A New Model for Environmental Discourse

How an online environmental journal is removing traditional barriers between academia and the local community in rural Maine

By Elyse DeFranco

Ecology and Environmental Sciences Department
University of Maine


In an era filled with challenges for effective environmental communication and outreach, Spire: The Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability, offers an opportunity for solutions. An environmental journal that seeks to cross disciplinary boundaries and bridge the gap between academic researchers and the public community, it has successfully fostered a new type of platform for environmental discourse in the state of Maine. Since its founding in 2017, Spire has published a wide variety of works from researchers, writers, and artists on the themes of conservation and sustainability. With four issues published and a community of contributors, advisory board members, editors, and reviewers, Spire offers insight into what makes this model both successful and particularly well suited to this moment in time.

As an open-access online journal, it has enabled local, relevant research from universities across the state to be shared with the community, increasing the accessibility of environmental research, catalyzing community engagement with the flagship university, and developing social capital by fostering trust in academic and scientific institutions. With an inclusive approach that seeks to include work from all relevant disciplines, as well as art and environmental writing, Spire advances efforts toward interdisciplinary integration, and fosters productive environmental discourse. It helps fill a void in scientifically-literate media, and provides an outlet for science communication by researchers who desire local community impact from their work. Lastly, Spire has created a community for students to thoughtfully engage in, and reflect on, the scientific peer review process, as well as community outreach. The following is a brief introduction of the benefits of such a model, as well as an outline for replication at other universities and research institutions.

The Model

Spire is a student-run journal that is formally integrated with the University of Maine’s Office of Sustainability. In this way, it is an official part of the university, and is hosted on the university’s web platform. The editorial team consists largely of graduate students from a range of relevant disciplines, but also includes advanced undergraduates. Continuity and stability are provided by a dedicated faculty director, who leads the Office of Sustainability, while a team of additional faculty from the fields of Communication, English, Psychology, and Anthropology, along with representatives from the university marketing team, serve as an Advisory Board. As the journal is entirely volunteer-based, funding is minimal and comes from a Graduate Student Government annual club grant. The founding of the journal was a cooperative effort among academic departments, the Office of Sustainability, and institutional support from the Provost and the team in Marketing and Communications.

Democratizing science

This model has the potential to provide a more democratic approach to the scientific endeavor. Scientists are increasingly coming to terms with the realization that communication does not only occur in one direction, and the idea that information is disseminated in a unidirectional flow from communicator to receiver has largely been replaced by theories that emphasize the complex nature of communication as a phenomenon. Despite this, the nature of scientific publications has remained fairly static, depending on journals run by for-profit companies that contain significant pay walls and remain out of reach for the vast majority of the public. Beyond these issues, the unidirectional model creates disciplinary silos, and relies on specialized science journalists to translate the research to the public via other media platforms.

In “Engaging the Scientific Community with the Public- Communication as a Dialogue, Not a Lecture,” Borchelt and Hudson (2008) criticize what they refer to as the “deficit models” that the scientific community relies on. These are based on the assumption that progression from public education to understanding and support is a linear phenomenon, and that it results in public enthusiasm for the research. They are quick to point out that this model for engagement is not working, with more than 40% of surveyed Americans stating that they did not trust scientists “to put society’s interest above their personal goals” in a 2004 study.

Unfortunately, the assumption that ignorance is at the root of the conflict between the scientific community and the public is countered by decades of research, which points to a more complex picture. In “The Future of Public Engagement,” Nisbet and Scheufele (2007) note that people tend to rely on their social values to locate information sources which only confirm their pre-existing beliefs, frequently coming to a conclusion about a topic without seeking out much information about it. Actively seeking out science coverage is consistent with a specific set of values, and is left to a small portion of the public; this makes the framing of research particularly important. For this reason, scientists should find ways to make research “relevant and meaningful to different publics” and that through this type of framing, researchers can help communities to “make connections between their everyday lives, their specific values, and the world of science.”

