Ask A Pro
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.
Why did you become a journalist?
I've enjoyed writing since early in elementary school. And through junior high and high school, I witnessed the important role of the press during the social change of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War and President Nixon's Watergate scandal. A friend got me involved as a sports writer at my high school paper (the Arthur Hill News in Saginaw, Mich.), and I found it fun. I later tackled more meaty subjects on my college newspaper (The Kaimin) at the University of Montana. My parents always told me, and my siblings, that we should find an occupation that gives us a chance to leave the world in a better place. I felt that journalism offered an opportunity to do that.
How did you gain the expertise needed to specialize in environmental reporting?
It started when I was very young. My parents owned a Christmas tree farm, and we'd spend many weekends there, enjoying nature and the outdoors. We made maple syrup, kept bees and produced honey, and planted many trees even before the first Earth Day in 1970. We also cut down trees, so I had the chance to learn something about the art and science of forestry. This upbringing prompted me to study forestry and journalism as an undergraduate. I later completed an master's degree in environmental studies, also at the University of Montana. I've since attended many seminars and conferences, and I also was fortunate to have been selected in 1998 for a Michigan Journalism Fellowship -- a year on campus taking various classes and meeting with professors and researchers. It's been helpful to have all the special training. I've found environmental subjects to be complicated, and very diverse. One day I'm a religion writer, the next a business writer, the next a science writer, and the next a political writer. Sometimes I need to integrate all these areas into one story.
What's the most enjoyable part of your job?
Getting out into the environment that I cover, and meeting people.
How has technology (the Internet, for example), changed the way you do your work?
I can't begin to explain how important computers and the Internet are to me. The Internet is a terrific resource for all sorts of information (of course, you have to be careful what you find is legitimate information). Computers also help collect and process data that can be used in stories through what's called computer-assisted reporting.
How difficult is it to take complex subjects and explain them to a general readership?
Difficult enough so that someday I go home with a headache. But it's important to do a good job of taking complex subjects and explaining them to a general readership. I believe our democracy depends on it. How can we, for example, make important public policy and business decisions regarding something as complex as climate change/global warming if we don't, as a society, understand the underlying issues? This is an increasingly technical society we live in. Issues such as biotechnology, climate change, biodiversity, health effects of toxic chemicals -- all need to be explained by someone. The role of the journalist is critical.
You are the current president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Can you tell us a bit about the organization?
Here's the official line: The Society of Environmental Journalists is the only U.S.- based membership organization of working journalists dedicated to improvements in environmental reporting. Our mission is to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting. Basically, SEJ is all about journalists helping other journalists do their jobs better, and have more fun along the way. It can be a hostile beat, both inside and outside the newsroom, and it's great to be able to part of a network of friends and peers who are in similar situations, for actual and moral support.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
Think hard about whether you want to go into journalism. It's a tough business. You may have to move around a lot. The pay isn't all that good, at least starting out. The hours can be long. While I've worked with some terrific editors, newspapers, at least, tend not to be terribly friendly places. But if you're the kind of person who enjoys the rewards of shedding light on issues that need sunshine; who likes to help shape a community's agenda; who enjoys informing people as well as entertaining them; and who believes in the First Amendment and wants to play a role in writing the first draft of history, then by all means, consider journalism.