Before its collapse, the P-I had a history of strong science reporting

When the last print issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer rolled off the presses last Tuesday, it was another blow to the floundering newspaper industry—and to specialized reporting in particular.

The P-I had a long history of supporting top-flight science, environment, and public health coverage. Since at least the late 1980s, the paper has kept at least one reporter assigned to each beat, and when it folded last week had a total of four: one science, two environment, and one public health (plus the publication’s lead investigative reporter, who spent a considerable amount of time on environment issues). Though none of them were among the twenty or so staffers invited to continue working for, in interviews they agreed that the paper always encouraged and devoted significant resources to incisive reporting – a type of reporting that is now dangerously imperiled industry wide.

“We were really out to get things done—to write stories that would affect public policy and not just sort of interest people as shiny baubles or the latest charismatic megafauna,” said environment reporter Robert McClure, who had been with the paper since 1999. “I’ve been fortunate to have the backing of my editors to do five major projects in those 10 years, plus countless Page 1 enterprise and plenty of daily breakers,” he wrote in his farewell post at Dateline Earth, the paper’s environment blog, which he launched with colleague Lisa Stiffler in 2005.

“Listen, I’m not saying that the P-I was the world’s best paper, but I couldn’t have done that without editors that wanted to chase important stories,” investigative reporter Andrew Schneider, who focuses on food safety, told me. “You know, they put their money where their mouth was – the Libby stuff was 900 miles away our readership area and we did in excess of 200 stories on that over the years. Why would any paper do that? They seem to care a great deal.”

And that support never diminished. Schneider’s last investigation for the paper, published in December, was a six-part series, titled “Honey Laundering,” about the importation of Chinese honey contaminated with illegal antibiotics, and poor regulatory oversight in the face of soaring demand. The P-I spent “several thousand dollars” testing honey and gave Schneider five months to develop what began as a one-day story. “So even up to the end, they stood tall and spent the money to do the kinds of analyses that were needed,” he said.

Science reporter Tom Paulson agreed that the P-I was always willing to back science reporting, even when stories were controversial. In 1993, Paulson and his colleagues found themselves at the center of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, which killed four children and sickened hundreds of others in the Seattle area. It was one of the first major outbreaks to draw major media attention, and the P-I sent Paulson around the country to speak with investigators about what had happened.

“It was basically crisis science reporting and very easy to get wrong,” he said. “A lot of people were mad, kids had died, and for public health officials it was like a war zone. It took them five days to figure out the source of the outbreak. They had a hint on third day [that it was Jack in the Box], and there was a big push for them to come out and say it, but the public health officials had to wait until they had sufficient evidence. That’s a real hard thing to get across to people, because it has to do with statistics and probability. It was challenging to write stories in the middle of a highly emotional crisis that weren’t just hysterical, and that were evidence based. And we did it; we did a good job.”

Indeed, such well-executed resource- and time-intensive projects were common at the P-I. Paulson cited his coverage of the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which emerged as a major player in global health issues just after the millennium. Schneider cited his series last year on food industry workers’ exposure to diacetyl, a chemical butter flavoring linked to hundreds of cases of sometimes fatal lung damage. “The really bizarre thing is that the morning our last edition ran, the new Secretary of Labor announced actions to speed up the investigation into workers’ exposure to diacetyl,” Schneider said. “And now we have no place to run it.”

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 and,” 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 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, 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.

“We have an independent bookstore in town here called Elliott Bay, and they make these little pins,” Schneider told me, a bit wistfully. “One of them says, ‘So many stories, so little time.’ I had no idea how true that was going to be until they closed the paper.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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