The Local Climate

Regional papers invest in multi-part series on warming

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.

Finally, a local climate series by the Alpena News, at the northern tip of Michigan, is worth mentioning. The paper is the smallest of those mentioned here, so the package is not as grand as the others—not much traveling, and no fancy photos or graphics. With seven solid articles it is no less impressive, however, and stands out all the more because no other paper in Michigan (of which there are many larger than the Alpena News) seems to have put forward such a dedicated effort. Five of the articles cover the state’s efforts to be a clean energy leader and address lingering concerns about fossil fuels and tourism; the other two are good, “news-you-can-use” articles about improving energy conservation. The series’ only real shortcoming is that, unlike most others, its constituent parts are not grouped together on a single landing page or even linked to one another. But it’s worth reading, so here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

Henry, who assembled the Toledo Blade’s package, has been impressed by the large number of climate series coming from small and medium-sized papers. But many, he worries, are a “carryover” from 2007 and readers may see fewer of them in coming years. “I was one of three judges for the projects category of the Society of Environmental Journalist’s award contest this year,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Of sixty-some entries we judged, probably two-thirds were either directly about climate or a major climate issue, like the nation’s reliance on coal and/or China’s emerging use of coal. A bunch of papers, magazines, et al, pegged their projects to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 reports, which was no surprise. At least it didn’t fizzle out after Gore and the IPCC took home their awards.”

Hopefully, they won’t fizzle out all. And I’m sure there are more local climate series out there that I’ve missed. I would love to hear about all of them (preferably with links) in the comments section, so please chime in.

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