A Watershed Moment for the Chesapeake Bay Journal

On its 20th anniversary, the paper is growing and remolding its image

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.

Everyone was supportive of that concept and the paper built momentum to the point where, after a number of years, if the government had tried to reign us in, tell us what to do, or make an effort censure us, it would’ve actually created some type of a backlash because everybody, including other newspapers, were reading us. If you pick up most recent books about the bay and look at the bibliography—whether they’re positive or critical reports about they bay—they draw heavily on Bay Journal reporting, so I think any effort to dictate what we do wouldn’t go over very well.

And we’ve certainly done a number of critical articles over the years on issues that have come up and there’s not been a problem with that. One thing we do that readers like is explore complex issues that go beyond the patience of regular newspaper reports. A lot of bay stuff is very scientific and very technical and we’re willing to spend the space and the time to deal with some of those really complex issues.

It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re interested in detailed information and more than a 400-word article, we’ll dig into the pros and cons of a lot of issues and more than anybody else will. So, not to bang on my own drum too much, but the paper has become a valuable source of background for a lot of different people, whether they’re in government agencies, or in newspapers, or in what-have-you, because they get that depth, which has been one of our specialties over the years.

I agree that your coverage is detailed and quotes critics of the government, but the paper also focuses so intently on the actions of the EPA and others, it can seem a bit pro-regulatory at times—like they’re the key to the bay’s future.

Yeah, one of the reasons we cover the federal government so much is that it’s kind of a throwback to the years when I was essentially the only reporter we had. Because it was only me, I tended to focus on regional issues, and although we would do occasional stories on state activities, it was the federal government that was essentially the regional actor. So by default I ended up doing a lot of federal stuff. That background and institutional knowledge still gets me pegged into all these stories about Total Maximum Daily Loads [TMDL] and other [federal pollution standards], when I would rather go write about wildlife habitats or something.

But I guess I see what you’re saying. I’m not sure I agree. I think part of it—and this doesn’t negate your criticism—part of it is, you know, it’s a Chesapeake Bay newspaper and we cover things from a bay perspective. And when you are covering things closely, sometimes the way that you write about them—because you are writing about incremental changes over time—is different than when somebody from the outside comes in and looks at it. It’s a stepwise process. So, for example, we covered things like TMDL quite a bit, exploring what it was going to do and kind of walking through the complex process behind it. And I guess because these were kind of explanatory pieces, those stories may have had an EPA bend to them, largely because the TMDL is so complex that only EPA people could understand it and explain it.

On the other hand, I do think we had articles that were critical of the process, too. Earlier this year, I did an article on local governments that were very apprehensive about the TMDL and had lots of objections. If you look at the last few stories, a number of articles have suggestions that the process is being driven way too fast. But no one wants to be seen as being anti-bay, so you can get into a situation where people aren’t necessarily happy, but they also aren’t going to say anything on the record that would get them criticized by an environmental group or something for coming across as being anti-Bay. But the TMDL is also basically the result of the failure of other cleanup efforts. It stems from more than two decades of government failing to do what it said it was going to do, and we’ve written about that, too.

Still, the Bay Journal supports efforts to clean and protect the bay, right? How do you balance that kind of environmental goal with the need to be impartial?

Well, an important step was creating the Chesapeake Media Service in 2008 as a non-profit organization to serve as the umbrella for the Bay Journal and Bay Journal News Service and receive grants and things. The idea was to establish that the two outlets aren’t part of an environmental organization, and that they have a more journalistic organization behind them. Last year, Chesapeake Media Service became the official publisher of the Bay Journal, replacing the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Your question is probably one that applies to environmental journalism in general, but I think that we do a pretty good job, or at least we strive to do a pretty good job, of presenting issues without advocating for them.

Over the last two decades, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the science of the bay, and I spend a lot of time with scientists. I go to a lot of scientific meetings that nobody else goes to. I also go to a lot of really mind-bogglingly technical meetings that nobody would dream of going to if they didn’t have to because I don’t want somebody to just tell me what time it is. I want to know how the clock is working, so I know how accurate the time is when they tell me. So, I use that approach as an anchor to help guide what we’re going to cover and, to an extent, how we’re going to cover things.

So, you may be a pro-bay group, but you won’t get coverage if you’re raising some type of issue that isn’t really germane, seems to be self-promoting, or reflects somebody’s personal agenda or ax to grind. The same would go for anybody else. We try to keep our eyes on the big picture issues. And after twenty years of covering these issues, I feel pretty safe when I say that a particular subject has very little merit in the scheme of things, even if somebody is pushing it pretty heavily. And I feel like there is a good network of scientists and people who have been around a long time whom we can call to get a sense of whether or not something is important.

