While students at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Andrew McGlashen and Jeff Gillies started thinking, like so many J-schoolers, about how to turn the skills they were learning into a career.
Their prospects didn’t look too promising. McGlashen and Gillies, who often attended conferences held by the Society for Environmental Journalists, kept hearing the same story from veteran environmental reporters. “They were always talking about how their friends had been laid off in the last round of buyouts,” says McGlashen. “We were hearing pretty frank advice, saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t go work for a newspaper because there’s no job stability, you don’t get paid much, and you’re going to be asked to do more than you should.’”
With environmental beats often being among the first cut, they started brainstorming about making their own site. But they kept getting snagged on the same question: What would be their beat? “We couldn’t find a scope that was doable for us. We wanted to make it stand out without being overly broad,” says McGlashen.
During the drive home from a fishing trip last year, they realized they had been wading knee deep in their specialty: Michigan’s rivers. This June, the two men launched their site, Michigan River News, where they have been posting about one news story and a few blog posts a week, all having to do with the state’s 36,000 miles worth of rivers and streams. In addition, they aggregate river news from around the state using a tool that Gillies built, using a data mashup application called Yahoo Pipes, as part of his master’s project. So far, the site has only had about 700 unique visitors total—but McGlashen and Gillies say they are less concerned with having a big readership and more focused on having the right readership; “There’s a community of river people in Michigan to whom we’d like to become a trusted and authoritative source of information,” says Gillies.
The site is the latest in a growing number of environmentally minded online news sites that focus quite specifically on inland waterways and the ways in which they affect, and are affected by, the surrounding environment. It’s a topic too narrow to ever warrant a full-time reporter at a legacy media outlet—but the sort of thing that’s just right for the web. With few overhead costs and no expectation of any sort of mass audience, these sites can report on and advocate for lakes, rivers, and streams in ways that newspapers and magazines rarely could.
While McGlashen and Gillies were students, they wrote for another site that focuses its coverage on inland waterways—the Great Lakes Echo, a site founded in 2008 by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, and recently featured in the News Frontier Database. The nonprofit Echo, which relies on a combination of student work, paid staff (CJR’s Curtis Brainard wrote about the addition of veteran environmental reporter Tom Henry here), and freelance writers, receives about 3,300 unique visitors a week, while also distributing its content for free through a Creative Commons license. The site’s editor, David Poulson, is a longtime environmental journalist and professor at MSU. He says that defining environmental coverage around a natural feature rather than breaking the stories up by municipalities simply makes sense.
“If I stop polluting my stream it’s not going to make a whole lot of difference if the guy up the river from me doesn’t stop as well,” says Poulson. By covering a natural resource as a whole, he hopes to unite, and create, a news community. “People who live along the same river, but are hundreds of miles apart, may not really have a concept of each other,” says Poulson. “But maybe they should.”
Using Gillies’s master’s project, MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism is even preparing a similar project on a different continent. Called East Africa Echo, the project targets the lakes of Africa’s Rift Valley. Right now the site lives on a Tumblr page and acts only as an aggregator of news produced by others, but Poulson is on the lookout for funding to start producing original stories.