If any news subject lends itself to coverage by multistation collaborations, it’s the environment of places like the Ohio River Valley, a region of 25 million people who share the river’s assets and liabilities.
Louisville Public Media’s WFPL is leading plans to build a pubradio reporting consortium for the region, starting with a public conference this month.
The project, which was turned down for funding by CPB’s initiative supporting local journalism centers, is moving ahead after securing grants from three foundations. It will produce on-air and online reporting from journalists throughout the watershed that reaches from New York to Tennessee.
“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness of the fact that environmental issues don’t stop at state borders,” said Kristin Espeland Gourlay, managing editor at WFPL. “What we put into the air from power plants in Louisville flows north and east, and run-off from a farm in Pittsburgh runs down stream to Cincinnati and Cairo, Ill.”
Collaborative reporting isn’t new to public radio. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium of stations — based at Michigan Radio when Louisville Public Media chief Donovan Reynolds was at Ann Arbor — launched in 1993 to provide an environmental news service for Upper Midwest stations; it now operates as The Environment Report, producing four-minute daily stories that air on outlets as far west as Utah.
Since 2003, public radio stations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho have collaborated on regional coverage via the Northwest News Network. More recently, Connecticut’s WNPR established the Northeast Environmental Hub as a project of NPR’s Local News Initiative. Eighteen stations in New England and New York produce and air the stories.
WFPL’s project adopts a radio/online strategy similar to that advocated for stations by CPB through its local journalism centers grant program and by NPR through its Argo Project: specialized reporting by journalists who know the subject, work collaboratively, and produce multimedia coverage for radio and the Web. “It will take some time to build an active network,” Gourlay said. “Right now, people are excited about the additional content and the opportunity for the reporters to make a little money.”
Gourlay, who signed on as WFPL’s environmental reporter in 2007 with the long-term assignment of building content-sharing partnerships with other stations in the region, was drawn to the subject area as a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. “I felt there were so many compelling environmental stories to tell, and they had to be told, and be told more often,” she said.
There are plenty to tell in the Ohio River Valley, too. “This watershed is home to one of nation’s largest concentration of people,” Gourlay said. “Its storied industrial past helped to grow the economy and it gave people jobs, but the concentration of people and industry has left some unhappy legacies of pollution.”
Gourlay is one of two reporters in the state of Kentucky reporting on the environment; the other writes for the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I feel really lucky that I can focus on this beat,” she said. “A lot of stations’ budgets are stretched and most reporters have to be generalists.”
With $100,000 in funding that she hopes will last two years, Gourlay will commission stories from station-based reporters and freelancers — mainly four-minute pieces, but also long-form and series reporting. She’s working up a series about water pollution caused by antiquated sewer systems.
The website ohioriverradio.org, still under construction, will feature audio and scripts from radio coverage, blogs, multimedia elements, social networking, and, eventually, a podcast. “I’d also like to build educational content of the watershed itself,” Gourlay said.
Participating stations fetch audio files of the stories from dropbox.com, an online file-sharing site. Stations can air the stories simply by asking Gourlay for access to its account. “It’s free content, free feature material, of really great quality,” she said, “and it’s making our environmental coverage as a network that much better.”
Later this month, WFPL plans to unveil the service to the general public at a conference in Louisville, “Covering the Ohio River Valley: A Convergence of Scientists and Media.” Researchers, reporters and educators will convene Feb. 26-27 to examine regional scientific and environmental issues and strategies for covering them.
The consortium launches with funding from the Alice S. Etscorn Charitable Foundation and the Gheens Foundation, both based in Louisville; the Energy Foundation; and a gift from Alice S. Etscorn.