Copies of National Parks Magazine

Parks and Reputation

May 15, 2014 | by Lara Zielin

This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

Plastic was strewn across California's Point Reyes National Seashore. Birds were pecking at it. Fish were swallowing it. And in 2012, National Parks Magazine, the quarterly publication of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), featured it. On the cover.

If that sounds like a new approach to highlighting some of the issues facing national parks, it is. While writing letters or contacting elected officials might be the tried-and-true means of drawing attention to the parks’ reduced funding, pollution, and development threats (to name a few of the parks’ challenges), Scott Kirkwood (’90), editor-in-chief of National Parks Magazine, is trying to raise awareness through quality design and engaging storytelling.

“I think that people assume that the national parks publications are only going to show landscapes and animals, but we’re also trying to convey complex issues,” Kirkwood says. “The goal is to make it more likely that people will get hooked into a story, and care about what we’re presenting to them.”

That means covering not just the sights to see and the trails to hike, but nuanced topics such as the changes in ecology since reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone, or the intersection of road construction and animal deaths in the parks. “I’m always drawn to stories where there’s some kind of conflict, and some kind of layer to it, versus just ‘here’s this horrible thing and the NPCA is fighting it.’”

The new approach has involved a visual and editorial overhaul of the magazine more than once, and on a shoestring to boot. The small staff of three produces much of its own content, with Kirkwood himself acting as a writer, editor, and self-taught photographer. They’ve also expanded to digital storytelling through short videos and infographics featured prominently on social media.

The efforts have won Kirkwood and his team a slew of awards from FOLIO Magazine, a vanguard publication in the industry, and Kirkwood has been invited to speak about his insights at the “How” design conference, among others. What’s more, overall subscription rates have increased by more than 30,000 and letters to the editor are on the uptick too, many of them largely positive about the new approach. “We’re a nonprofit, so the goal is to get more members and support,” Kirkwood says.

A psychology major and Michigan Daily writer, Kirkwood’s first job after graduation was editing coupon books. A move to the Washington, D.C., area in 1994 landed him employment with the Humane Society of the United States and then the Child Welfare League of America. He joined the NPCA staff in 2004. “I always wanted to do something that would make the world a better place,” he says.

Recently, an NPCA funding report, which reflected the same editorial and design care as National Parks Magazine, “ended up on Capitol Hill and the White House, and the White House had a really good response to it. Apparently, our government affairs office got calls from about a dozen congressional offices saying they wanted to learn more about funding challenges facing the parks.” It’s welcome news for Kirkwood, since the parks’ budgets have been reduced by around 15 percent in the past 10 years.

“I think it’s so worthwhile to spend a little more time and a little more effort producing [these materials],” he says. “White space and beautiful type and stunning photographs almost force people to read a few lines, and then the words take over. Even if it can’t be measured with a ruler, I think you can measure it by people’s actions.”

 

To read more stories from LSA Magazine, click here.

 

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