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David Roberts

Author

Volts

July 23, 2021
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Ep 36: David Roberts - Author, Volts
00:00 / 01:04

Bret Kugelmass
We are here today with David Roberts, who is the Owner and Proprietor of Volts. Welcome to Energy Impact.

David Roberts
Hey, glad to be here.

Bret Kugelmass
Ya, I mean, listen, I've been following you for so many years. You've been this amazing voice in the energy space. I've learned so much from you, so it's a true honor to have you on the show today.

David Roberts
Thank you. It's been a long time.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Let's just start off with you. You know, where'd you grow up? What defined you early on?

David Roberts
Well, there's no coherent story, it's sad to say. I grew up in Tennessee, a creature of the South. I grew up, went to high school and college in Middle Tennessee, then fled out West and went to grad school in Montana. I got a philosophy Master's, and was working on my philosophy PhD in Canada, and then bailed out of that. I got a close up look at academia and fled in terror. Then moved to Seattle, and just more or less at random, got a job at a small environmental publication called Grist.

Bret Kugelmass
Grist, of course, the original.

David Roberts
Yes, it's still around, believe it or not. It's like going on 30 years or something crazy like that now. I was, I think, the fifth full-time employee there and I got a job as an editorial assistant, despite having no experience, no relevant experience of any kind.

Bret Kugelmass
Well, were you a good writer, at least?

David Roberts
I mean, I was. I had no particular proof other than academic papers about Aristotle and stuff, but I wrote a long overwrought cover letter that happened to find the right person. I got in there as an editorial assistant, worked there for 10 years, worked my way over, slowly, to writing full time.

Bret Kugelmass
And within the environmental topic itself, was is that topic that drew you to Grist? Or was it Grist that made you love that topic?

David Roberts
It was the desperate need for a job that didn't suck is what drew me to Grist. I was bouncing around in tech jobs in Seattle, more or less miserable at the time. I actually did not have a pre-existing commitment or sort of interest in environmentalism. I mean, I think I was the sort of standard liberal, so I would have said all the right things, but I didn't have a particular interest in it. That's been, for good or bad, for my career, I think I sort of approached all of this from the outside, kind of. It was at Grist that I sort of gravitated towards climate change at first and then clean energy through that.

Bret Kugelmass
What was the first year that climate change became very relevant to you? Because it feels like there are different periods that it comes into the zeitgeist?

David Roberts
Well, I was very much in it during the 2006, 2007 "An Inconvenient Truth," remember, "Inconvenient Truth" came out and then there was a huge green hype cycle back then. Climate change was on everyone's thing, it was on the cover of all the magazines and etc. I was very much involved in that. That was the first time I sort of got swept on it, but where I really cut my teeth on what I do now is around 2008, 2009 when the Waxman-Markey bill was before Congress. That's when I really got into politics, the politics of climate and the details of policy and really dug into that policy. Through that experience, learned a lot of difficult lessons and had all my starry-eyed idealism crushed.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, but let's get into that for a second. What was the first thing that you realized things are not the way that I think they work from an outside and it's like, once you really get into the meat of things?

David Roberts
Right, well, I guess the way I would summarize it is I really dove into the substance of the policy of Waxman-Markey and the details around cap and trade and allowances and auctions versus giving away. All that stuff, I got really deep into it. And what I noticed is, over the course of the media cycle of that bill, the conservatives had this sort of caricatured, ridiculous image of it, that had nothing to do with the reality. And then sort of the far left hated it, and they had their own caricature of it. The sort of center didn't bother with the details. I sort of went- I guess, I naively thought early on, at some point, we're going to get past all the nonsense and the actual substance of the policy is going to matter. Like we're gonna start discussing what's actually in the bill and what it will do. But it came and went, and at no point did the actual substance of the policy come into the public discussion. I mean, that was one lesson is like it can be all smoke and mirrors all the way through and the smoke and mirrors matter in some sense more than the details of the policy.

Bret Kugelmass
Has that informed your general political strategy for you? Have you reflected on that and thought- you know, I always like to think, okay, like the Sanders approach versus the Obama approach. The Obama approach, like carve things up into all these like neat little things and satisfy everyone and do the most intricate mural of policy to ever exist, versus Sanders is like, No, here's one color, this is it.

David Roberts
I guess I would say more that I learned to separate policy from politics, especially in our modern kind of post-truth - however you want to describe the silly media environment we're in - is just they bear almost no resemblance anymore. And what democrats naively - especially back then, especially Obama, bless his heart - tried to do was sell the policy, but that was terrible. I mean, it was called cap and trade, you can't sell that. So my idea is just do your policy over here, try to get it right and do your politics over here and try to get it right. Don't think that the two are yoked in any particular way, they're not. You've got to do the one and do the other.

Bret Kugelmass
Yep. Okay, so that was your first kind of cutting the teeth in terms of policy and politics. What was the next big milestone in your career that informed, that kind of led to how you think about things?

