The Trail of Adventure Journalism
By Stephen Sobek
Stephen Sobek is a reporter at the Associated Press’ Baltimore bureau.
Hartford Courant reporter Steve Grant's assignments have had him canoeing the Connecticut River and hiking the New England coastline in search of stories.
He was also in search of new readers, hoping to motivate the couch potatoes of the '90s to get outdoors, while at the same time getting them to read through what he calls "armchair adventure" stories.
But when Grant was given his new assignment, a series on hiking the Appalachian Trail, he knew he couldn't do it alone. It would take at least six months, and he had a wife and kids to think about.
So he enlisted other newspapers – the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Portland, Maine, Newspapers, a group that includes the Maine Sunday Telegram and the Portland Press Herald – to help him. Collectively, reporters from these papers decided to hike the trail in relay style, with each paper covering the section closest to its circulation area and all papers sharing their stories with the other participants.
Part of the goal of this "adventure journalism," according to John Harmon, who served as a hiking coach for the Atlanta faction, was to bring some nature back to a world that is becoming increasingly unnatural.
"Maybe the magic comes from going back to one of the oldest forms of recreation, walking, in an era when all pathways seem to lead to the information superhighway," Harmon wrote for the Journal and Constitution.
The hike, which began in March and ends this month, involved nine reporters and covered all 2,155 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from the mountains of northern Georgia to the 100-mile wilderness of Maine's north woods.
Grant says he originally approached about a dozen papers, but not all of them jumped at the opportunity, saying their readers wouldn't be interested or that they lacked resources to participate.
Don Hopey, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who hiked the longest portion of the trail, about 435 miles, says the length of the series may have put off less adventurous papers. "No one wants 31 weeks of 'Oh, my aching foot,' " he says.
But in addition to tales of the trail, the series has touched on more serious issues, such as clear-cutting forests, trail safety and the struggle of national parks to endure in the face of overuse and abuse. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt joined Hopey at one point on the trail to talk about land acquisition issues.
But some question the newsworthiness of adventure reporting. "There are some people in the newsroom who don't think this is real journalism," says Vic Kodis, deputy metro editor of the Courant and coordinating editor of the project.
So why do it? "It's partly an excuse to address these issues in a format that gains reader interest," says Kodis, "If we wrote news stories [about these topics], we wouldn't have anybody [reading]."
And people do seem to be reading "An Appalachian Adventure," as the series is called. Kodis says he gets an average of 125 calls a week from readers commenting on the series.
The most impressive feat of the Appalachian Adventure may have been getting large newspapers to pool their resources and talents. Kodis says he had feared there would be lack of teamwork, but somehow reporters from all the papers managed to work together ever since they bonded while hiking the first 30 miles of the trail together.
Bo Emerson, a general assignment reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution who hiked 200 miles of the trail in March, was both astonished and impressed by the group effort. "The collaboration is making a much better project, because we all get the benefit of the talent."
Emerson adds that newspapers could and should continue to benefit from such cooperative efforts in the future, though he acknowledges the exceptional circumstances that made this particular adventure so successful. "It could happen again," he says, "although it's still surprising to me that it happened at all."