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?

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