The twentieth anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Journal marks a watershed moment for a publication that knows something about watersheds. Over the last five years, the free monthly newspaper, which covers environmental issues affecting the bay and its environs, has been working hard to expand its reporting and remold its image.

Founded in 1991 by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay—a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the largest estuary in the United States and its watershed, which encompasses Washington, DC, and parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia—the Bay Journal has chronicled efforts to restore an ecosystem degraded by man-made pollution with practically unparalleled attention.

In 2007, the paper entered a new phase when founding editor Karl Blankenship (a veteran of The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) noticed most of the region’s major papers cutting their bay reporters. Blankenship and company launched the Bay Journal News Service, which provides op-eds and articles gratis to hundreds of papers in the area. In 2008 and 2009, the paper hired three former Baltimore Sun employees, bringing its staff to six. Then, in March 2010, the Bay Journal left the Alliance for the nonprofit Chesapeake Media Service.

“We didn’t want it to seem like the paper was coming from an environmental group,” Blankenship says. “We wanted an organization with a more specific journalism mission.”

Blankenship is also trying to diversify the Bay Journal’s funding. Until just a couple years ago, it was financed entirely by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional office. That put the paper, which closely tracks both agencies, in an awkward position.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Does the EPA tell you what you have to write?’” Blakenship says. “The answer is, it doesn’t, but you can’t really affect what some people think. The only thing you can do is increase non-EPA money,” which, thanks mostly to foundation and reader support, is now about 30 percent of the budget.

While the Bay Journal hasn’t been as aggressively critical of the government’s role in the bay as some mainstream papers, it has published many detailed articles and op-eds critical of the EPA and other agencies.

The paper has recently expanded its enterprise reporting, producing, for example, an impressive ten-thousand-word, three-part series in late 2010 on the potential for aquaculture to rebuild an oyster population nearly wiped out by disease. “In my fourteen years as a reporter for major metros—The Baltimore Sun and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among them—I never was able to write anywhere near that much on a topic,” says staff writer Rona Kobell.

Next up? Blankenship wants to expand coverage to “upstream” environmental issues not as closely connected to the bay. The Bay Journal has 50,000 print readers and 100,000 monthly visitors online; a recent survey revealed 80 percent are already concerned about the Chesapeake environment. Blankenship hopes to reach more of those who aren’t. After twenty years, there are still watersheds to cross.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.