David Roberts
Well, I guess after Waxman-Markey, it was a long, dark policy-free period, just of Obama messing around the edges with EPA. I got really into the EPA regs and all that stuff, too. But I guess the next big thing that shocked me was in 2015, Vox came along and hired me away from grist.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me about that. Vox was new at the time?

David Roberts
Newish, I think it was like two years, I think it was in its second year. Yeah, it was pretty new and fresh, but it had already established somewhat of a reputation. And I loved it, policy, explanatory journalism, whatever you want to call it. That was my bag. That's what I always gravitated towards, so I think they recognized that. It was a good fit, but I slipstreamed into Vox right as the Democratic primary of 2016 was getting underway and then just- that was madness. And it was non-stop madness, from that point through today, really. I mean, it has not- there's been no sane, there's been no return to normal politics since then. And then it was right from there, just the bitterness of the 2016 primary, the silliness of it, and then Trump coming out of it. Then of course, it was just like being out on the beaches of Normandy under heavy fire. There's no thinking ahead or contemplating policy. It's just reacting to horrible things raining down on your head, one after another. And that, I think like many, many people the last five or six years, has really disillusioned me about a lot of a lot of things. I guess I've come to see any progress at all as precious, and I'm much, much less picky about the details. Just the fact anything good ever happens now seems like a miracle to me.

Bret Kugelmass
And is a lot of this reflection in hindsight or over that- you use the expression post-truth, which, I feel like, yes, I've heard that expression more and more now. And I'm wondering if, when people realize that we're in a new framework of information, did you realize slowly? Was there-

David Roberts
There was always an obsession for me early on. I lived through and watched this sort of rise of Fox News and all that stuff.

Bret Kugelmass
You saw it even then, okay.

David Roberts
Yeah, I mean, I was - I don't want to toot my own horn, whatever - but I was beating the drum about this from very, very early on, because during Obama's administration, the right wing media sphere sort of detached completely from reality, and just sort of drifted off and was just saying crazier and crazier and crazier things. And I guess, I was sort of one of the guys saying, This seems worrisome, because at some point, these folks are going to take power and this isn't just going to be a silly sideshow, which is kind of how people saw it back then. I don't think people took it seriously. They were just like, Oh, they're off saying their crazy things again. Oh, like Jade Helm, you know, Obama is about to launch a secret military operation, and come steal your suburbs, or whatever. Just all the nonsense. It always was treated as kind of a sideshow, no one took it seriously. And I was over there waving my hands with my hair on fire saying, This is crazy, we cannot operate as a country if 40% of the country has detached and is now living in a bubble of pure fantasy. But even I, at my most cynical in those Obama years, could never have anticipated just how crazy it would get when they took power. And all of that's worse than it's ever been. It's just been getting worse and worse and worse. And I'm no closer to knowing what to do about it than ever than before. But I also have come to view sort of truth and reason not as kind of baselines, but as precious, very, very fragile, very temporary, often, achievements. Do you know what I mean? And sort of lunacy is the baseline. It's all cynicism. I'm sorry, that's all.

Bret Kugelmass
It's okay, I want to hear how this affected your writing decisions, though, what topics you chose to focus on. If you kind of thought strategically about, Will people- how will people- can I connect to people who have differing opinions from me? Is that a lost cause? Is there any way like, did you ever think, How do I suck them in? How do I give them a headline that gets them reading and I then I throw some good information at them?

David Roberts
Yeah, I mean, early on in the 2000s - and even somewhat in the 2010s, but especially in the 2000s - the entire climate world was obsessed with how do you persuade climate deniers? I cannot tell you the hundreds and hundreds of person-hours devoted to that subject by writers, by journalists, by academics, by politicians, just endless. And just like, Oh, we need to rearrange the information in this way and make it easier this way and frame it as national security, no frame it is this and that. Just endless studies of framing and endless studies of what messages reach college students and just all this stuff. And, to a first approximation, as far as I can tell, all of that energy was wasted and made no difference at all and never made a dent at all and was absolutely-

Bret Kugelmass
Quick question. Sorry to cut you off. But do you see the same thing happening in vaccines? Yes or no? Hot question.

David Roberts
I think vaccines are getting through, because there's a reality that's more immediate, right? There's a cause and effect that's more immediate. It's not like climate where you have these like 20, 40, 50-year cycles where you- where in a sense, it's all about trust. Climate is all about who you trust. Vaccines and the virus, at least you can see somewhat. You can, you don't have to take people's word. So in the late 2000s, I basically said, I don't know how to persuade deniers, nor do I care, nor do I want to get into any more comment thread wars that go on for days and are useless. I just view myself - I mean, this is not like a prescription I think everybody should follow - but for myself, I just said I'm going to start talking to people who get it and care and view my role as educating them on the details, basically. You call it preaching to the choir. I think preaching to the choir, honestly, is underrated. The choir is enthusiastic, and I think pointed in basically the right direction, but they need help with the details, what policies matter, what policies work, what is the state of technology. There's a ton of educating the choir that is necessary. And it's been more and more and more over the years. That's what I'm doing with Volts now - very, very specifically - is writing to the people who are in the game, who care, who understand the climate problem, and are looking to sort of orient themselves and figure out how to make a difference and helping them. I'm leaving the deniers, whatever all that stuff is, to someone with a lot more patience than I.

