New Online Efforts Expand Environment Coverage

October 15, 2009



Journalism's future — certainly its future hope — is online. We've been told that for years now. Over and over.

In 2005, for instance, Northwestern University's Rich Gordon, writing for OJR: The Online Journalism Review, had an upbeat piece headlined "Online opportunities make journalism's future bright, despite gloomy feelings."

In 2009, there's plenty of argument about the degree of brightness, so far, of that foretold future, but few would dispute the future's increasingly — though still, of course, far from entirely — online character.

Gordon suggested four years ago that the first years of the 21st century would be regarded, in hindsight, as "a period of exploding opportunity for journalists and the start of an exciting new era for journalism."

I'll leave it to others to debate whether the new era is yet living up to the "exploding" and "exciting" parts of that forecast. But there is certainly growing evidence that journalists are seizing online opportunities, often using non-profit business models, to report on environment issues along with other subjects.

Consider the Pocantico Declaration, issued in July following a meeting of 27 just-starting and wellestablished news organizations at the Rockefeller Foundation's Pocantico Conference Center in New York, many of which publish wholly or largely online. The manifesto expressed the signers' intention to create a non-profit investigative news network in this dramatic preamble:

"Resolved, that we, representatives of nonprofit news organizations, gather at a time when investigative reporting, so crucial to a functioning democracy, is under threat. There is an urgent need to nourish and sustain the emerging investigative journalism ecosystem to better serve the public."

Environmental reporting is a regular feature of a number of the organizations whose representatives signed the declaration, such as the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), founded in 1989 and therefore an early forerunner of the non-profit reporting trend of recent years. (Disclosure: I worked for the Center from 2001-03.)

CPI started off publishing its investigative reporting in print form, but now focuses on online presentations of its findings. Two of its reports were named the first- and second-place winners in the online category of SEJ's 8th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.

The first-place winner was a package of stories entitled "The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal." Sharing the award were Kristen Lombardi, Steven Sunshine, Sarah Laskow and David Donald. The contest judges said, in part: "In an age of increasingly shallow reports dominating the Internet, it's refreshing — and vital — to see a package so richly reported and explained in such an engaging and detailed way. The interactive document library, podcast, map and video add richness to the presentation in ways that demonstrate the power of the online medium."

"Perils of the New Pesticides," another CPI project, was the second-place online winner. The judges said that the "team of reporters (M.B. Pell, Jillian Olsen and Jim Morris) did a fantastic job mining a government database to uncover an astounding set of statistics: that pyrethrins and pyrethroids account for more than a quarter of all fatal, major and moderate cases of adverse human reaction."

ProPublica, a newer non-profit, online venture in investigative reporting that has made a considerable splash since its launch in 2008, places its reports in several sections on its website, one of which is Energy & Environment. ProPublica publishes its work on its own site and through distribution to other news organizations that may publish it in print or broadcast form — an illustration of growing synergy between online journalism with more traditional forms. The organization, for example, won the thirdplace honor for investigative reporting in the latest SEJ awards for Abrahm Lustgarten's project, "Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies?" Posted on the ProPublica site itself, it was picked up by at least three newspapers, BusinessWeek magazine and WNYC radio.

The SEJ judges said Lustgarten's "stories on natural gas drilling started in upstate New York and followed the "fracking" trail westward to Colorado and Wyoming, at each stage carefully documenting how little regulators know about the environmental effects of a drilling process that so many energy companies are rushing to utilize."

(Lustgarten has continued to pursue the story, as with an article in July about "misleading data" provided to Congress by industry and another in August about a federal investigation of drinking water co ntamination possibly linked to the drilling method.) 

While online outlet ProPublica's SEJ-honored project was also disseminated via print and broadcast, the third-place winner in that same online category was a newspaper, the Minneapolis Star- Tribune, for an investigative project on all-terrain vehicles' damage to public wildlands.

The judges praised the newspaper for "its use of interactive and video multimedia components to enrich the story package." Honored were staff members James Shiffer, David Shaffer, Tom Meersman, Brian Peterson, Glenn Howatt and Mark Boswell. Illustrating what has come to be called "convergent" journalism, one of the nation's most prominent traditional-media outlets — USA Today — was the first-place winner in SEJ's investigative category for a project that drew the judges' praise in part for its impressive web-based component.

Produced by a team of reporters led by Blake Morrison and Brad Heath, "The Smokestack Effect" investigated industries near schools and reported on levels of toxic pollutants there. The SEJ judges noted the journalists had "compiled tens of millions of government records about air toxics from more than two dozen sources into what Editor & Publisher called 'one of the most extensive online database reports of any newspaper.'"

Other online endeavors relating to environmental issues won recognition for a couple of newspapers in the Associated Press Managing Editors' latest annual awards, announced in August.

