Many journalism leaders are banking on the lure of local news and information to save the mainstream media from oblivion. There is no doubt that local sells, and news about environmental issues fits this new model well. Even a story as global in its reach and significance as climate change has lots of strong, attention-grabbing local angles. Of course, so do stories that can explain to people how their local kayak run or swimming hole became polluted, delving into why and who is responsible and whether any local government official is doing anything about it.
The latest incarnation of local news coverage—digital style—combines conventional reporting with video, interactive polls, quizzes and steady updates of major stories. At Gannett, where I report on environmental topics for The Des Moines Register, we no longer have newsrooms. At Gannett-owned newspapers, we now have “information centers.” It’s a phrase my more traditional colleagues have mocked, but one that rings true in many ways. No longer are we about delivering only inverted pyramid news stories. We are about telling the story using a lot of different media and delivering the documents that support what we’re reporting.
People can search online databases to learn which state government employee gets paid the most, which dog’s name is most popular in the home county, what ethanol plant has violated pollution laws the most, or how the hometown hero wrestler is doing at the state meet. What’s happening with endangered species can be tracked online, and reporters—just like folks at home on their computers—use Google Earth and other tools to see changes in our landscape as cornfields vanish and suburban homes, roadside malls, and parking lots blossom.
My beat presents all kinds of opportunities for compelling local coverage using the latest in multimedia techniques. Even the crustiest of my newsroom—oops, information center—colleagues must know now that the newspaper’s Web site is our friend, with its amazing power to convert the printed word into a combination TV station, newspaper, bulletin board, and town hall meeting. I remember years ago, before many of us woke up to the power of clickable maps linked to databases, when The [Raleigh] News & Observer did a fabulous, huge map that showed every pipe dropping sewage into the Neuse River. The print map was beautiful and informative. The Web map allowed residents to click right on their local neighborhood and find out who was responsible for polluting that stretch of water.
Virtually every community has water quality issues, and in many places there are air contamination issues, too. Urban and suburban sprawl, fights about endangered species vs. industry, construction-site runoff, crop fertilizer pollution, the debate about how to satisfy our increasing need for power, and local effects of climate change are frequent topics of daily coverage. Never has it been so easy to make these stories compelling—in part due to the audio and visual digital connections our readers now have. When we have news about pollution in local kayak runs, viewers can read and watch and hear our coverage. When Iowa’s state government dragged its feet for years on starting bacterial checks at state park beaches, I teamed up with a laboratory to do sampling. The results were surprisingly bad and led to the state’s first comprehensive weekly samplings and a steady string of beach advisories.
Interactivity extends beyond the computer screen when reporters combine forces with local volunteers. Dina Cappiello crafted an award-winning project in the Houston Chronicle in which homeowners helped to test air quality; their findings were found online—placed within the broader context of her overall reporting—and they offered a stark look at local pollution issues. Because of homeowners’ engagement in the “reporting,” the story was one of particular local interest.
These examples show how the environment beat fits in well with the changing direction of journalism. Our readers and viewers should be able to find out who the biggest local polluters are. And now they can do this by using public databases we put on our Web site and through stories we publish in the paper, some of which reveal surprising facts about local industries.
Recently the Register reported that the biofuels industry, which is supposed to be a “clean” and “green” alternative to fossil fuels, is creating large amounts of pollution in manufacturing and in growing the feedstock—corn—in the first place. We constructed our own database using enforcement records we obtained and analyzed, and we put up what we had learned on our Web site. In time, we produced a map on which residents click to check out who owns the local biofuels plant, how much pollution it produces, and how many environmental violations it has. We didn’t make our readers take our word for the violations. All of the original documents are available on the paper’s Web site.
There’s something incredibly democratic about all this. As journalists, we still act as a news filter, but we also offer raw data and raw footage. People comment on what we report, often immediately and anonymously and without the fuss it takes to meet the rules of a standard editorial page. There are merits and drawbacks in this arrangement, but there is no doubt that these features let us connect with local residents in ways we never had before, at least to this degree. And often in these exchanges we pick up new leads for advancing the story.
Recent examples of solid reporting on the environment, which can serve as examples of the kind of work that can be done in nearly every locality, include these:
James Bruggers of The [Louisville] Courier-Journal reported about serious air pollution in his city.
Dan Fagin, when he was at Newsday, delved into questions about possible environmental causes of Long Island breast cancer cases.
The Los Angeles Times’s landmark series, “Altered Oceans,” reported on details of ocean pollution problems, meshing local concerns with global circumstances.
Both The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and The [Baton Rouge] Advocate examined oxygen-starved waters where animal and plant life struggle to survive.
Several years before Katrina hit, The Times-Picayune warned its readers in New Orleans about the devastation that would befall their city when a powerful hurricane like Katrina hit—and the levees didn’t hold.
It’s certainly the case that since 9/11 public documents can be tougher to get. But using our skills as reporters to get those records onto our Web sites helps our readers and viewers detail threats in our communities. The records can help residents find out what businesses store chemicals that might, under certain circumstances, pose a great risk to them. People can use our Web sites to find out which cities, factories or farms routinely violate permits issued by the state or by EPA under the Clean Water Act that are meant to ensure that streams are fit for fishing and swimming. Our Web sites enable people to also find out what officials in state government are doing, if anything, about these offenses. (Answer: Many do little.)
Reporters who cover the environment have a great resource in searching for local stories. The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has an incredible Web page that includes a database of top breaking stories about a variety of environmental issues and a library of top stories from the past. Much of the Web site is available for public use, but SEJ members also have a private listserv that allows them to ask their colleagues at other media outlets for advice about sources, story angles, and recently released reports. Within minutes a query will bring in multiple responses.
Information about local issues is already being delivered via cell phone and RSS. And though these technologies enable news to travel around the globe faster than we can deliver a newspaper, the real value of the Web for us seems to be its ease in getting local readers the kind of information they want and need. When they have data in front of them, all sorts of new directions in our reporting can develop. Local angles are inspired by readers’ desire for information relating to their daily lives, and coverage is often informed by comments readers make via blog-like entries under the story displayed online.
News about environmental issues can be local, national and global, all at the same time. Wire service stories and big national papers tend to provide the broader view on these global topics, but for every national and global story, a local angle is waiting to be told. These stories are among those news organizations like mine need to be telling.
Perry Beeman is environmental reporter at The Des Moines Register. He served on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists for eight years and as president for two.