CEO of Madison-based media company on nukes, climate change and his Hemingway ‘side gig’

The new CEO of the Outrider Foundation, author and journalist Robert Elder, has ambitious goals for the nuclear risk- and climate-focused nonprofit.
Outrider Bomb Blast Screen On Madison
Courtesy of Outrider Foundation.
Outrider's "bomb blast map" allows users to plug in a zip code and find out the projected blast radius, destructive power and casualties from a nuclear bomb hitting that point.

Robert Elder is a journalist, author, digital strategist and — since May — president and CEO of the Outrider Foundation, a nonprofit media group with offices on East Washington Avenue that was launched in 1999 by Frank Burgess, who 25 years earlier founded Madison Investment Advisors.

Outrider focuses on multimedia projects largely in the areas of nuclear risk and climate change. “We envision,” its website notes, “a world where people live without fear of nuclear annihilation or climate-induced catastrophe.” Elder was recruited for the position from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he was chief digital officer.

Smiling headshot of Robert Elder CEO of Outrider Foundation

Photo of Robert Elder by Greg Rothstein.

Elder is excited about Outrider’s future — more on that momentarily — but last month he made worldwide headlines by breaking a story in The New York Times about Ernest Hemingway and what Elder called “the most significant cache of Hemingway materials uncovered in 60 years.”

Elder has written books about Hemingway and refers to his interest in the author as “an interesting side gig.”

In September 2017, Elder wrote a New York Times article about a previously unknown short story — written by a 10-year-old Hemingway — that was part of a collection of materials the author offloaded at his favorite bar in Key West in 1939. The collection eventually ended up with a colorful Key West character named Benjamin “Dink” Bruce, son of close Hemingway friends Toby and Betty Bruce.

This past July, Elder spent a day at the 2022 International Hemingway Conference in Sheridan, Wyoming. His piece about the unknown short story came up. “Someone pulled me aside,” Elder says, “and said, ‘Hey, we know you wrote about this. The whole collection now has a home. And it has way more stuff in it than we thought.’”

Elder went to work — his editors at the Times expressed interest — and learned that the Bruce collection had been purchased by Penn State University, where Hemingway authority Sandra Spanier has been editing the immense, multi-volume Hemingway Letters Project.

Elder’s story last month on the new archive — now open to scholars and the public — revealed that what Hemingway left behind at Sloppy Joe’s bar included letters, photos, fiction — including a boxing story spoofing F. Scott Fitzgerald — and more.

“As I was writing the piece,” Elder says, “they were discovering new stuff. People will be going through that collection for a long time.”

Elder, who is originally from Montana, attended the University of Oregon (where he annotated the letters of author Ken Kesey), and landed in Chicago, where he worked for the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times before joining the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

In that role Elder researched and coauthored the recent book, “The Doomsday Clock at 75” — “enlightening and frighteningly entertaining,” wrote Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune — about the metaphorical clock established by scientists in 1947 to chart how close the world is to a nuclear midnight. It was seven minutes in 1947. The current estimate: 100 seconds.

One of the most intriguing features on the Outrider Foundation website is an interactive feature, “What Happens in a Bomb Blast?” It’s based on a map created by nuclear weapon historian Alex Wellerstein.

“You can plug in your zip code,” Elder says, “and it will show you in animation the blast nucleus of the bomb, the destructive power and the casualties.”

He calls it Outrider’s “most effective educational — and frankly terrifying — tool.”

Elder still lives in the Chicago area but spends two days a week in Madison. He has ambitious goals for Outrider, which last week announced the launch of a fellowship program. Its first fellow is Eugene Reznick, a features photo editor at Bloomberg Green (Bloomberg’s climate news division), who will produce a series of multimedia climate change features starting next month.

Elder sees storytelling as central to increasing Outrider’s impact, and the visual storytelling Reznick is sure to deliver can make a complex issue like climate change almost instantly more comprehensible. Anyone who viewed Madison photographer Michael Kienitz’s devastating images of disappearing Icelandic glaciers at a Chazen exhibit in 2018 will never forget it.

“If you can engage the public,” Elder says, “with stories they see directly impacts or intersects their life, then you can make a difference.”

Outrider’s stories can be accessed on their website and through a weekly newsletter. Elder notes that an Outrider video series titled “Stop Investing in Destruction” reached 1.4 million people and included a video on how nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s created a legacy of destruction still reverberating today.

The stories are out there. Read, seen, or heard — they resonate.

“My whole reason for being here,” Elder says, “is to amplify that and increase our impact exponentially.”

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