AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 1997

A New Genre of Environmental Reporting   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

It started out as a typical government story — a look at the way the state's efforts to institute business-friendly policies were playing out. But when two reporters for the Hackensack, New Jersey, Record began looking into the impact of budget cuts and loosened government regulations and found a morass of questionable campaign contributions and insider politics, an award-winning environmental series emerged.

And so too, perhaps, did a new genre of journalism that might be called enviro-political reporting. According to the judges who recently awarded Dunstan McNichol and Kelly Richmond the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, "Open for Business," a 13-part series published by the Record during the summer of 1996, defies the stereotypes of environmental reporting.

Record senior writers McNichol and Richmond, both alumni of Washington, D.C.'s States News Service, didn't set out to reinvent environmental journalism. The idea for the series, which can be accessed online at http://www.bergen.com, developed shortly after New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman declared that New Jersey was "Open for Business" in her 1993 inaugural speech, promising to attract more businesses to the state and to create more jobs as a result.

McNichol, who covers the state budget, and Richmond, who covers the governor's office as well as lobbying and campaign finance issues, had both covered the "Open for Business" initiative independently as part of their beats. Both felt that the average reader knew it existed, but didn't necessarily know much about it. So they decided to join forces to explain "Open for Business" to readers. In the process, they learned that special business development deals were awarded to a company with questionable ties to the governor's office, and that the business policy initiative was rife with negative environmental consequences.

"It became clear after about a year and a half that issues she [Whitman] was portraying as win/win situations were really having some impact that wasn't really being discussed or disclosed," says McNichol. "If you look at the statistics, a lot of the budget cuts were aimed at the Department of Environmental Protection. A lot of the regulatory changes were aimed at the regulation of the Department of Environmental Protection."

Whitman defended her "Open for Business" initiative on the grounds that it created jobs and improved the local economy. But McNichol and Richmond challenged her assumptions with a barrage of statistics showing that the real boost in jobs had occurred in lower-paying occupations and temporary positions. Their
number-crunching also demonstrated the ways in which policies intended to keep businesses from leaving the state, such as lower pollution fines and more lenient emission rules, caused a chain reaction adversely affecting the environment, the economy and, ultimately, citizens and consumers.

McNichol and Richmond brought their findings to the attention of their editors and, in addition to the year and a half they had already invested, spent 10 more months on the project (they originally said it would take only three). The result was an exhaustive series that promised to "explore the new avenues of access that have been created for well-connected businesspeople..and how the new approach has affected the state's work force."

Richmond and McNichol had no idea their work would be noticed outside New Jersey. But their approach to environmental reporting struck a chord with the judges of the Oakes Award.

" 'Open for Business' challenges our preconceptions about environmental journalism," says Oakes Award judge Jonathan Larsen, a former editor of the Village Voice. "There are no furry animals and no majestic forests. But the series proves that one of the greatest services environmental journalism can do is put the environment at the center of political reporting."

Richmond says the relationship between political and environmental reporting is one that has existed all along but has been overlooked. "The interaction between a government story and environmental impact is a strong one," Richmond says. "Deregulation always sounds good, but a lot of times that would have real- world impact on the quality of water, food quality, air pollution."

Richmond and McNichol illustrated this real-world impact in one installment of the series by reporting that the possible closing of acres of New Jersey's waters to shellfishing would put the jobs of 1,300 fishermen and many more employees of packing houses in jeopardy. The series also showed how the initiative hampered the DEP's ability to adequately monitor the state's water.

After the articles ran, Whitman jettisoned a plan to overhaul the way the state issues permits that control water pollution. The state legislature also restored $5 million to the DEP's budget. Other proposals thought to be on the verge of being passed, including one that would allow an increase in the levels of toxins remaining in soil after an industrial cleanup, are stalled.

Record readers flooded the paper with letters after the series ran. "Some letters would protest about the main section being filled with a vendetta against the governor," says McNichol. "But the majority were saying, 'We're glad you're telling us what's going on.' "