How Robert Stern, AKA SternWriter, developed a network of open source, free-to-use, fun, engaging projects that lead to effective climate action
Founder, See Through News – Robert Stern
Robert founded See Through News in 2021 after more than three decades working in journalism, documentary filmmaking, broadcast consultancy, storytelling in various forms, textiles and cross-cultural communications.
Over his adult life, Robert’s ‘interest in the environment’ metastasised from individual eccentric hobby, to species-level existential crisis.
By 2021, having seen the Internet steadily erode his living as a filmmaker, as it had to other creative industry professionals from writers to musicians and artists, Robert decided he had enough money – or more accurately, decided to stop worrying about not having enough money.
As he sought a way of doing the most good, and engaging in the most effective climate activism, two experiences clarified his direction.
Writing experiments: early 2021
Towards the end of 2020, Robert embarked on a series of structured writing experiments, branded as SternWriter. He wrote a series of articles on what are contentious issues on social media, such as game shooting, the BBC and climate science, and circulated them among as many friends and strangers as he could persuade to try reading them.
Using neutrally-weighted feedback forms, Robert triangulated a sweet spot that combined:
- an entertaining & engaging tone (i.e. readers would be motivated to read & share the entire article)
- informative content (i.e. readers would learn something new and interesting)
- no clues about his personal views on the subject (i.e. social media algorithms wouldn’t be able to detect which ‘side’ the author was on, so would show it to people on both sides of the debate)
Robert thought he might be onto something, when one story on deer culling produced survey results that indicated:
- 100% of respondents said they either loved or liked the article and would share it with friends
- 50% of respondents said they didn’t know what SternWriter’s position deer culling was
- 25% said they thought they knew SternWriter’s position, and the author was pro
- 25% said they thought they knew SternWriter’s position, and the author was anti
Conventional activism: early 2021
After Robert spent ten days as a prospective Green Party candidate for the UK’s local elections, both candidate and Party concluded Robert was unsuited to work within a party political framework. Robert looked for alternative effective, efficient, predictable, rapid ways to measurably reduce carbon.
This brief experience as a Green candidate clarified the dilemma. If you stand in the street wearing a green rosette, the people who cross the road to talk to you are definitively the ones you don’t need to speak to, and those who cross the road to avoid talking to you are precisely the ones you do need to target.
If you don’t wear a green rosette, Robert realised, but appear fun, friendly and well-informed, you’re much more likely to reach the ‘unconverted’. So don’t wear a green rosette, honk a green klaxon, or brand anything you do as overtly ‘environmental’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’.
Robert also concluded that tone is critical. If you don’t place yourself face-to-face with strangers and shout them down, but instead stand shoulder-to-shoulder and discuss something in your shared field of vision, you stand a much better chance of being listened to.
Robert used these experiences to set up See Through News. Exploiting his storytelling experience and network of volunteer friends and contacts who had expertise in areas such as social media, AI, marketing and branding, Robert set up See Through News in March 2021.
See Through News, 2021-present
It took Robert months to find a brand name that:
- didn’t overtly advertise any ‘green’ agenda that might deter unwilling activists
- was available on all social media platforms, as well as as a domain name
He gave what became ‘See Through News’ the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active. As well as defining its pragmatic, measurable objective, these ten words exemplify STN’s subtle branding and storytelling methodology. By including 3 words – carbon, drawdown & inactive, that though in common use are unfamiliar in this context, the Goal is designed to elicit questions.
This is the Storyteller’s trick – to induce your audience to ask you the very thing you intend to tell them in the first place. By manipulating them into asking the question, you’ve achieved the first step on the path to action that advertisers abbreviate as ‘AIDA’ – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.
Robert’s experience covering environmental activist groups, seeing how the public and politicians react, or fail to, and storytelling instincts lead him to base STN on the principles of:
- radical transparency
- outcomes measured in carbon reduction
- ju-jitsuing the Internet’s ‘free’ infrastructure to reduce carbon, instead of increase it
- creating public-facing projects that were engaging/fun/entertaining on their own merits, before mentioning anything climate-related
- avoiding money wherever possible, and relying on the clarity of STN’s Goal, and originality of our methodology
After successfully testing the concept over 2 weeks at COP26 in Glasgow, STN rapidly developed
- more than a dozen diverse projects
- a rapidly-growing social media audience
- a wide network of skilled and committed volunteers
Whether buying and selling textiles around the world in his first job for a global trading company, producing and reporting for US network news bureaux in the Far East, or making documentaries for international broadcasters, Robert took every opportunity to convey the reality and urgency of our climate crisis to as broad an audience as possible, within the constraints of making a living.
In 1991, Robert abandoned a high-flying career as the youngest person promoted to 課長 (‘kachou’: section manager) in the 150-year history of what was then the world’s biggest company, Itochu Corp.. He moved to Tokyo, with the intention of leveraging his Japanese language skills and corporate experience into becoming an environmental consultant for major Japanese corporations.
After discovering he was around 20 years too early, Robert spent the 1990s working as a TV news producer/reporter covering the Far East for US networks: ABC News Tokyo, CNBC Asia in Hong Kong, NBC Asia Shanghai and CNN Beijing.
In 2000, Robert made his first documentary, The Mongolian Navy: all at sea, moved back to his native UK, and spent the next 20 years as an independent filmmaker, producing documentaries for international broadcasters and charities.
Examples of Robert’s work as a TV journalist and filmmaker can be seen on the Litmus Films YouTube channel, which has over 1 million views.
Other professional experiences include:
- articles published in The International Herald Tribune, The Times, The Guardian
- co-presenter (in Mandarin Chinese) of a game show series seen by more than 100 million Chinese
- live on-air reporter (in Japanese) for NHK
- broadcast and cross-cultural consultant to Formula One for their Shanghai and Suzuka Grands Prix
- consultant for TV Entertainment formats in China & Japan
- consultant for a team that won a nationally-televised China/UK competition for hi-tech start-ups
- winner of the Northern Character Film Festival Children’s Programme Prize for Arctic Outdoor Preschool
- mentor, trainer and writer of online training courses on journalistic ethics for BBC World
- crowdfunding pioneer (by 2014 he’d produced two of the UK’s top 5 crowdfunded documentaries)
Robert is recounting some of his experiences, in the service of measurable carbon reduction and fictionalised form, in the See Through News podcast series The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories.
- Robert’s strong personal interest in Parkinson’s disease is inherited from his father, neurologist Dr. Gerald Stern, who founded the Parkinson’s Disease Society in 1969, which went on to become Parkinson’s UK, one of Britain’s biggest medical charities. During lockdown, Robert wrote an interactive online play which had its world premiere, performed by members of a local Parkinson’s UK support group. It forms the basis of Series 4 of STN’s The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories podcast, The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate The King by someone you’ve all heard of.
- Having benefitted from speaking different languages in his personal life and professional career, Robert is a great advocate for language learning, and a great critic of the way many educational systems somehow contrive to suck all the fun out of what should be an instinctive, satisfying and pleasurable process. Robert is always happy to give school talks on how acquiring fluency in French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese, and dabbling in many other languages, has opened doors to him that would otherwise have been closed.
- Robert has represented the UK in ultimate frisbee, but now prefers the more cerebral, less physical demands of Double Disc Court, truly the Queen of Sports. He’s always up for a game of DDC, or failing that, table-tennis.
- Robert is usually accompanied by his canine colleague, Mr. Rolf. Neither of them minds being petted.