Monday, November 10, 2014

All The News That Fits, They Print

Best wishes to reporter Christopher Dunagan who last month ended 37 years of reporting at the Kitsap Sun. Chris says he will continuing writing his periodic Watching Our Water Ways blog  but for those of us who have followed and worked with environmental “beat” reporters, we’ll miss the deep knowledge and perspective a seasoned reporter like Chris brought to his writing.

Chris’ “retirement” leaves John Dodge at The Olympian as pretty much the last man standing among the beat reporters who can remember writing stories about the early days of the Shoreline Management Act, the state Model Toxics Control Act, secondary sewage treatment and the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. John has moved to feature writing, and the consolidation of newsrooms at The Olympian and The News Tribune of Tacoma has left both papers without any environmental coverage to speak of.

Makes it tough to be an aggregator of Salish Sea environmental news when the coverage gets noticeably thinner.

Today’s environmental reporters like Craig Welch and Lynda Mapes at The Seattle Times are much more selective in to what they report on and work hard on larger, feature stories like climate change and Elwha River restoration. Gary Chittim at KING5, another seasoned reporter, covers stories with a wider feature angle. “Beat” reporting on Sound-wide issues is left to reporters like Ashley Ahearn at KUOW/EarthFix and Bellamy Pailthorp at KPLU who still cover meetings and hearings and press conferences while champing at the bit to do feature reporting. It’s rare to see consistent local environmental news coverage but the Skagit Valley Herald affords reporter Kimberly Cauvel the time and space to cover local issues as a “beat.” Noah Haglund and Bill Sheets sometimes do what might be considered environmental stories at The (Everett) Herald; meanwhile, after the retirement of the tireless John Stark, environmental stories shrank away at the Bellingham Herald.

I guess I still miss the powerhouse duo of Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler (and before them Rob Taylor) at the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where online, Joel Connelly is still able, sometimes, to rock the establishment’s boat when it comes to Victoria sewage.

Of course, media animals will always flock to cover coal train and coal port protest stories, oil train and oil tanker stories, ocean acidification and oyster industry stories, and salmon and killer whale stories but the more day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year kinds of stories about nearshore development, restoration funding, pollution enforcement, citizen engagement and just plain poop, both regional and local, that a reporter like Chris Dunagan provided can only be done on a “beat,” paid for by one’s employer publication. And they’ll pay for that kind of coverage if they think environmental stories sell papers.

Perhaps the business model is the reason why we don’t see more environmental news coverage: publishers and editors don’t think they sell newspapers. Environmental news coverage in the McClatchy-owned papers (The Olympian, The News Tribune of Tacoma and the Bellingham Herald) is sadly lacking; it’s flaccid at the Sound Publishing-owned The (Everett) Herald but better at the Peninsula Daily News; and it’s too early to tell at the Scripps-owned Kitsap Sun.

So we should be thankful that it makes business sense to the Seattle Times to invest in the amount and kind of environmental coverage they get from their reporters. And kudos to the Skagit Valley Herald for its local beat coverage. We can thank the competition between public radio stations for the continued environmental coverage. And there’s always Gary Chittim at KING to try to talk into doing an environmental story.

At the Vancouver Sun and at the Victoria Times-Colonist, it’s heartening to have long-time reporters Larry Pynn and Bill Cleverly, respectively, pounding away on the environment beat.

Thinking about the quantify and quality of news coverage in Puget Sound inevitably leads to thinking about who owns the print media in Puget Sound. Sound Publishing owns, in addition to the Everett and Peninsula daily newspapers, 34 weekly newspapers and numerous monthly publications in Puget Sound. Sound Publishing is a subsidiary of Black Press Group, a privately-held media company based in Vancouver BC with ownership of Canadian publications. (Principal David Black is also seeking to build an oil refinery at Kitimat.) Black Press Group also owns the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other island publications.

Like the family farm, the days of the family-owned newspaper are quickly passing.

--Mike Sato

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