Echoes of Grit and Humor

Great Lakes news startup brings on an inspiring new voice

If all goes as planned, Tom Henry’s decision to take on more work—in the form of a monthly column for the Great Lakes Echo—will be a win-win situation for the tireless, veteran reporter and the ambitious year-and-a-half-old newsroom alike.

“Column writing is a great venue for seasoned environment writers like me because it gives us a little more elbow room, writing-wise,” Henry wrote in his inaugural post for the Echo on November 3. “I’m as just as apt to get my point across by inflecting some humor as I am about being serious. This debut column is one of those that tends to be more on the serious side, a reflection of why I do what I do.”

In fact, the piece is an inspiring attestation to the importance of environmental journalism in all forms. Truth be told, Henry’s been working with a little more “elbow room” for a couple years now—ever since he began writing an environmental column for the Toledo Blade in Ohio, where he is primarily a daily reporter, having launched the environmental beat there in 1993. He was recently elected to the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and in June he’ll celebrate his thirtieth anniversary as a newspaperman.

Hopefully, Henry’s work will be a boon for the Echo, a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Launched in March 2009, the site covers the Great Lakes watershed. The reporting staff consists mostly of Knight Center graduate assistants—typically four to five people who work part time—with some work, which meets professional standards, coming out of the school’s environmental reporting classes. But the site is trying to grow and expand the non-student component of its work.

“Tom is an easy choice,” Dave Poulson, the Echo’s editor and associate director of the Knight Center, wrote in an e-mail. “He’s been around long enough to understand the big Great Lakes picture. That’s important for a publication that defines its community by a resource.”

“I grew up enamored with the Great Lakes in West Michigan during the 1960s and 1970s and started writing about them professionally as a cub reporter at The Bay City (Mich.) Times in the early 1980s,” Henry wrote in his first column for the Echo, before going on to explain why he has stuck with the environment beat, which often gets short shrift in the news media.

It’s all about a “love of writing” and “the chance to shed light on a problem in hopes that those responsible will be held accountable for it,” Henry wrote, following up with four stories about environmental crimes and crusaders that he’s covered. The tales involved people sickened or killed by toxic waste dumps, to a fire caused by a ruptured underground pipeline in need of repair, and a mysterious cancer cluster, as well those who sought to remedy or remove the threats and bring any suspected perpetrators to justice.

“You’ve likely read or heard some of the region’s most impressive statistics, such as how the lakes hold 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water and how they create a sense of home for more than 30 million Americans, Canadians and First Nations,” Henry wrote in his Echo column.

“But what’s missing in stories sometimes is how they’re a living laboratory, an unprecedented experiment for how modern man co-exists with nature. The Great Lakes endure everything from pharmaceuticals to farm runoff, always a step ahead of researchers in part because of an onslaught of 170-some invasive species.”

That outlook makes a Henry a good fit for the Echo, which is also a living laboratory of sorts, and a site that’s trying to address some of the same problems.

“We’re pushing the concept of defining a news community with natural rather than political borders,” Poulson wrote in an e-mail. “To some extent we try to dissolve the political boundaries of the eight states and two provinces and two nations that touch the Great Lakes. Instead, we look at the watershed as a whole. It is an attempt to define the community with a resource cutting across political borders. This is an offshoot of regulatory and other attempts that look at watersheds as social as well as hydrological concepts.”

In 2009, the site won a Society of Professional Journalists excellence award for a series of stories about the poorly regulated wastewater emissions of coal-fired power plants in the region. The series was just one of more than a dozen special reports the Echo has produced since its inception, in addition to some of its more experimental projects.

There is the gallery of reader-generated “carp bombs,” altered images that highlight the threat of the invasive Asian carp by placing the fish in odd scenes—such as floating between the buildings of downtown Chicago like the Goodyear blimp. There is also the post riffing off popular Facebook quizzes asking readers, “Which Great Lake are you?” The site also covers the lakes via satellite and by using maps that have “shown where factories spew particular pollutants, help gardeners find garden space, track the location of freighters, or show where to census frogs by listening to them sing.” (Poulson has a good roundup of the Echo’s creative communications techniques at J-Lab’s Knight Citizen News Network site.)

“I believe that university journalism schools have two special responsibilities during this period of journalistic upheaval,” Poulson wrote in an e-mail. “One is to experiment with new storytelling techniques that the new technology offers. We will continue to do that because experimentation and research are what universities should be about. The other is that they should safeguard quality journalism, bridging the gap between what journalism was and what it will become. They need to not only teach journalism, they need to do journalism during this time when it is so difficult to support quality journalism.”

Along those lines, the Echo provides its content free of charge to any news outlet that wants to use it, provided that they include the reporter’s byline and a link back to the Echo news site. More than twenty publications have picked up the site’s work, according to Poulson.

“Our two major markets are traditional news organizations scrambling to stay alive and new media experiments scrambling for a toehold in the new news landscape,” he explained. “Both need cheap copy that is credible. We’re free. And we’re good.”

They might also be helping the Toledo Blade in a more indirect way by bringing on Henry as a freelance columnist. In an interview, Henry said that the major difference between his column for the paper and the one for the Echo is that the latter will be regionally rather than locally oriented. Fearing that Echo itself was too Michigan-centric, Poulson specifically asked Henry to seek out news from all around the watershed. This could setup a win-win situation for both sides.

“I think, in the long run, the Blade’s going to get better local coverage out of me as I further grasp the complexities of the Great Lakes as a region and get my name out there even more on a regional basis than it is now,” Henry explained in an e-mail.

He also said that after the seriousness of his debut column, he expects to use humor more often than not in his Echo column. Henry has put his funny bone to good use in columns for the Blade about ethanol, water rights and diversions, clean-coal, and green politics, including President Obama’s involvement in the region.

It’s all the more impressive that Henry is able to keep up a sense of humor if one considers that in addition to spending more of his time covering environmental malfeasance for the Blade, the paper has also asked him to develop a beat focused on homelessness and poverty issues.

Where he finds time for the Echo is anybody’s guess, but the decision to collaborate was a smart one for everybody involved, especially readers.

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