Last week, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media posted an interesting column by Tom Henry, environment reporter for the Toledo Blade in Ohio, about being sent to Greenland to write a four-part series on global warming.
Henry’s is one of a few recent climate series by local papers that merit attention, but which I have not previously had the time to mention. These include packages from The Des Moines Register in Iowa, the Daily News-Miner in Alaska, and the Alpena News in Michigan. I’ve covered several of these kinds of series, most of which attempt to show the local ramifications of global warming, and it is always very heartening to see new ones. Critics often complain that such ambitious (and expensive) reporting is only doable at major publications like The New York Times, and perhaps that’s largely true—but these climate series are a reminder that all is not lost in our troubled industry.
If you visit the Blade’s Web site, you’ll see that Henry’s work is billed as a “four-part” series, but, in fact, it was a four-day series that included, by my count, nine articles, two columns, two photo packages, an audio slideshow, and a number of video interviews with leading climatologists at Ohio State University. In his column for the Yale Forum yesterday, Henry wrote that, “My purpose in doing this series was to show people that climate change is not about polar bears. It’s about people.” Henry’s first piece (which includes links to the rest) created an impressive, nearly 3000-word arc that begins in Ilulissat and eventually returns to Toledo; overall, the series follows a similar path, starting in Greenland in one piece, moving on the Great Lakes region in the next, and stopping by Capitol Hill before finishing off back in the Arctic.
This interconnected approach is so effective because it makes distant global phenomena begin to seem relevant to people’s lives. It’s also harder than it looks. As Henry pointed out at the Yale Forum, segueing from Greenland to Ohio is very tricky: “[What] connections exist between the Great Lakes region and the world’s largest island - a mountainous one that’s 80 percent covered in ice and as long as the distance from Maine to Cuba and as wide as the distance between Chicago and New York?” The answer, he found, was not physical, but human. As Henry wrote in his opening column, “Changes occurring to Greenland should be a wake-up call for the rest of the world. Or, to put it simply… It’s about you and me and our ethics. That’s right. Our ethics.”
Such bold statements are not easy to get past editors, but then again, neither is it easy to land an assignment to visit the Arctic in the first place. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sending a reporter to Greenland is one heck of a financial commitment, let alone in today’s economy and for a mid-sized newspaper in one of the nation’s most depressed Rust Belt cities,” Henry wrote at the Yale Forum. “All of which underscored the importance of this story and my publisher’s commitment to it.” It was the Blade’s top brass who, in fact, broached the idea to Henry, and he particularly credited co-publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block for taking the initiative.
Not all series can be so ambitiously far-flung, of course, but that doesn’t make them any less worthwhile or effective. The Des Moines Register, for example, didn’t send any reporters to Greenland for its ongoing series on “How climate change could affect Iowa.” The paper created a landing page on its Web site that lists all its related articles, but the real focus and beauty of this package is an absolutely stunning set of interactive graphics that cover everything from the basics of climate science to Iowa’s climate and weather to energy efficiency measures being implemented across the United States. One of the greatest impediments to better public understanding of global warming is poor information retention. Our fast-paced news cycle doesn’t help that, so, ultimately, the great advantage of the Register’s encyclopedic database is not only that it’s locally-oriented, but that readers can refer to it again and again.
Another noteworthy series is “Alaska’s Changing Climate,” published by the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, the News Miner didn’t have to send reporters very far to see warming’s effect on sea ice, permafrost, boreal forests, coastal erosion, fish, wildlife, and local communities. The package included at least seven articles by Stefan Milkowski and four photo galleries published last July. Though it hasn’t been updated since, Alaska is the United States’ bellwether state for climate, and one hopes that the News Miner will make this an ongoing project.