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Covering the Beat in Colorado...
Competing Denver Dailies Set Pace
Competition between the Denver papers for environmental news, both in their state and throughout the Rocky Mountain region, is "dog-eat-dog," said Joey Bunch, who joined the Post in 2002 as a second reporter on its previously one-person environment beat.
"Every reporter in one-paper towns in America would not want to work here," Bunch said in an email interview. Todd Hartman, environment writer at the News for three years, said there had been talk around Denver that a 2001 joint operating agreement (JOA) between the two newspapers would blunt their previously energetic competition.
"I’m here to say it hasn’t," Hartman said. "Each one does stuff the other doesn’t do. There’s more stuff for people interested in the environment to read."
Under the JOA, the News produces Saturday editions and then the Post publishes on Sundays.
Top Denver News Execs Said to be Supportive
Reporters at both newspapers say their top executives are keenly interested in doing well on the environment beat. In Colorado, the beat extends to an extremely broad variety of subjects, including growth and development, drought and water resources, wildfires, radioactive waste, oil and gas development, and a range of wildlife issues.
John Temple, editor, publisher and president at E.W. Scripps’ Rocky Mountain News, "is supportive of environmental coverage" and "willing to do big-splash stories," Hartman said.
At MediaNews (CQ) Group’s Post, editor Greg Moore, who joined the newspaper in 2002 after serving as the Boston Globe’s managing editor, has said he likewise regards the environment beat as highly important, according to Bunch. (Post staffers were notified in late January that Dwight Cunningham, a veteran editor whose extensive experience includes work at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday, would join the newspaper shortly to supervise science, health and environmental coverage.)
Environmental reporters at many newspapers -- often compelled to juggle environmental duties with other, unrelated assignments -- would be grateful for the kind of high-level commitment to the beat manifested in Denver. At the Post and News, top executives’ interests translate into newsrooms where multiple reporters have a hand in environmental coverage.
At the Post, for instance, both Bunch and Theo Stein are assigned to the environment beat full-time, though Bunch said he also handles some unrelated political assignments on occasion.
Post science writer Diedtra Henderson writes environmental stories sometimes, as do Mountain Bureau chief Steve Lipsher and other bureau reporters. Meanwhile, Bunch said, business writers Jason Blevins, who covers skiing and other recreational industries, and Steve Raabe, who covers energy and agriculture, also "jump into the beat a lot."
At the News, Hartman became environment writer after handling environmental and general assignments at the Colorado Springs Gazette for five years.
Also assigned to the beat at the News full-time is Gary Gerhardt, the newspaper’s nature and wildlife reporter. Deb Frazier, a state reporter, writes so often about environmental issues, such as water and forests on the western slope of the Rockies, that she practically qualifies as a third person on the beat, Hartman said.
As at the Post, reporters with other assignments also write environmental stories from time to time at the News, he said.
Bunch said he and Stein have taken a stab at dividing the beat by subject matter at the Post, "but there’s so much overlap and pitching in when the other guy is busy that it’s muddy as to who covers what on any given day."
In general, though, he said he tends to handle more of the Post’s daily coverage and politcally-oriented articles, while Stein more often takes the lead on longer pieces and science-related stories.
"Our mandate from above is to first tend our own garden -- Colorado and the West -- and turn those into national stories," Bunch said.
The Post reporters try to produce a mix of daily, Sunday and longer project stories, he said. Last October, for example, he and Stein teamed to produce a series on Colorado’s Referendum A, a $2 billion loan program for more dams and reservoirs that eventually was defeated.
Less as More ... Not Chasing Every Fish
Hartman said that at the News, "with occasional exceptions, and there aren’t many, (editors) leave me alone" to pay exclusive attention to environmental news.
"My view of environmental reporting is that less is more," he said. "I let a lot of fish swim by now. I think it’s better to focus on big, meaningful stuff. Environmental stories are inevitably so involved and often complex, but not every story requires a 60-inch take-out."
Each year Hartman has been at the News, he has worked on "a massive, resource-intensive project," supplementing more routine coverage.
The 2002 project was about chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder related to mad cow disease that affects deer and elk. Last year’s project examined a fight over a drainage ditch that pitted rural and suburban water demands.
Despite both Denver newspapers’ obvious dedication to covering environmental issues, the University of Colorado’s Len Ackland believes they also display certain shortcomings widely shared with mainstream newspapers in many American cities.
"They cover pieces of the environmental story quite well, but what they lack is a sustained coverage of the bigger issues," said Ackland, director of the university’s Center for Environmental Journalism and head of the news-editorial sequence in its School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Providing more "sustained coverage" of environmental issues is "the challenge facing all journalism," Ackland said. "How do you cover an ongoing slow-growth story, one without dramatic events behind it but a lot of pieces that all mount up to degradation of the environment?"
A couple of "mega-malls" have been constructed in the Denver- Boulder area, he noted, but the attendant news coverage was "all about what stores were there and how many jobs were created, with almost no coverage of transportation issues, impacts on land, and what they’ll do to air pollution."
Ackland nonetheless admires much of what does appear in the Denver dailies, citing the News’ attention to water issues and the Post’s coverage of political fighting at the Division of Wildlife. "I think that both Denver papers do some excellent environmental coverage," he said, adding that both newspapers’ staffs have "some very talented reporters."
But aside from what he regards as consistently good in-depth reporting in High Country News, a Colorado-based biweekly that covers environmental issues regionally, Ackland sees a decidedly patchy environmental-reporting picture elsewhere in the state.
"There are occasional good stories" in the state’s smaller daily papers, he said.
