Inside Story: Small-Market Reporter Gives Readers Reason To Care
Kyle Bagenstose, now a Northeast investigative reporter on Gannett’s national team, has won a small-market reporting award from the Society of Environmental Journalists three times in the last four years by drawing attention to a range of environmental concerns in rural communities in Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley. In 2017, Bagenstose, who previously worked as an editor at Patch.com, won a second-place award for outstanding in-depth reporting, covering water pollution near a Pennsylvania military base. Judges said the series “shows what’s possible when a small, local paper pursues a story and doesn’t let go.” Then, in 2019, Bagenstose collaborated with Thomas Friestad and Kelly Kultys for environmental coverage in the Bucks County Courier Times, Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer that won the team second-place honors for outstanding beat reporting. And again in 2020, Bagenstose took home an SEJ award, this time a first-place award for small-market investigative reporting, after he and co-worker Jenny Wagner produced a series about groundwater contamination in rural Pennsylvania. Judges that year described the series as extensively documented and well-sourced, and added that it “shines important light on a dysfunctional regulatory process.” SEJournal Online recently caught up with Bagenstose, who lives near Philadelphia, to talk about his 2019 beat coverage award and the 2020 investigative award. Here is the conversation, edited for clarity.
|Bagenstose, hiking in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. Click to enlarge.|
SEJournal: How do you get your winning story ideas?
Kyle Bagenstose: I cover the Delaware Valley near Philadelphia. Some of the earliest suburbs in America were made right here and we have a mix of leftover issues: taxed and polluted ecosystems, old toxic landfills, shuttered industry turning to waste, failing infrastructure, etc. I think our paper's "winning idea" was devoting lots of resources to cover these issues as a full environmental beat, in an area that otherwise doesn't feel too "outdoorsy."
SEJournal: And how about the idea for the groundwater contamination story?
Bagenstose: We had been covering PFAS water contamination issues around U.S. military bases for several years. We were in the right place to notice a lot of important details: that there was a pattern of the Department of Defense suing states who tried to force bases to clean up, that there were ongoing environmental and economic impacts, and basically the military was doing everything it could to avoid liability and minimize costs. Our series just put the pieces together.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting environment beat stories and how did you solve that challenge?
Bagenstose: Getting people to care. They don't know what they can't see: water and air pollution. As always, human angles help, but our heavy use of data to demonstrate impacts and see which stories interest readers is also key. [For the PFAS stories], the Department of Defense is a tough nut to crack. Our FOIAs from years ago are still unfulfilled. A big get for us was an attorney who trusted us enough to share documents he obtained through discovery. The rest was just the rewards of dedicating a lot of time to this issue over the years, accumulating sources and knowledge that allowed us to understand the big picture.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting on the beat?
Bagenstose: A lot of people do care. When we do a story about the health of a creek, tons of people read, even if they may never do anything more than look at it as they're driving by. They want to know what's going on in the natural world around them.
SEJournal: And what about the PFAS investigation?
Bagenstose: Two things. Macro: How little power the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has to control cleanups at DOD sites, even under pro-environment administrations. Via both statute and politics. Micro: That the DOD was able to dictate the early risk assessment of a contractor and remove an exposure pathway. I've wondered about how much influence a client has over a contracted engineer, but it was jaw-dropping to see an identified chemical exposure pathway in a draft simply vanish in the final product, and no one would have known if we didn't find it.
SEJournal: How do you decide to tell the stories on your beat and why?
‘It turns out there is no end to
the stories you can find in any
market once you start looking.’
— Kyle Bagenstose
Bagenstose: Our mid-sized, and shrinking, paper made a decision to dedicate a reporter to cover the environment full-time. There was a hunch it would be a success, and it turns out there is no end to the stories you can find in any market once you start looking.
SEJournal: And the groundwater investigation?
Bagenstose: This was a big story for us in southeast Pennsylvania, since we had some 70,000 residents exposed to unsafe levels of PFAS from area military bases. But we're just one of dozens of communities across the country struggling with this issue, and fortunately, our editors supported us in telling the story about what was going on across the country and digging deep about why the military wasn't cleaning up.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the investigative series and why?
Bagenstose: We would have loved to collaborate more with other reporters and papers across the country. We made one attempt but could have done more. Telling the stories of several communities would have highlighted the human impact of the DOD's systematic refusal to aggressively clean up PFAS chemicals.
SEJournal: And what lessons have you learned from the project?
Bagenstose: It's really nice to have supportive editors. And trust your instincts.
Kyle Bagenstose is an environmental and investigative journalist with the USA Today Network. He reported those beats for the Bucks County Courier Times in southeastern Pennsylvania for five years, before moving onto USA Today's national team in November 2019. He's currently mostly on hiatus from the environment as he covers the struggles of the U.S. meatpacking industry under COVID-19. But he tells SEJournal that he'll be back soon. And that while he's happy to win this award, he remains in awe of, and humbled by, the incredible work SEJ members put out every single day.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.