Bret Kugelmass
It's almost like, kind of like authoring a book. It's just, nobody buys a book for something they don't already want to learn more about and then it's about getting more detail to them, right?

David Roberts
Yes. And that's been incredibly gratifying for me and I constantly get feedback like, it's been incredibly helpful to figure out what discount rates are, what's the state of geothermal technology, all this kind of stuff. People want to know that stuff and they care. Writing to people who care and want to know is so much more gratifying than trying to trick someone who's hostile to your entire worldview into reading a few more paragraphs.

Bret Kugelmass
No, I love the explanatory journalism stuff. I mean, your writings, Umar's writings and then YouTube videos. There are some really good like YouTube channels now that just go super- have you ever watched Kurzgesagt, do you know what that is? Kurzgesagt. I'm pronouncing it right. It's like cartoons, like super bright color cartoons, but they go so deep on some of these topics.

David Roberts
This is what Vox, I think, this is the credit I give Ezra Klein for perceiving, before a lot of other people, which is that we're not in an age of scarcity anymore. I mean, so many media journalism habits were shaped by scarcity, scarcity of information, and scarcity of channels to get it to people. And now we have the opposite problem. It's abundance. There's more information than people can process. There's more things to read than anyone can possibly read. And people are looking for orientation. What is the deal with this? What's the background? What's the root of this so that I can understand all these new facts that come along? You're absolutely right. I mean, if you talked to editors in New York Times 10 years ago, they're like, You got to be short, you got to be short, you got to be quick, you're writing to a broad audience. And Ezra perceived that there are enough people out there who want the real story, who want the deep story, to sustain an organization and it's certainly- I wouldn't have a career unless there were people, a lot of people like that.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me about your time at Vox. Which topics got the most attention? Were there any that stood out that are like the iconic piece now for the sector?

David Roberts
There are, I would say there are two families of pieces that were almost guaranteed to get a big response. One is my sort of bi-annual "we're still doomed, climate is still super bad, it's still really bad and worse than you think." Just like, in case you've wondered over the last two years whether things have gotten better, no they haven't. Things are still super bad and moving the wrong direction, just to sort of check in with the doom. Yes, we're still doomed. Those always get a big response. And the other one is new technology. People love clean technology. People love clean technology stories, particularly not just about the technology itself, but it's an area where things are happening. Good things are happening, progress is happening. There are positive stories coming out. And people are just excited to hear that, Oh, there's hope here. Things are- there are solutions. People love optimistic stories about clean tech solutions and so do I. Those are always big, like my piece on the distribution grid, the weight of sort of updating the distribution grid. People loved that. People loved that story on geothermal technology. People love any story about how cheap solar panels are getting is guaranteed to take off. People love that story, as do I. It's sort of, in a sense, the doomiest of the doom stories, and the most positive of the tech stories are the two that are guaranteed a big audience.

Bret Kugelmass
Wow. And then did you do mostly writing? Or were you ever involved in any of the like the videos or anything like that?

David Roberts
No, Vox had teams and teams and teams of extremely smart people doing all those things. All I ever did with the videos is, they would be like, Come on a Zoom call and say things.

Bret Kugelmass
Right, you'd be the subject matter expert.

David Roberts
Yeah, on a few of them. Not a ton of them. But yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
The podcast, too. I religiously listened - for a while - to the Vox podcasts, every shape and size of them, and I'd hear you get on there as the subject matter expert for this or that occasionally.

David Roberts
Yes, yes, I was the climate guy. But even Vox, I mean, it's great. I love Vox, I loved Vox the whole time I was there. I still love them, but even that was a broader audience. Even that, there was some- because when people encounter a Vox article, it's mostly a headline drifting by on social media that they click on. They don't necessarily know me, they don't necessarily know what climate change is. I can't use any technology, any sort of terminology without explaining it. It's still a broad audience that I'm going for, which is has its merits and I reached big audiences with a few pieces. And that was thrilling. But even that, I was, I always was sort of thinking, I just want to write to the people who already get this, so we can get a little deeper, so I don't have to preface everything with, Climate change is real, and it's getting bad, and we need to do something about it. Just like all this sort of throat clearing, after a while, I was like, I want to get past that.

Bret Kugelmass
Let me actually push on that for a little bit. Because actually, that was something that I've never agreed with. When I saw journalists who I agreed with everything else they said, I never agreed with how they started off their sentences. I remember even listening to Ezra being interviewed at some point about climate change, and the first words out of his mouth were, Climate change is real. And I'm like, when you start like that, it makes me think that something's wrong. You don’t need to tell me that.