As Spire is a new type of platform, one that emphasizes inclusivity of disciplines and media forms across the spectrum, as well as perspectives from both the academic and public community, the framing of research presented in this way is novel. Research is focused on the Maine environment, ensuring its relevance to Maine readers, and is presented directly by the scientists, bypassing the traditional model entirely. Academics who choose to publish their research in Spire over a disciplinary journal (one that is only accessible to other researchers, and likely only read by other scientists working in the same discipline) have demonstrated a commitment to public discourse and investing in their local community. This level of transparency leads to increased public trust and engagement in the research, perhaps even providing a forum for Maine researchers to recruit citizen scientists in their data collection efforts, or to gather input from affected communities.

From another perspective, the Journal has taken shape by way of the contributors and their interpretation of what it means to be focused on conservation and sustainability. This has led to a natural evolution, and each issue contains works that are original in their approach to the theme. Research contributions have included full manuscripts on heat pump efficiency, blueberry crop responses to climate change, and the potential for kelp aquaculture to increase resiliency in lobster-dependent communities. The form of this research ranges from faculty or graduate student led, to course-based undergraduate research projects. The range of research teams demonstrates the utility of a journal that doesn’t adhere to a structured format and welcomes less traditional contributions. This holistic process means that rather than being a product of a specific system or discipline, it is the product of the minds of the current contributors, filtered and enhanced by the editorial board and reviewers.

Filling a void in scientifically literate media

The current unidirectional model of science communication relies on science journalists to interpret and frame research results through news outlets. This model has been declining in recent years, as social media platforms replace traditional media outlets, and drastic cuts in advertising revenue force the closing of local newspapers across the country. Facing declining revenues, newspapers have been forced to reduce staffing levels, leading to an emphasis on generalist positions that lack the skills of the specialized science journalist (Brumfiel, 2009). Most newspapers have reduced or cut their science departments entirely. Independent science coverage, once considered the mark of a serious newspaper, has been cut from major news outlets such as the Boston Globe and CNN. A review of Maine’s major newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, shows that neither one has a dedicated science section. Smaller newspapers such as The Times Record in Brunswick, The Kennebunk Journal, and The Lewiston Sun Journal, all lack departments for science news. The Maine Policy Review is another local media source, but it focuses primarily on policy-related research and commentary.

This decline in public access to scientific research is particularly concerning in an era when scientific topics are so often at the center of public divides. The year 2020 has seen every human society, from small Maine towns to the international community, experience an overhaul of life with the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly before the pandemic was announced, Maine held a referendum vote on vaccine requirements, the result of years of national debate about vaccine safety and the corresponding rise in cases of once-eradicated infectious diseases such as measles. On top of this, the northeast region is already experiencing the impacts of a warming climate, with increasingly mild winters and a dramatic increase in average temperatures in the Gulf of Maine. These effects have led to widespread concerns about the spread and emergence of tick-borne diseases, as well as the economic impacts of an (economically-critical) shifting lobster population. All of these enormous challenges present the public with a strong need for accessible information on the most current and reliable research.

In order to address some of these pressing problems, Maine is currently in the process of developing a Climate Action Plan, which will inevitably involve policy recommendations aimed at increasing the state’s resilience and reducing resource use. Yet policy makers will continue to run into challenges implementing new policies that are based on complex scientific models and concepts. Without regular and reliable coverage of scientific findings occurring across the state, the voting public is largely left in the dark, leaving them to rely on value judgments when evaluating new policies.

As this decline in journalistic science coverage has occurred, science blogging has grown in popularity, with websites like Massive Science relying on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to produce brief summaries on their research. This cannot replace the role of journalism in the sense that it is not independent coverage, but it does help to partially fill the gap in scientific coverage in the media. Although sites like Massive Science and New Scientist have a larger audience than Spire, they also attract a specific demographic of people who actively seek out scientific coverage, and their generalist nature can feel overwhelming to members of the public. Spire provides a new type of platform, one that is both place-based and focused on a specific area of research: environmental science and sustainability. These aspects of the journal increase its relevance to readers, focusing on issues that relate to Maine and the local community. An inclusive model that shares research alongside writing, poetry, and art, means that the audience is exposed to discourse from across the spectrum of ways of approaching environmental issues. In an increasingly fragmented media world, this is an important approach; scientific research should not be available only to scientists.

