Spreading the message: Q&A with the Outdoor Writers Association of America
The Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) was founded in April 1927 by 19 newspaper journalists, with four founding principles:
- Acquaintanceship and communication between writers in the outdoor field, with exchange of ideas, experiences and information.
- Promotional and educational work to expand outdoor coverage in the nation’s media.
- Focusing public attention on the field of conservation.
- Craft improvement of its individual members.
Since then, the OWAA has grown to over 800 members and supporting groups with a mission to improve the professional skills of its members, to set the highest ethical and communications standards, to encourage public enjoyment and conservation of natural resources, and be mentors for the next generation of professional outdoor communicators.
Though the OWAA as a professional journalism guild does not advocate on issues outside of that space, many of its members are committed to conserving natural resources, and using film, radio, and the written word to communicate the threats facing our natural world and resources. We asked OWAA Executive Director Dr. Brandon Shuler to share more about this connection and their latest initiatives.
CCL: Why are many OWAA members active in conservation efforts?
Dr. Brandon Shuler: Many of our members and supporting groups engage in conservation. Our members recognize that the OWAA is the “Voice of the Outdoors.” They give voice to the wildlife and the wild spaces that cannot speak for themselves.
Our membership reflects every color of conservation and every stripe of cause. This holds true with our supporting groups with groups like the American Sportsfishing Association, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Ducks Unlimited working at the grassroots levels of conservation to the august halls of Congress on legislation and agency policy.
As a group of communicators that require robust wildlife populations, access to public lands, clean oceans and waterways, and healthy landscapes, conserving these things is an important cause—in most cases it’s our livelihoods. But, beyond that, the most important aspect that our members provide is lending “Voice to the Outdoors.”
What role do you see storytelling and writing play in conservation?
Storytelling, as Aristotle tells us in Poetics, is the visceral experience that makes things art and appeals to the human condition. Modern environmental literary stalwarts like Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Rick Bass, and Ursula Le Guin use their narrative fiction to highlight the importance of environmental threats in a less didactic manner than, say, their non-fiction does.
The idea of storytelling moves beyond the facts and figures of environmental threats by illustrating the woes in a way that is more personal and striking for the reader. The art of storytelling, too, can disarm one by connecting the reader with a certain character that may metanarrative-wise be more philosophically aligned with experiencing them. As the character witnesses something that the reader can relate to, the reader may learn that their experience has to do with a threat that they’d often be resistant to identify and engage with, but by identifying through the character feels liberated to now address.
In non-fiction, by highlighting narrative storytelling, what Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe termed New Journalism, again the personal connection is accentuated. The reader is asked to go on a journey rather than reading dry-boned facts and figures. This makes the science real, personal, immediate, and most important, engaging and visceral for the reader.
What initiatives are you working on right now?
We are currently curating and judging the Conservation Hawks $25,000 Outdoor Media Climate Challenge. The Outdoor Media Climate Challenge is designed to incentivize outdoor media members, including writers, videographers, bloggers, photographers, radio and TV personalities, etc. to produce and distribute strong, effective climate-focused media content. Contestants can submit as many published stories, articles, blog posts, videos, radio segments, television segments, photo essays, podcasts, etc. as they choose. There is no entrance fee. The judges will grade each entry on the quality of the writing/storytelling as well as how successful it was at educating and engaging Southeastern anglers and hunters on climate change.
How people can get involved with the OWAA?
The OWAA has a number of ways for folks to get involved. We have a robust social media presence, where lovers of the outdoors can follow our members’ communications and learn important news regarding things affecting the outdoors. People can find us on Facebook and Twitter.
We also have individual membership opportunities for a variety of outdoor lovers and communicators. We have individual membership levels for communicators of every stripe: full-fledged individual members that make their living from outdoors communication, associate membership levels for those that write for a hobby and occasionally get paid, and student memberships for our next generation of communicators.
One of our greatest benefits for our members, though, comes from our supporting groups’ sponsorships. Our communicators are always looking for stories, and where best to get them than from groups working in the outdoors. Supporting groups get access to our membership base and are allowed to either target one of our members with specific expertise or reach out to our entire membership base. How better can an organization reach dedicated communication specialists with a desire to talk about the outdoors?
The OWAA’s annual conference is also a great way for everyone interested in the outdoors to come together and learn about newsmaking issues from experts in the field and learn how to improve their communication crafts. This year’s conference is in Little Rock Arkansas. Carolyn Finney—author of Black Face, White Spaces (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014)— and will explore diversity in many iterations under the banner of “Conflict, Communication, Compromise, Cooperation.”
Finally, we are a small non-profit that depends upon donations, memberships, and our annual conference to speak for the outdoors and train the next generation of outdoor communicators. We welcome all donations, both large and small. Interested donors can contribute on our webpage at owaa.org.