David Roberts
No one starts off stories about income inequality by saying poverty is real, there are actually poor people in the world.

Bret Kugelmass
I might start to doubt it.

David Roberts
Exactly like, why do you feel the need to convince me of that? Should I go re-check something? No, I agree completely. And that's the precise- I mean, I think there's a bunch of bad habits in the way we talk about climate and always have been for a bunch of reasons. But that's another thing I wanted to do going off on my own is just abandon all those kind of tropes. I don't need to tell my audience at Volts that climate change is real. We're all sort of, we get it, we get it.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. Yeah, tell me about that transition. Tell me about how you decided to go off on your own and what that was. Walk me through the mental processes also.

David Roberts
Sure. Well, I mean, first, I had to be convinced that it was possible. I mean, that was the main thing. In a sense, what I'm doing now is, if you know me and my habits, and my personality, and my writing, is what I was meant to do in this world, which is be on my own, with no bosses, and no employees and no colleagues, and no meetings, and no consultations. Just me doing my own thing. That was always my temperament. That's always been my habit. That's always been the way I am. I just didn't think it would be possible. When the Substack thing came along, I had to be convinced that I could make a living doing it. I talked to a bunch of people who had started newsletters on their own and it just turns out that you don't need a huge number of people to be paid subscribers to make a living at it. I had to be convinced it was possible, but once I was convinced as possible, I was like, Hell yes. That's exactly what I want to do. I still get editing. I still have an editor, but I'm basically on my own now, doing things at my own pace, doing the things I want to do the way I want to do them. I don't have any deadlines. And I'm not representing anyone, which is a relief for me, because especially early on at Vox, Vox carries a lot of implications and sort of has a big reputation. And I was Dr. Vox, which was a dumb decision to become that on Twitter. I looked to all the world like I was representing Vox and so that constrained somewhat what I was willing to say, because I don't want to for them to be on the hook for the ridiculous things I say on Twitter. So I'm just so glad to be just representing myself, just doing my own thing. It was what I was meant to do.

Bret Kugelmass
That's awesome. Can you give me a couple examples maybe of like the self-censorship that might have occurred that-

David Roberts
Well, just, you know, I like to curse a lot.

Bret Kugelmass
Anything that was like a topic that you're like, you know what, this is like, I don't want to piss anyone off by-

David Roberts
Well, also, with the mainstream media - which I guess Vox qualifies as - there's still this lingering kind of pretense that professional journalists are unbiased, right? They're not on one side or the other. They're sort of objective. They're not supposed to, for instance, explicitly support a politician or oppose a politician. You're just supposed to- you can have opinions about policies, but you're not supposed to be partisan. And it's just like, who's fooling who at this point. Sometimes if I just like, if like, Joe Manchin tweets something dumb, and I want to say, That's dumb and you're an asshole. I would not have done that, right, or sometimes I would have done that and then been scolded by my superiors at Vox, because they're like, We don't want to - reasonably - we don't want to be out defending, calling Joe Manchin an asshole, that's just gonna be a distraction for us. It's just gonna waste our time. So it's not- in no way was it censorship on Vox's part, it's just more like, I feel this lingering sense of sort of like guilt and anxiety that what I say is reflecting on other people, and now it reflects on no one but me represents no one but me. And so I can say absolutely, whatever I want. Because the beauty of the Substack model, the beauty of the newsletter model, is that the only people I have to please are the people who are paying me to subscribe to my newsletter. And the only danger is that they unsubscribe and everything else I don't care about,

Bret Kugelmass
I want to ask about that a little bit now that you have this direct relationship with your like so much more direct relationship to audience? Are you learning new things about how to interact with them? Like, is it possible that maybe like, like, like you, as you see yourself, call people on asshole, but you actually after having that direct relationship, realize maybe they don't like that? I'm not saying I am from New York. I like when people say maybe you realize most of your audience didn't like that. And you're like, actually, I'll change who I am. Because I want to have this relationship with them. I respect them. Like they respect me. And it doesn't have to be the asshole comment. But have you noticed anything like that?

David Roberts
No, no, I'm just not. That's, that's not my. That's not what you do. And it's my nature to do what I do. And, and, and all I wanted, my only goal was, I want to make as much money as I made at Vox, I just want to make a living and beyond that everything's gravy. So I'm not. This is another thing like when you're writing a newsletter clicks don't count like mass appeal. Doesn't matter. clicks don't matter, your advertising base.

Bret Kugelmass
Better model. Yeah.

David Roberts
You really only need a small core of followers, and everything beyond that is gravy. And I've already hit that mark, so it's all gravy for me now.

Bret Kugelmass
Can I ask about the economics of Substack a little bit? Don't reveal anything that's personal, unless you want to, but how was it when you like sought advice from other people who are doing it? What did they tell you is that cutoff point in terms of like, this is the minimum amount of subscribers you need and how did that work?

