“This is Our Beat”

Breaking news and the big picture in Audubon’s special report on the oil spill

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.”

Nobel’s blog dispatches for the magazine (a full collection of his posts can be found here), as well as one of the features in the special report, relied heavily on experts from the society.

“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).

“These big picture stories have a longer shelf life than the more immediate ones,” Seideman explained when asked how the magazine planned its special report, “and one of the reasons that we ran Justin’s dispatches is that, although some of them were dated, they were sort of a historical record of what he was seeing at the time, and we thought that contrasted well with the long-view pieces.”

Indeed they do. Like Williams, however, Nobel wrestled with how he would break away from the pack. Based on input from his editors, he surmised that they wanted “color sketches of off-the-beaten-path subjects,” and decided to apply the logic he uses for his blog, The Absurd Adventurer, for which he sits in single locations for extended amounts of time in order to observe various goings on.

“I still made calls on many stories and interviewed experts at the front of the issues, but the germ of each post was this extended observation from the field,” Nobel explained via e-mail. “I sought situations that would lead to colorful scenes that might be missed in your typical newsy oil spill story. I spent time with a tiny tribe of American Indians living in marshes that were soon to be oiled and I spent a whole day in a truck stop cafeteria in Port Fourchon, a bustling oil port with a sort of sci-fi feel to it, talking to truckers who delivered parts to the rigs. The blog created the ideal venue for this type of observational writing.”

Nobel wasn’t the only one blogging for Audubon, however, and the society’s network proved to be useful for more than access and information.

“One of the cool things we discovered is that some of our scientists and environmentalists down in the Gulf could write well and actually take some decent pictures, so we had them blog, too,” Seideman said. “It was really a good opportunity to have several views expressed on the website.” (The corpus of Audubon’s spill related posts can be found here.)

Moreover, the magazine’s work in the Gulf is not over, according to Seideman. The November-December issue will contain a feature about the thousands of Audubon volunteers who have been lending a hand there. It will also contain a news item from Nobel, titled “Now Comes the Hard Part,” about long-term restoration efforts along the Gulf.

“I think most of the media, except for maybe the local media, are probably gone now, but we’re trying to step into that void because this is our beat,” Seideman said. “We want to continue this and I think we’ll be doing a lot more stories down the road. This is our niche we have to fill, and people expect it.”

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