Changing the cultural narrative on environmental discourse

Researchers have examined the role that the media plays in shaping readers’ perceptions about the environment, and there is a general consensus that the ways in which the media shapes and represents the debate on environmental issues has long term cultural impacts. Mainstream media tends to focus on stories of dramatic decline and degradation, which are rampant in today’s world, and shy away from stories focused on restoration and solutions-oriented practices. And yet, as Alexander Wilson states in The Culture of Nature, “the culture of nature- the ways that we think, teach, talk about, and construct the natural world- is as important a terrain for struggle as the land itself” (Wilson, 1991). Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ethnobotanist and author, describes teaching ecology courses to college students in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. The students are eager to share their knowledge about the numerous harmful impacts that humans have on the landscape, but when she asks for positive interactions, they are at a loss. She writes, “How can we work toward a better world if we can’t even envision it?” Similarly, Raymond Williams said “We need different ideas because we need different relationships.”

Sociologists have long referred to the concept of the “social construction of nature” which refers to the process by which human communication constructs ideas and meanings of the natural world. As many people experience what we can broadly refer to as nature more through the media than through their own experience, these constructions define our understanding of the world around us, particularly outside of our direct environment. One example of this can be seen in a study included in Spire’s 2020 issue, “Youth Perceptions of Climate Change and Climate Action in Waterville, Maine” (Ferragamo et al., 2020). The authors note that the Maine high school students surveyed had a more positive impression of the state of Maine’s environment than they did of the global environment, which can be interpreted as a commentary on their understanding of the environment strictly through media representations. These students are capable of firsthand experience of their surroundings in Maine, but are only able to access and assess other natural environments through the news, documentaries, and other forms of media. The dominant narrative in these places is one of environmental destruction, as we are witnessing a moment in time when these stories and concerns are ubiquitous and pressing. However, focusing on the overarching problems of resource exploitation, habitat loss, and pollution are overwhelming to the average person, and inevitably leads to feelings of hopelessness; a 2019 Reuters Institute study found that 41% of Americans admit to actively avoiding the news for this reason (Reuters Institute, 2019). Reframing the discussion on ways that we can, and are, addressing these issues through either political means or individual direct action is one way to choose the path of progress over despair.

Spire’s focus on conservation and sustainability has produced a remarkable array of work that is solutions-oriented, creating a place for readers to engage with new and productive ideas about changing our relationship with the world around us. The 2020 issue includes pieces from two climate action groups created by small communities on the Maine coast, detailing their efforts at fostering resilience through initiatives such as renewable energy production, education reform, and supporting local agriculture. A research project by Colby College undergraduate students examines the potential for kelp aquaculture to offer supplemental or replacement income in fishing-dependent communities; another examines the ability of interdisciplinary teams to better tackle the complexity of “wicked problems.” A writer explores how her newborn son changes the way that she thinks about the effort to bring back the American chestnut tree from extinction, as her son’s growth parallels that of the trees. Past issues are filled with similarly varied and relevant work that approaches the theme of environmental sustainability holistically.


Spire provides a model for improved public discourse at a time when it is desperately needed. A focus on fostering an inclusive approach helps to build a sense of community amongst the many environmental researchers, writers, artists, and other interested people across the state and beyond. This model removes barriers to scientific institutions, and can be replicated at other universities and colleges, particularly at other land-grant universities where the mission is inherently about using research to enhance efforts at supporting the local community. It supports efforts to integrate disciplines across the spectrum, and provides an outlet for science coverage that is rapidly disappearing from other media sources. Although the Journal is young and still evolving, with many initiatives for future directions, the published issues thus far have provided an idea of the potential for this democratic model to reform environmental communication on a local level, and in a way that increases the resilience of our communities.


Borchelt, R. and K. Hudson. 2008. Engaging the scientific community with the public. Science Progress (Spring/Summer): 78–81.

Brumfiel, J. 2009. Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? Nature 458: 274–277.

Ferragamo, M., M. Larson, P. Brown and L. McClenachan. 2020. “Youth Perceptions of Climate Change and Climate Action in Waterville, Maine.” Spire: The Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability. Issue 4.

Nisbet, M. C. and D. A. Scheufele. 2007. The future of public engagement. Scientist 21: 38–44.

Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 2019.

Wilson, A. (1991). The culture of nature: North American landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Toronto: Between The Lines.

About the Author

Elyse DeFranco was a member of the Spire editorial board between 2018-2020, serving as Chief Editor for the fourth issue. She is an ecologist and writer now based in northern California.