? It was discouraging as heck, and so that was one of the reasons why I think I really leaned into journalism also is that educational tool, that gap filler, right?

Host: That’s next time on Broken Ground.


Host: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment, rooted in the South. Broken Ground is produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk, Pria Mahadevan, and me, Leanna First-Arai, with the invaluable assistance of Ko Bragg. Visit us at Broken Ground Podcast dot org to find some other great podcast related content.