The New York Times: How Audubon Society’s Chief Took Wing From Journalism

Published by The New York Times June 29, 2013.

By David Yarnold

I WAS born in California, but I moved every year that I was in grammar school. My father was a sales manager for Paper Mate, and it moved him around. I lived in several states, and the experience shaped me: change became normal and inevitable. I decided that I could roll with it or be crushed by it, and I learned to roll with it.

While studying mass communications at what was then San Jose State College, I wrote a story about a man who trained seals and whales at Marine World Africa USA, in Redwood Shores, Calif. The park’s vice president for marketing liked the article and offered me a job that turned into educating schoolchildren and others about the park, animals and nature.

A young staff member and I brought a llama, a falcon and an 80-pound lion cub to a mall one day, and she accidentally let the lion loose. He ran into the mall; I ran after him and found him nose to nose with a toddler in a stroller. I dove for the cub, grabbed him to my chest, and rolled away from the stroller. Luckily, that was the end of it.

I graduated with a degree in photojournalism in 1976. Afterward, I worked as chief photographer for The Longview Daily News in Washington State, then briefly in public relations and for The Associated Press. In 1978, I joined The San Jose Mercury News as its first picture editor and was promoted to managing editor 16 years later. In 1995, Knight Ridder, the paper’s parent company, appointed me as the first vice president for content of its online division, Knight Ridder Digital.

The group was like any Silicon Valley start-up at the time. We had terrific ideas but no business model. We tried publishing an early online magazine, but it was shuttered after 18 months. (The group eventually switched to providing online services through Real Cities, an online information network.) I returned to my job as managing editor at The Mercury News, a post that had been left open, and rose to executive editor in 1999.

A few years later, I started thinking about an encore career. In 2005, I joined theEnvironmental Defense Fund as executive director and had the chance to work in China and on corporate partnerships with companies including Wal-Mart. I was promoted to president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund in 2003. It was a great learning ground for someone new to nonprofits and environmentalism.

A recruiter contacted me in 2010 about the top position at the National Audubon Society, and I joined that August. My first challenge was to find a unifying message for the society. After a month in which I listened to staff members, chapter leaders and our international partners, a story emerged. Birds’ migratory routes are like four superhighways in the sky, and below them are their rest stops and homes. When you connect all these flyways and habitats, there’s a web of biodiversity, and it’s our job to protect that. I’m not a bird expert, but I’m skilled in figuring out a story. That vision became the basis of our new strategic plan.

We’ve improved our corporate functions, from I.T. to finance, and have engaged more fully with our 470 chapters. They’re our strength. We’re also experimenting with new ways to reach young people, as with apps and games. Two weeks after I started, I joined some chapter members on a birding trip down the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. I had new binoculars and was desperately looking for the birds I was hearing all around me. I saw four people farther down the boat holding their iPhones to the sky. All four were using apps of loud and melodious bird calls to try to attract birds.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.