David Roberts
Right? Well, I think to get to roughly my Vox salary, it was - I mean, I don't know the exact number, I'm sort of making this up - but it's right around 1,000 paid subscribers. And there are lots more that are unpaid. It's always a much larger number that are the free subscribers, but it's about 1,000. And I hit that pretty early on, I'm up to like, I think like 2,600, 2,700, something like that, which is, which is not a huge number, but it's more than enough to fund, it's more than enough to keep me alive. That's the thing is like, this is what the Substack founders sort of recognized is, no matter how tight of a niche you're writing for, there are 2,500 people in the world who care about it, right? You can support almost any niche, which you can't do at a mainstream publication, but you can do if you have a direct relationship.

Bret Kugelmass
And how come you can't- like, how come nobody's figured out a way to almost aggregate that? Why wouldn't there be a new media company that says, You college graduate, I just want you to be super niche about this one topic, like genetic engineering in mice or whatever it is. Talk to everyone about genetic engineering in mice, write a newsletter. Now you, you talk about genetic engineering and in whatever, hawks or something. Has anyone tried to make a media company that way?

David Roberts
Well, they're now- I mean, I think a lot of media companies are moving that way now, are sort of starting to recognize, Oh, specialist voices can support, you know, can be financially supportive. But it's like, you need- anytime you're advertising-based, even though editors and owners of advertising-based publications will tell you otherwise, as long as your primary source of income is advertising, you never can put traffic aside. The traffic is always ultimately the arbiter of how much money you're making. And if you're a publicly owned company with a board and stuff like that, your job, your obligation, your legal obligation is to be increasing your earnings constantly, so traffic is always there. But you see publications now starting newsletters. I mean, everybody's- they're all getting into newsletters now. And they're all getting into sort of niche- this is like the blog. It's like the whole blog thing all over again, it's the whole blog revolution all over again. I already lived through all this once, except now it's like you can have a blog and make a living at it, which was the missing piece of the original blog, the original blog thing. A lot of people are sort of returning, like Matt Iglesias, my colleague at Vox, is now back doing what he was always best at and was always meant to do, which is just blogging. He's just blogging now. And people are paying him to do it.

Bret Kugelmass
Funny, I've got to read him. I loved listening to his pod. I just love his attitude. He's also got the snarky, I love the snarky attitude.

David Roberts
It's an acquired taste. But again, there are more than enough people who like it to- I mean, he's got, I don't know, five, six times, my subscribers I'm sure. I don't know, I don't have any secret info there, but I think he's way ahead of me. I'm a relatively small fish in that pond. Andrew Sullivan, or whoever, he probably has tens of thousands of paid subscribers. God knows how much money he's making, but you don't have to be huge to live, which is the beauty of it. And that's why I think kind of big media outlets are a little bit of a panic about it, because you eliminate the middle people, and it's just you and readers. They're like, Well, what if everybody does that? What is our purpose as middle people? So they're looking around, I think, to try to capture some of the appeal of those niche publications.

Bret Kugelmass
How do you grow your audience? Is it people find free content first, or they just know you through other channels like Twitter? How do you get more paid subscribers?

David Roberts
Well, that varies, obviously, from newsletter to newsletter. I mean, I know there are people with newsletters who are out there, absolutely hustling and going out and selling and constantly doing promotions and all sorts of clever ideas for boosting their subscriber numbers and more power to them. That's great. I'm not a hustler by nature. I've done almost nothing to advertise my newsletter, other than talk about it on Twitter. I mean, literally, I've never- that is literally the only kind of marketing of it I've ever done is put links to my articles on Twitter. And this just like- I think, but I was in a unique position. I have been doing for this for 15 years, so I have an audience who knows me, and enough of an audience was there waiting for me to sort of get a head start and not have to sort of start from zero. But I've done- I probably should do more, I probably should do something to sell it, to try to get more subscribers, but it's been all organic, so far. Just very, very slow and steady.

Bret Kugelmass
Is there anything that you're missing from the larger organization that you still wish you had, like support staff or research or whatever?

David Roberts
I hesitate to say no, because it sounds kind of churlish, and I don't mean it that way, but no. I mean, there are a lot of writers, a lot of journalists I think who flourish in that context of having teammates and colleagues and layers of editors and illustrators and just Vox was always a very collaborative team kind of atmosphere and some people absolutely flourish in that environment and need it and want it. But I have always just been me and my office doing my thing, so I never really took advantage of those resources, so I don't miss them. And also, Substack is really helpful. They paid for editing, they paid for some editing, they paid for some stuff, so I'm not without support entirely. And now I have this, I'm part of this deal with Canary Media and they're helping me out with podcast production and stuff like that, so I'm getting editing still. But otherwise, no, I was always a loner, I'm still a loner, and being alone is fine is fine by me. It's definitely like, if you're not like that, though, it's probably not the life for you. You know what I mean? Like a newsletter is not the life for you unless you're very content with sort of doing it all yourself - thinking of it, writing it, deciding how often to write, deciding what to write, deciding what goes out free and what goes only to paid subscribers. All these things are just entirely on your shoulders.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, that's my next set of questions, but I wanted to ask about primary sources. When you write about a topic, how do you source information? Is it mostly people? Is it other written material? Where are you getting the information from?

