Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon sank and oil began erupting into the Gulf of Mexico in late April, the 105-year-old Audubon magazine did something that it had never done before—it sent a blogger to cover a breaking news event in real time.
Not that the historic first was the publications’s primary objective or even on its editors’ minds. “It never even occurred to me,” said editor-in-chief David Seideman when asked about setting the new precedent. “We were just so swept up in the moment.”
Indeed, Seideman continued, “This oil spill is our Iraq War. It’s a very big story because we’ve done a lot of work along the Mississippi Gulf. It’s one of the most important bird areas in the country and one of the most environmentally rich areas on Earth. So, we have deep roots in that part of the country.”
Those roots are apparent in Audubon’s special report on “The BP Gulf Oil Disaster” (“‘Spill’ seems much too dainty,” Seideman wrote in his editor’s note), which appears in the September-October issue. The report contains a selection of dispatches from the magazine’s Gulf Coast blogger, Justin Nobel (who was an intern at Audubon’s New York offices before being sent to cover the spill), in addition to three longer features.
Audubon doesn’t usually cover breaking news, Seideman said. “On the other hand, we had access that others didn’t through the Audubon Society’s programs there—to boats, to island, to sanctuaries. We have really good relationships with the Fish & Wildlife Service and the federal government. So that was another reason we did this—we could probably get to places that other reporters couldn’t.”
“Being under the wing of Audubon really helped, as there were numerous situations, especially early on, where access was difficult if not entirely off limits,” Nobel wrote in an e-mail, replying to questions about the experience. “Most people knew the Audubon name and respected it, they knew the organization deals with birds, and so it made sense for us to be there. The National Audubon Society had two staff members in the Gulf from early on, Melanie Driscoll and David Ringer. They served as fixers, providing me with a rich background on Louisiana politics and environmental issues and connecting me to a variety of contacts.”
Still, with so many reporters converging on the Gulf, finding fresh information seemed to be on the mind of Ted Williams, Audubon’s longtime “Incite” columnist, as he traveled to the region. The feature he ended up writing for the magazine’s special report, “Black Bayou,” led with a provocative synopsis of the challenge, and how he overcame it:
Until I got to coastal Louisiana in mid-June, covering BP’s oil gusher was an assignment I’d have loved to pass up. Like all fish and wildlife advocates, I’d been sickened by what I’d read in print and seen on television. I wasn’t looking forward to subjecting myself to the mess in person. And how was I supposed to come up with material the American public hadn’t been fed ad nauseam?
What I found is another toxic gusher, one of misinformation spewing from politicians puffing and preening for voters, alleged experts with questionable credentials vying for the limelight, and talking heads reporting or concocting news depending on availability. Much of my research involved unlearning things I thought I knew…
As depressed as I was when I left Louisiana, I was less so than when I arrived.
Williams’ view that the direst predictions of government, academia, and the media have not come to pass jibes with previous work by Time’s Michael Grunwald, as well as a front-page article in The New York Times’s Science Times section on Tuesday (although, ironically, the Times carried a piece the day before about a lack of financial support for scientists studying how the spilled oil is impacting the Gulf).
Williams’ optimism is cautious, however, and another feature in the special report, by ecologist and marine conservationist Carl Safina, provides a certain counterbalance by exploring the lingering, but undefined, threat to marine life. The third feature, by environmental activist and journalist Mike Tidwell, uses the Gulf spill to make an impassioned plea for more wind power in the United States.
Where the features were concerned, one of things that Audubon had to grapple with, like other monthly and bi-monthly magazines covering the spill, was its long lead-time for publication (the September-October issue closed in late July).