The current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review features a short article about the twentieth anniversary of the Chesapeake Bay Journal, a free monthly newspaper that covers environmental issues affecting the bay and its environs. Over the last five years, the paper has been working to expand its reporting and remold its image. CJR’s Curtis Brainard interviewed the Bay Journal’s current (and founding) editor, Karl Blankenship, for the piece. Below is an edited and abridged transcript of that interview; to read the magazine article, please subscribe to CJR.
Tell me about how the paper started.
My background was in journalism. I’d worked for papers in Michigan and Pennsylvania and moved into specializing in environmental reporting. In 1990, I left The Patriot-News in Harrisburg to work for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an organization that deals with [environmental restoration and conservation issues] affecting the bay.
When I was there, they got a grant from the EPA to do public engagement, and one of the things they were doing was producing a quarterly newsletter. My job was to take over the newsletter and write for them. I did that for a few months, and it was a traditional newsletter, but there seemed to be a lot more we could do. I talked to a printer friend of mine who told me that we could switch to doing something on newsprint. We priced out that option and found we could go from doing six issues of the newsletter to ten issues of newsprint for the same price, and actually write it like a newspaper. People were excited about that because it was different, so we went ahead and that was how the Bay Journal started.
It really caught people’s eye because no one was doing anything like it. Part of my interest has always been trying to figure how to reach broader audiences without busting the bank. It’s hard to do for a subject like the environment. If you go to the newsstand, you’ll see all sorts of hook-and-bullet magazines for fishing and hunting, but there are virtually no environmental publications, and the ones that exist are run by environmental organizations.
It’s hard to do environmental news as a paying concern. Just about everyone who tries that goes broke. So I was curious about ways that we could reach more people, so I got some grants, and in 2007 we started the Bay Journal News Service, which is an op-ed service, and it distributes weekly articles op-eds to newspapers throughout the region, and right now that’s reaching about 2 million people—or potential readers—a month. The idea was to build a quality product that we could brand and that the distribution service was a way to expand our reach without busting the bank, and that has been pretty successful.
We also do a monthly radio show with WYPR. They have a program called Midday with Dan Rodricks, which airs from noon to 2 p.m. every day, and once a month they of call it Midday on the Bay. A staff writer or I come in, sometimes with another guest, and talk about the latest issues of the Bay Journal and topics we’ve covered.
When you add everything together—I was actually doing these figures for some grants recently—we estimate that our total reach in a month is around 500,000.
How much funding still comes from the government?
Five years ago, it would have been 100 percent EPA; last year it would have been around 80 percent, and this year it’s probably going to be around 70 percent.
So you’re cutting it down rather quickly.
That’s my goal, because everyone always asks, does the EPA tell you what you have to write and stuff? The answer is, no, they don’t, but you can’t really affect what people think. The only way you can affect that is to increase the non-EPA money.
Do you feel like you can cover these agencies critically despite the fact that you’re getting your funding from them?
Yes. They gave us a lot of leeway [from the start]. The original grant came from EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office, and public outreach and education was really important. When we came out of the box, we were pretty unique, and I think we were seen as being pretty unbiased because I would interview people on all sides of issues and do real reporting.