David Roberts
I'm not a people chatter, a phone caller by nature, either, so it took me a long time to get over that. I mean, for a long time, it was almost exclusively writing. I just read a lot. I mean, there's a lot of- this is, it always kind of baffles me. I'll get these PR emails that are like, so and so expert in our organization wrote this 30-page PDF about subject S. Would you like to call that person and talk through it with him? And I'm like, Well, no, they wrote 30 pages about it. They researched, they organized their thoughts, and they put it the best way they know how, so in what way am I going to get more out of them in a 10-minute conversation than I could just by reading what they wrote? For me, it's almost, it's mostly been written. I talk with people more now, just to sort of like, when I'm forming- it's less about the particular facts and more like I'm trying to draw a bunch of facts together into a narrative. And I just want to make sure I'm not crazy, so I call experts in the field, I bounce them a narrative off like, Does that sound right to you? And what other details can you add? But the vast, vast majority for me is writing, is PDFs. PDFs are my life.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, it's so interesting. I guess I'm a different type of learner. I've done all of my research into a space just through talking. I read too, but-

David Roberts
I think that's more normal, more normal for- very few people are as averse to phone calls as I am.

Bret Kugelmass
Well thank you for taking the time today, then. But it's just so funny, because I did these hundreds and hundreds of interviews in the nuclear sector to try to figure out what's going on there. Then I came across this one guy, Andrew Daniels, who did the exact opposite. He was more like you. He only read stuff, he never spoke to like a person in his life. And we came to nearly the exact same conclusions about almost everything.

David Roberts
Yes, yes. I think a lot of- one of the things I found about mainstream journalism is there's a little bit of a fetishization of sources and calling sources and having a Rolodex of sources and calling just calling people, as though that's somehow empirically superior to getting the same information through reading. The fact is, I'm not covering really usually breaking news. I'm not gonna have inside sources in Congress who are leaking details to me. I mean, most of what I'm covering is public information and the service I provide is not uncovering the information, it's assimilating the information and making it comprehensible to people who don't have time to read 40 PDFs about it. I mean, that's kind of the service I provide. There's nothing particularly privileged about talking to people there versus reading it. I mean, there are a lot of different ways to do that.

Bret Kugelmass
Process, talk me through, how do you decide what to write about? And then also, what's your writing style? Early in the morning, late at night, how do you do it?

David Roberts
Another great thing about being on my own is I can finally just live my life the way I'm supposed to live it and I don't have to pretend otherwise. I work at night. I have always worked at night. My writing hours- I mean, I would say 99% of my writing in the last 15 years has been done between the hours of 8 pm and 2 am basically. That's my writing hours. And when you're working for a publication where everyone else is working and writing during the day, you sort of have to be online to show you're around, to show you're working, so I was just working two shifts for a long time. Finally, I was just like, I'm just gonna abandon pretending I'm doing anything during the day other than like catching up on emails or calling people or tweeting, whatever, but the thinking and writing is all at night.

Bret Kugelmass
But you've got to paint the picture for me. Okay, do you have like a chair that you love? Do you have a glass of wine, a beer, like what do you do to get yourself in the zone?

David Roberts
Yeah, it's me and my and my glass of fizzy juice water and the computer the same-

Bret Kugelmass
Wait, which fizzy juice water, like Izzy? Or which one's your favorite?

David Roberts
No, this is a SodaStream with just a little, like a few ounces, of fruit juice in it. I carbonated-

Bret Kugelmass
What is this, a custom cocktail you're making here?

David Roberts
I drink so much of it. If I had to buy it in bottles or cans, I would break the bank, so I fizz my own water and, and put fruit juice in it. Yeah, it's just me, quietly alone in my office at night when at night, the Twitter stream dies down a little bit, the incoming email dials down a little bit, and finally, you can have some quiet, some time to think and concentrate. And I need- one of the things that amazed me about Vox writers - I mean, I was amazed by a lot of things they did - but just the ability to sort of dip in and out of calling and then you're writing a little bit, and then you're calling a little bit, and then you're meeting a little bit, and then you're writing a little bit, and I'm just like, it's like a bee or like a butterfly. And I'm just like, I'm like a flywheel. It takes me a long time to spin up, but once I'm spun up, I can go for a long time at that pace. But I can't get spun up if I'm jumping from thing to thing, so I need time to be quiet and concentrate, so I need that nighttime sort of quiet. That's crucial.

Bret Kugelmass
Is that for both writing and researching, or is that just writing?

