On the environmental front, McClure cited a five-part series that he, Stiffler, and colleague Lise Olsen did in 2002 about pollution and other threats to the “troubled” Puget Sound, which helped galvanize support for restoration efforts. In 2007, McClure and colleague Colin McDonald turned their attention to the health threats and restoration efforts along the toxic Duwamish River, in a three-part series buttressed by a strong multimedia package. The list goes on and on, with too many superb articles to mention here. Fortunately, P-I columnist Joel Connelly had an excellent round-up last week chronicling how “The P-I’s pages have bled green for 40 years.”
All of it is exactly that kind of agenda-setting, local environmental reporting that McClure (as well as Paulson and Schneider, who have tended to be more nationally-focused) worry will disappear with the demise of regional newspapers. The P-I’s competitor, The Seattle Times, also has a long record of supporting science, environment, and health reporting—but in McClure’s opinion, its coverage has less of an agenda-setting drive.
“I have lots of respect for my reporter colleagues at the Times,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but their editors have never shown much proclivity to cover environmental stories in a way that truly challenges authority and advocates on behalf of the little guy, IMHO.”
Sandi Doughton, the Times’s science reporter since 2002, disputes that claim, pointing out that her publication also has “deep roots” in the field of specialized journalism. In addition to her position, the paper currently employs one full-time environment reporter (plus a Metcalf fellow and another environment reporter soon returning from a book sabbatical), a health/medical reporter, and a number of investigative and general assignment reporters who often write about health and the environment.
“The P-I did a really great job of that, and I think the Times has done a good job of that as well,” Doughton said. “But we covered different things.” By way of example, she pointed to a series on regional logging and landslides by Hal Bernton and Justin Mayo, which called attention to problems with clear-cutting; a series on MRSA, which tracked the virulent bacteria’s spread in Washington hospitals; a multimedia package on climate change consensus; and a piece last winter that detailed Seattle’s “botched” response to heavy snows. Not to mention, of course, the paper’s Pulitzer-winning series on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.
Still, Doughton is sad to see the P-I go. The Times has suffered a number of layoffs and buyoffs itself. As far as she can tell, there are no plans to do away with those specialized beats, but she worries that in today’s industry, “anything is on the table.”
For their part, the P-I’s science and environment reporters are not laying down their notebooks and pens. McClure said that he would continue to publish the Dateline Earth blog that he and Stiffler (who is taking a job with the environmentally-minded Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank) worked on.
“Within four hours of the announcement in January that the P-I was for sale, I went out and bought www.datelineearth.net and www.datelineearth.org,” he said.
McClure is also working with a small group of the P-I’s top reporters to create a news service called True West, which is still in its conceptual stages, but would attempt to place environment stories about the American and Canadian West in other outlets and publications.
Schneider will reincarnate his Secret Ingredients health blog at www.andrewschneiderinvestigates.com. Paulson, who was unique in his bloglessness at the P-I, said he is unsure what he will do next, but will continue to promote science journalism as a board member of the National Association of Science Writers and president of the Northwest Science Writers Association. And Eric Nalder, the P-I’s chief investigative reporter, whom the others credited with doing excellent science and environment work, has taken a job as Hearst newspapers’ “senior enterprise reporter.”
As for what will become at the SeattlePI.com, nobody is sure. Managing editor Michelle Nicolosi and Hearst executives did not return calls or e-mails asking why no members of the science-environment-health team were asked to stay on, and what the outlook is for such reporting there without them.
It can’t be good. Though all the P-I’s former reporters wished the online version well, they doubt the same kind of incisive journalism that existed in the past will be possible with such a reduced staff. And while it’s some consolation that most of them remain committed to science journalism, they said their coverage will likely have an increasingly national and international focus. Indeed, independent blogs and Web sites still do not have the same impact as well-funded reporting distributed by a large newspaper with some institutional clout.