Do you know of any other publications that rely on government support to do this type of detailed environmental reporting?

No. There have been some, but most have kind of gone away just because support for that type of thing generally has dwindled, which is unfortunate.

It doesn’t sound like this is something can be easily replicated elsewhere in the country. Is yours a business model that others could follow?

To me, there are two aspects to the question. If the question is simply, can you produce a credible newspaper with government support, then yeah, we’ve been doing that for twenty years and other people may be able to do the same.

But my interest has always been trying to figure out how you take environmental information beyond the choir and develop a system for reaching broader audiences. Can we transcend just doing a publication and create a mechanism for reaching broader audiences, particularly in this day and age where there is a lot less environmental coverage in other newspapers? That’s what I want to see us work on.

We produce a publication that has a lot of credibility and the test for us is to build off that credibility to create content that other people can use and that helps create a more environment-literate society. To me, that’s the model I would like to create and that I’m working for. We’re headed in that direction and I’m optimistic that we will get there, but that’s a much tougher nut to crack than just producing a publication.

One thing I’ve tried to avoid is saying, let’s just do a website and let people come to the website. You see environmental websites all over, and I’m not sure who looks at them. This gets back to the newsstand issue that we talked about before. You go to a newsstand and there are a lot of hook-and-bullet magazines and not very much environment stuff. I don’t think you can create a website and expect a lot of people with little or no interest in these issues to go look at it. You have to find mechanisms to take your story to people. That’s what we’re trying to do.

You recently did a readership survey. What did you learn about who’s reading the Bay Journal?

The vast majority—about 80 percent—are people who identified themselves as being concerned citizens. One thing we found by the way, since you asked about coverage of government, is that coverage of governmental issues is one of the things people want to see more of. I think that’s because they’re important to a lot of people but don’t get coverage in a lot of the media. But when you ask people what they want to read about, it’s everything—more government, more science, more land use, more fisheries. The most gratifying thing was that we got virtually no negative comments. A lot of people noticed our editorial about changing publishers and expanding our content and staff. People had noticed the additional coverage and the new writers, and they offered a lot of encouraging remarks.

Is there any subject that you’d like to cover more?

There are several things we’d like to cover more of. I’m trying to get funding right now so we can add at least a part-time writer in Virginia and a part-time writer in upstate Pennsylvania to cover more issues there. We also got some grants to support increased coverage of urban environment issues, which is something that really gets neglected in the context of the bay. You often have impoverished communities, really degraded streams, and we are hoping, if we can continue to get the funding, to make that an area of emphasis. There are a lot of articles we’d like to do on that subject.

Over time, I want to cover more regional environment issues that aren’t as closely tied to the bay. That was another thing that came out of the readership survey. A lot of people told us they’d like to read more about upstream issues. That’s actually been a goal of mine for years. It’s just that there are so many issues that affect the bay. If you’re trying to be—sometimes people call us the “record of the bay”—and if you’re doing that, you don’t have enough time to get to the other issues. But if we can get more staff, it’s pretty cheap to print more pages, and we can put more in the paper. There’s a lot of upstream stuff I’d like to do.

Is that kind of the key to getting more staff—just bringing in more grants?

We’re also working to increase the proportion of our funds that come directly from readers because that’s the ultimate sign of success - that people buy into what you’re doing and they’re willing to give you donations and help support it. That’s something I’m really hoping we can cultivate and develop. Last year, less than 10 percent of our budget came from reader donations. I’ll probably jinx myself, but on our current trajectory, I expect to easily exceed that this year. There’s also room to expand fundraising. We don’t do anything other than stick a donation envelope in the paper, so it’s a pretty low-key effort. Maybe we need to get more sophisticated. This year, we can take credit card donations and that’s supposed to help.

We don’t take ads right now. That could change in the future. But this goes back to why people don’t produce many environmental publications - they aren’t very attractive to advertisers.

One thing I should say—I am proud of this—is that our overhead is really low. Everybody works at home, so there is no office and our overhead is only about 6 or 7 percent of our budget. We print ten issues a year, with double issues in mid-summer and mid-winter. We did eleven issues for about three years, but I cut one and increased the number of pages in the others, so now we actually produce more per year, but we save on postage and stuff, and that helped free some resources to increase staffing. In a perfect world, I’d like to do twelve issues a year, but that requires a bit more manpower than we’ve got.

I’m just kind of happy with the trajectory that we’re on and that people take us seriously and consider us to be a credible source of information. I hope that we can do more in the future, and if we aren’t a model right now, I hope we to get there at some point.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.