David Roberts
I can read during the day and I can definitely talk and interview people during the day. I can do a lot of sort of prep work at night, but the really intense reading also is mostly done at night. I mean, these days, I've organized my whole sort of life schedule around it, so it's like, we eat dinner, kids go to bed, wife goes to bed, and I go to work. That's just like-

Bret Kugelmass
You're like Batman.

David Roberts
It's standard now. Yes, yes, I'm very nocturnal. The only problem is my schedule drifting further and further out of sync with the rest of the world's. Sometimes sources for my stories often will wake up and find five questions in their inbox from me that came at 1am or whatever.

Bret Kugelmass
You just have to move to Hawaii or something, right? Or Sri Lanka.

David Roberts
Yeah, exactly, across the world, so I can sync back up. Sometimes when I have sources in the UK, they'll be like, do you want to, if you like if you can get up at 6:30am? I'm like, No, no, no, I'll call you at midnight. I'll call you at my 1 am, your early morning, and then we'll have a much better time.

Bret Kugelmass
I know. Yeah, I do calls with like Singapore, Indonesia sometimes, too. It's like the same thing, I'm not getting up early. Come on, I'll stay up late.

David Roberts
Mornings are anathema to me. My brain does not work until about 1 pm at the very, very earliest, and I just don't try to pretend otherwise anymore.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me about topics, how you're choosing topics these days, and actually also compare and contrast to previous points in your career, ow you chose topics. Does it change?

David Roberts
Well, the one tension - and this was at Grist and at Vox - if you're the writer on staff who covers the subject matter X and there's a breaking news development about X, they want you to write it up quickly. This was the thing that most Vox writers could do with one hand tied behind their back. Breaking news development, let me just bang, bang, bang five paragraphs about it and get it out. That, to me, is like a puzzle box. That, to me, is like inscrutable. I just can't do that, so this was always a little bit of a tension. Now I don't even pretend to sort of try to cover really super breaking or super current news. What I look for are themes, ongoing themes in the area, like storage. I covered storage fairly well a couple of months ago. People don't want to know specifically like, what's the latest company? Or what's the latest deal in the sector or whatever. They want to know, what's the deal with storage? How big of a role is it going to play in a clean energy economy? And what are the basic technologies that are out there competing to do that? It's sort of like, that's something that people see a bunch of stories here and there about and they just want to know, what's the thread? What's the narrative that's holding all these together? I just look for those threads. And there are a lot of them, because things are moving really quickly in this sector, as you're aware. There's no shortage of those stories to tell.

Bret Kugelmass
Tell me about some of those topics right now that are in your particular focus of attention now, but are also that you kind of see - even if you're not writing about them - that you see more broadly as taking shape in the energy and climate space.

David Roberts
Well, the big one, for me, the one I come back to again, and again, is electrification, as you know, clean electrification. This is something I think I was on early, maybe earlier than some other journalists, maybe not than experts in the field, but I think I was one of the first to sort of pull that thread out. But that's come more and more clearly into focus over the last few years. A bunch of threads fall out of that, like there's the renewables can get us to - depending on who you believe - 70, 80, 90%. What's that last 10%? That's a thread. What's the fill-in-the-gaps technologies, outside of renewables and batteries? And then there's sort of what can't electrification do, like hydrogen. I've really got to get to hydrogen. If there's one-

Bret Kugelmass
I was gonna ask-

David Roberts
-thread I have not yet really, that's getting more and more and more prominent and important and coming more and more into sort of popular view that I have not yet tried to wrap my head around, it's hydrogen. It's constantly lingering over my head?

Bret Kugelmass
Is there a reason you haven't written about it yet? Because it has become super popular.

David Roberts
Yeah. I'll tell you why. It's just because now I've sort of, by reputation and by habit, when I tackle something, I tackle it comprehensively. I try to give the big picture view in as accurate a way as possible. Hydrogen is just sprawling. It's so many-

Bret Kugelmass
More than storage? It's more strong than storage?

David Roberts
I think so. Yes, I think so. Yes. I mean, storage, at least is sort of like, conceptually, pretty simple. You need electricity to be movable in time and there are a lot of details, but conceptually, that's a bounded area. Hydrogen, there's where you get it, how you process it, what are the implications of getting it in the end, and what can you do with it. You can burn it for heat, you can make electricity with it, you can combine it to make other fuels. Who has it, who's ahead on it, what are the real- even figuring out, Is it the next big thing, or is it all hype? Even that very basic question is still kind of, is still kind of up in the air. There's just, when I think about it, it feels so enormous to me that it daunts me and I wander off and do something easier, but sooner or later.

Bret Kugelmass
It seems like right now, you were able to rattle off what I thought was a very good framework of questions to- do you think that there are more questions that you're not sure about yet? Are you ready? Are you ready? It sounds to me like you're ready.

David Roberts
I mean, I probably am ready. But this is- I mean, if there's one thing I've discovered that's an absolute truism about every single subject matter I have covered ever in my history is that once you crack the lid and start looking, it is more complicated than you think it is. Always.