The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., was a finalist in APME's third annual Innovator of the Year award for AllGreen- ToMe. That's the name of the newspaper's multi-page website that the APME judges said "brings print and online together and provides an international look at environmental challenges facing Delaware."

The Las Vegas Sun was one of three newspapers that received the organization's third annual Online Convergence awards. The Sun was recognized "for a cuttingedge multimedia presentation and interactive database exploring a serious water shortage in the Las Vegas valley."

The West, much more broadly defined, is the focus of a recently launched investigative and narrative news organization and website, fittingly called InvestigateWest.

Declaring that "the old model for supporting and conducting public service journalism has collapsed," the site's About page declares a mission with heavy emphasis on environmental and related matters: "InvestigateWest is a new model for investigative journalism focused on the West and on issues that resonate here — the environment, social justice and health."

The non-profit venture's staff includes SEJ board member Robert McClure and others who worked formerly for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its owner, Hearst Corporation, slashed the P-I's staff to a tiny fraction of what it had been and ceased publication of its print editions this year.

(Another SEJ connection: InvestigateWest's advisory board includes SEJ's executive director, Beth Parke.)

McClure took his admired "Dateline Earth" blog to InvestigateWest, where it can now be found on the new organization's website. Some headlines from August posts suggest the blog continues to have an extensive scope, the Western focus of InvestigateWest notwithstanding:

"Global warming? Ha — throw another lump of coal on the barbie, Australians say."

"Florida's population declines — a weird and strange occurrence."

"Pacific Northwest salmon populations shift dramatically. " 

Also launched this summer was another web-based venture, Texas Wild Network, whose editor-in-chief is Robert Macias, for five years the editorial director of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine. In an introductory note dated Aug. 5, he explained the premise of the new journalistic enterprise:

"It is my belief — my bet, if you will — that there is a large number of Texas-based environmentalists, nature lovers, and outdoors enthusiasts whose needs and interests are not being adequately addressed by any publication, in print or online."

The Texas Wild Network site says it will mainly focus on three areas – "nature, environmental issues, and green living." Macias alerted readers to expect coverage with an edge, recalling that an ancestor had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence:

"While that was a long time ago, a certain rebellious streak seems to have survived through the generations. I care about this state, and I'm willing to fight for it. Not with knives or guns but with a far more powerful weapon: accurate information."

Regionally focused online journalistic ventures of longer duration, while they don't have the new Texas site's singularly environmental focus, have continued to publish engaging environmental coverage, including these two recent reports on scientific activities: 

Freelancer Rebecca Tolin, writing for Voice of San Diego, reported in "Return of the Garbage Patch Kids" on a research mission by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to study the North Pacific Gyre, "an area abut 1,000 miles off the California coast where 3.5 million tons of plastic from North America and Asia has collected."

Blending the local with the global, Minnesota journalist and author William Souder had an update in MinnPost on a prominent scientific mystery. His lead: "Remember Minnesota's famous deformed frogs? New studies from two groups of researchers working half a world apart have just added important insights into this tantalizing environmental puzzle — while leaving a full explanation still out of reach."

Meanwhile, two related non-profit websites that got started as far-reaching aggregators of others' environmental coverage have continued to expand their own original reporting, which they introduced late last year.

In so doing, Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate have been carrying forward the same strong emphasis on science that has marked the two ventures from the start. Both are published by John Peterson Myers, a biologist and author who was instrumental in founding SEJ.

Shortly before the compilation of this edition of The Beat, for example, Environmental Health News published these two original articles:

"Cancer in wildlife, normally rare, can signal toxic dangers," by Crystal Gammon, who reported that scientists are finding cancers in wild animals that appear to be caused or hastened by environmental contaminants,  highlighting possible dangers to humans from the same substances.

"California unveils new goal for controversial carcinogen in water," by Marla Cone, the former Los Angeles Times environmental reporter who becam editor-in-chief of Environmental Health News last year. She reported that the proposal for chromium 6, made famous by Erin Brockovich, "culminates a decade of debate among scientists trying to decide what concentration is safe to drink."

Also in August, The Daily Climate published an original article by that site's editor, Douglas Fischer, on the threat of increasingly acidic ocean waters to Alaska's fisheries. He wrote:

"The Arctic's increased vulnerability to climate change is not limited to higher temperatures and melting permafrost.

"New research from the University of Alaska Fairbanks suggests Arctic oceans are particularly susceptible to acidification, with potentially dire consequences to Alaska's rich crab and salmon fisheries."

SEJournal assistant editor Bill Dawson has hands-on experience in launching a non-profit, online journalism venture. He is the founding editor of Texas Climate News, a web-based magazine that reports on climate change and sustainability issues and is published by the Houston Advanced Research Center. It began operation in late 2008.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue. 

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