A River Runs Through It

Defining news communities through the water they share

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.

The idea of a news site focused on specific bodies of water is not completely new. The Chesapeake Bay Journal, a free monthly newspaper, has been covering environmental stories that affect its bay for the past twenty years, and for quite some time, it was the only media organization doing this kind of reporting. The paper expanded its reach in 2007 by adding the Bay Journal News Service, an op-ed service for papers throughout the region, and they also have a monthly radio show called Midday on the Bay which airs on WYPR. Karl Blankenship, founding editor of the Bay Journal, told CJR’s Brainard earlier this year that, combined, their efforts reach an estimated 500,000 people monthly.

Now, at long last, the Bay Journal has some company. Another news organization which focuses exclusively on regional water concerns is the Ohio River Radio Consortium, an environmental radio news service and blog launched in 2010, and written about here by Brainard. The consortium commissions stories throughout the many states that are touched by the Ohio River Valley’s watershed (they are on hiatus for the summer).

Much of the reporting on the Great Lakes Echo is also concerned with what happens to the area watersheds, which is where the water from rain and melting snow drains from the land and converges, eventually forming a single body of water. Poulson says the biggest problem with this term is that a lot of people don’t actually realize what it means. “I’m trying to invent a new word: a news-shed,” says Poulson about the watershed beat. “To a large extent this concept makes sense, but then it doesn’t because people don’t know what a watershed is.”

But in the Catskills mountains in upstate New York, people are quite familiar with the watershed concept. The watershed rules that New York City applies to regulate the land inside this largely rural and expansive community affect many aspects of life for these residents. Drawing on what they knew was important to their community, Julia Reischel and Lissa Harris started a news outlet, the Watershed Post, in 2010, to document these issues (also recently featured in the News Frontier Database).

“It’s really amazing how pervasive it is,” says Reischel about the watershed, “You just don’t realize how much regulation goes into keeping New York City’s giant, unfiltered water supply clean, fresh, and cheap.” These sets of laws are meant to protect the natural land buffer, which filters water around the reservoir, protecting it from contaminants and soil. “That’s great for drinking water quality, but not so great for development,” says Reischel.

In the rural area that the Watershed Post reports on, which spans five counties and fifty towns, The Department of Environmental Protection is the enforcer and local antagonist. The DEP is often the talk of the towns, so much so that naming the site The Watershed Post has been both a strength and a weakness. “We wanted to get a name that really struck at the heart of the issue that mattered to everyone up here,” says Reischel. “But people have such animosity towards the DEP that when they hear watershed they think we’re with the city. They don’t always understand we’re an independent entity covering it.”

For these environmental reporters, information about the quality of a water passage is another way of covering the health of the surrounding land. “There’s a clear link between what’s going on in our rivers and what were doing with the landscape more generally,” says McGlashen. By not allowing political lines to govern their coverage, these journalists are better able to connect the dots about what is happening to our most vital resource, water—which, like these news outlets, has no use for man-made boundaries.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,