Bret Kugelmass
Listen, I know. I spent the last three years looking at nothing but nuclear and yet I'm still peeling back onions.

David Roberts
Yes, it's never ending for any niche you look at, no matter what it is. I never have found yet the simple, the really simple story. But geothermal, for instance, is like sprawling, I wrote two or four 5,000 word pieces about it. I wrote a lot about and there are a lot of pieces, but at least it's like, somewhat bounded, like manageable, but hydrogen just seems even bigger than that to me. I really got to get around to that. I really got to get around eventually to cyber terrorism and the sort of security of the software, the running the grid. That's a thing that I have been dodging.

Bret Kugelmass
Because that ties back into the grid.

David Roberts
Yeah. It goes back to the grid. There are other things like that that I really have just- and materials and disposal of battery technology specifically, but clean technology more generally. I've just been, I've just been dodging that for years and I really got to get around to it.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, you've got to dive into that. That's awesome. One thing I like, constantly- I tried to do my own research on that at one point and where I got stuck on that one was the upstream waste disposal. A factor - so not after the end of life of any given device or whatever, but like when it's being produced initially - what are the waste streams that come out of that factory? But then going back one more layer, and this is where I got stuck. The input materials, when you go to their factories, what are the upstream- because you can keep going back.

David Roberts
And then the mining. You start with the mining and extraction and every stage of it after that there are important things to be to be written about. Yeah, I've got to figure out a way into that that's not- I mean, for me, the mental challenge is, what's a way into it that's not so sprawling, that it's just gonna daunt me into silence before I ever get around to it. I need- what always happens is I start with kind of a narrow focus, because if I saw the whole thing at once, I would never start, but I start with a narrow focus, and then I'm like, Oh, look, there's more, there's more, there's more, and I end up writing 5,000, 10,000 words, but if I had the whole 10,000 word beast in front of me at the beginning, I would freak myself out. So in some sense, I have to trick myself into starting these things and then I start pulling the thread, and then I can't stop.

Bret Kugelmass
Who else do you look to for inspiration or for topics? Do you have any go to, other either journalists or researchers that you just consistently find yourself going back to?

David Roberts
Just all the ones you'd expect. I mean, I mostly go to primary sources these days, like NREL, the people doing the research, the people in the field doing the stuff more than other writers. Although, other writers are super helpful. I mean, even like at Canary, some of the guys Jeff St. John at Canary is great, and Julian Spector. Those guys are super good at providing broad overviews of things that allow me a shortcut into getting a basic orientation. I read a lot of that stuff, but most of what I read is, at this point, is sort of like the nerdy reports from the academics and wonks. I mean, I even try sometimes not to read other journalistic distillations of it, because I want to come to my own honestly- you know what I mean - without being sort of influenced, so it's a balance.

Bret Kugelmass
For sure, I see this as a huge problem. Every now and then I'll read an article - but not just an article, like many articles about a topic, let's say it's rockets or something - and they're talking about vertical landing, or whatever it is that becomes super fashionable at some point or another. I'm like, something about this doesn't seem right to me, and they'll go back all the way to the original source. I'm like, Wait, that doesn't say what that says. And then it's like, Well, how did- did just one person write about it and then everyone else just read their 500 words, and just wrote a similar 500 words?

David Roberts
There's a lot of that. There's a lot of just sort of rewriting the thing that got rewritten all the time. And a lot of that is because most journalists at most publications are just under incredible time pressure. They have to write tight pieces, and they have to write a bunch of them really quickly. And if you have to do that, you just can't spend a week reading PDFs, right? You've got to just read the summary and call the one guy to get the quote and bang it out and move on. That's just the nature of that job, so this is why I like what I'm doing. It's because I just won't write something up until I feel like I have my head around it. I'm not gonna just do a hand wavy summary, you know what I mean? Like, I want to really get it.

Bret Kugelmass
Listen, we appreciate it. I can't tell you just how much I value that type of dedication to learning and to synthesis, as you called it. This is how we're going to figure stuff out.

David Roberts
It's funny to me that I did that in school, I did that in college, and then I did it in grad school. The reason I clung to grad school for so long is like, this is the only thing I know how to do and now I'm going to get cast out into the world. And one thing led to another and here I am basically doing what I did in college, which is cramming a bunch, cramming and then writing a paper on it, and cramming and writing a paper. That's gonna be my whole life, apparently.

Bret Kugelmass
As we wrap up here, any notes or teasers you want to leave our audience with?

David Roberts
Well, everyone should subscribe to Volts. Yeah, I'm trying to get in the mode-

Bret Kugelmass
And what is it? Volts dot WTF, is that it?

David Roberts
Yes. Volts dot WTF (volts.wtf) and it will be relatively infrequent, but my hope is that, when it does show up in your inbox, it will be worth reading. That's the promise. Not a lot. But high quality.

Bret Kugelmass
David Roberts, everybody.

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