An interview with Environment Reporter Madeleine Cuff
Madeleine Cuff (Magazine Journalism, 2012) was interested in the environment from a young age but studied first English and then Journalism at university. Now, she’s a celebrated Environment Reporter for The i Paper and covering COP26 in Glasgow.
“I remember always reading stuff about the environment and climate change and thinking every time; why isn’t everybody panicking about this?”
Madeleine Cuff didn’t grow out of her childhood interest in the environment, but it wasn’t immediately reflected in her university courses.
“I did English as a degree because I really liked reading, but then, since I was a teenager, I always knew I wanted to be a journalist.”
It was studying Magazine Journalism at City that Madeleine doubled down on her desire to work with the environment.
“I did an environment specialism with Bibi van der Zee who is a writer for the Guardian, and she schooled us in what it’s like to be an environment journalist, and that was kind of amazing. Really, really inspiring.”
The path to becoming an environment journalist wasn’t completely straight, however. Her first job after City was as Assistant Editor for Consumer Lifestyle at Stylus.com, focusing on spotting trends in technologies and changes in people’s lifestyles. It initially didn’t include reporting on the environment, but as the young company was still finding its shape Madeleine was able to slowly shift her focus.
“I was working with another colleague on quite a few sustainability projects; what people’s attitudes to sustainability were, what businesses should think about making sustainable products, how they can reshape their business strategy to respond to consumer worry about the section,” Madeleine explains.
“So, I started off having nothing to do with the environment or sustainability, and by the end of my time there, I’d kind of weaseled my way into a little niche for myself.”
Although Stylus.com turned out to be a good starting point, Madeleine wanted to do more and moved to BusinessGreen, a website for sustainability professionals. Her work as Deputy Editor got recognised and she was included in the GreenBiz.com 2019 30 under 30 list.
“It was definitely a nice kind of recognition to have. I think any journalist will tell you that. Awards and notifications are really important ways of getting your name out there and amplifying the work that you do.”
With five years of experience at BusinessGreen, Madeleine finally became Environment Reporter at The i Paper in February 2020.
“What I really like about my role at the moment is that it is kind of daily news, but as a specialist reporter you’re also called upon to do analysis and opinion and write features. So, there are lots of different outlets for different styles of writing, which I don’t think you would necessarily expect from a national paper. But as a specialist reporter, you get to lead your beat on the topic.”
What does Madeleine consider the pros and cons of being an environment reporter?
“I do think it is a harder beat than most to report on because it is a subject that is always important, but it very rarely has a massive shock factor or feels like a very urgent thing to report on that day,” she says. “It’s a kind of very big, slow-moving beast that is hard to inject with some urgency. I definitely don’t think that’s a con, but a challenge because as with any news organisation, you’re fighting to make sure that your story is an important one.”
And the pros?
“The pro side of it is that you can basically write about anything you like because everything has a climate angle to it and I think that’s really interesting. Like one day, I could be writing about electric cars and the next, I’m writing about sustainable fashion, or sea ice, and cutting-edge scientific studies. So, there’s like a huge amount of variety. And generally, most people you speak to, just want to do some good and make the world a better place.”
Having done research and reported on the ongoing climate crisis for several years now, Madeleine has more insight than many of us.
“I think there are some really valid reasons to be quite hopeful. I’ve been reporting on this for at least six or seven years now and this is definitely the most momentum and interest and concern at all levels that I’ve ever seen,” she says. “But I think you’d have to have been living under a rock to realise that change is not coming fast enough, and I’m not really sure what extra levers can be pulled to accelerate that any further. So, my fear is not that we won’t ever reach net zero and stop the advance of climate change, but that it will be too late, and we will have locked in the irreversible tipping points, which mean that the world will be irreversibly changed.”
It seems like a heavy subject matter to be dealing with on a daily basis.
“Because I spend my days talking to people who are all mostly trying to make a difference, I speak to scientists who care about the issue, to campaigners and activists, and politicians who are interested in trying to make the world a better place, I don’t tend in day-to-day life to feel that downhearted. I think it’s also quite easy as a journalist to intellectualise what you’re writing about, and so rather than kind of emotionally engaging with the subject matter, you’re thinking, Okay, have I got the right quote to sell this story? Do I need to do any extra research?”
Sometimes it’s still necessary to take a break.
“Every now and then I do find myself speaking to somebody in an interview and they’ll say something that is a real punch to the gut, and you think; “Oh, my God, things get really bad”, but in general, I try and manage that when I’m not on duty. I do try to ring-fence some of my personal time so that I have a day where I’m not going to think about climate change, and I won’t read anything about it.”
For anyone who would like to support the environment in their own profession, Madeleine has the following advice:
“The great thing about the environment is that it applies to every part of life, so it doesn’t really matter what you do for a living or where you live, or how much money you have, there are always some improvements that you can bring to bear. If you work for an employer and they maybe don’t have climate targets in place, or maybe they aren’t doing as much as you would like, there are things that you can do to ask for that to change. You can write to your elected representatives. The most effective thing that people can do is to push politicians to say that this is something we really care about, and something that we want action on. And there are lots of different professions where you can become an environment specialist in that profession, like if you’re a lawyer, you can become an environment lawyer, if you’re a PR, you can become a PR that works with green companies to amplify their message. If you are a dog walker, you can be an eco-friendly dog walker and use eco-friendly toys and biodegradable bags. There’s always a way in which you can make what you do day-to-day, the best, most climate-friendly version of it.”
Madeleine Cuff is reporting from Glasgow during COP26. A big thank you to Madeleine for taking time out of her busy schedule to share her journey!