“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.