That appraisal was echoed in a detailed assessment of environmental reporting at all 285 daily newspapers the West, which was published last September by the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources after a two-year study: "Outside of Denver, the quality of environment coverage generally falls off rather sharply," the IJNR report concluded, referring not just to Colorado, but also to the rest of a "Great Plains and Rockies" region including Wyoming and Montana. "But there are a few exceptions," the report’s authors added, citing three small Colorado papers -- The Daily Camera in Boulder, The Aspen Times and The Pueblo Chieftain -- for praiseworthy work.
In association with the study’s release, IJNR also honored nine dailies as the "Best of the West," for the "quality and peristence" of their environmental coverage over the two-year period in which the study was conducted. One of the nine was in Colorado -- the 9,000-circulation Durango Herald, which was also the smallest of the papers that won the award.
(The Herald devotes a regular section on its website to environmental news. Over about four weeks in December and early January, for instance, staff-written articles dealt with a wide assortment of topics, such as the reestablishment of peregrine falcons, living Christmas trees, river sedimentation, land-preservation proposals, auto-wildlife accidents, a water-apportionment debate and local growers’ reaction to federal organic food standards.)
Financial Constraints not Unknown in Colorado
Like the IJNR report, Ackland observed that the Colorado press is subject to the financial constraints that limit the editorial performance of many newspapers nationwide.
"Corporations that own most media are focused on the bottom line," he said. "They want a 25 to 30 percent return every year, while most companies are happy with 10 to 15 percent. A squeeze is put on newsroom staffing. There are fewer reporters, and the news-hole shrinks. All of this puts pressure on reporters who are eager to do much more in-depth environmental coverage."
Related to economic considerations, some Colorado newspapers with reputations for excellent reporting on environmental issues have experienced recent breaks in the continuity of that coverage.
At Scripps’ Daily Camera, for instance, reporter Katy Human won wide praise for her science-attuned reporting on environmental topics, but she left the newspaper last year and has not been replaced, causing concern among some readers about the newspaper’s commitment to the beat.
Susan Deans, who became the Camera’s editor last year, after Human’s departure, said she hopes to hire a replacement and "revive the beat" by mid-2004.
"Like many newspapers in the country, we’ve been very careful about filling positions because of the economic situation," Deans added, but stressed that the environment is still regarded as a crucial beat at the Camera.
(Like the Durango Herald, the Boulder paper devotes a separate page on its website to environmental news. Besides stories from the Camera itself, this page includes links to environmental articles in other newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region and to HeadwatersNews.org, a regional news summary.)
"Obviously, there are huge environmental issues in Colorado," Deans said, citing the severe drought and wildfires that have beset the state in recent years, particularly in 2002.
Besides such statewide concerns, Boulder itself is home to the University of Colorado and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which means it has an unusually large collection of scientists working on environmental issues.
The environment "is a very important part of our county’s economy and job base," Deans said. "Not covering it is not an option."
The Longmont Daily Times-Call, competitor of the nearby Camera, also recently witnessed the departure of a staff member recognized for top-flight environmental reporting.
Eric Frankowski, a key member of a team that produced an award-winning investigative series on radioactive waste in 2002, doesn’t know if he will be able to return to his former position at the Times-Call after his current stint as one of the University of Colorado’s Ted Scripps Fellows in Environmental Journalism for the 2003-04 academic year.
"If it had been up to the city editor and managing editor, they would have let me come back, but the upper management decided there were no resources to keep my slot open, so there’s no job waiting for me to go back to," Frankowski said.
Still, he praised the newspaper’s ownership for the commitment necessary for the Times-Call, along with neighboring papers owned by the same company, to undertake an ambitious project on a local uranium company’s plan to dispose of 10 million pounds of radioactive soil from a Superfund site in New Jersey.
As a seven-day series in the Longmont paper, the project won a Society of Environmental Journalists award. As a special section in Canon City Daily Record, it received one of the Scripps Howard Foundaton’s Meeman Awards for environmental reporting. Frankowski had formerly covered environmental news for the Longmont paper while also serving as the county beat reporter. He launched a regular science-environment page before becoming an assistant city editor. It was while he held that job, still writing some reporting some environmental stories, that he became part of the project team.
"The (Longmont) paper had the insight to allow me and a couple of other reporters to basically take two months off" to work on the project, he said. "For a paper our size (circulation, about 25,000), that strikes me as pretty unique."
Meanwhile, financial considerations recently caused a cutback in operations at High Country News, which covers environmental issues across 11 Western states from its base in small Paonia, near the Colorado-Utah border.
The influential newspaper’s weekly radio program, launched in 1998 and eventually broadcast by 32 public stations throughout the West, ceased regular operation last September. A special edition on nuclear weapons in the region aired in November, however.
Even with the end of the regular radio show, High Country News still runs its syndicated column service, Writers on the Range, and continues to produce the kind of in-depth coverage for which it has become widely known over the past couple of decades.
Recently, much of that reporting has focused on the ramifications of the Bush administration’s drive to open more public lands to energy exploration and production.
"If there’s one theme we’ve been covering and ahead on during the last two to three years, it was oil and gas," said Greg Hanscom, the newspaper’s editor since 2002. "There’s a tremendous energy boom in progress here” that is “literally popping up in people’s backyards."
One function of High Country News is to serve as "the West’s environmental tip sheet," he said. "It’s really common for us to run a big story, then see some version, or five different versions, in other publications in the months that follow."
Working with numerous freelance reporters through the region, Hanscom said, "High Country News is close enough to the ground that we tend to see these things before a lot of national and regional media outlets see them."