Flip: Keep Track of Gulf Disaster on SkyTruth

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SkyTruth is an eight-year-old non-profit that uses satellite and aerial imagery to study landscapes. I’ve been keeping track of the Gulf Disaster with this organization’s state of the art remote sensing capabilities, all of it online and extremely useful. I’ve used SkyTruth’s work before in tracking big spills, and other disasters. Check it out.

— Keith Schneider

Multi-Media Environmental Journalism at Circle of Blue

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Since the day back in 1981, when Inquiry Magazine dispatched me to the mountains of Cherokee County to find out why a popular defoliant was causing so much trouble in the forests and small towns of western North Carolina, I’ve been an environmental reporter.

Today, Circle of Blue, where I serve as a senior editor and producer, posted “Reign of Sand,” an online multi-media report on the transition from grass to dust that is occurring in Inner Mongolia. Take a look.

“Reign of Sand” represents the leading edge of global environmental journalism. It’s not only that the package joins traditional narrative reporting with superb multi-media story telling. It’s also that this ambitious journalism was produced by an independent news organization based in Traverse City, Michigan.

As environmental reporting and most other important journalism is gradually pushed out of the newspapers and television reports of America’s mainstream news business, it is flourishing in independent news organizations, among them Circle of Blue.

“Reign of Sand” achieves the highest standards of probing original reporting and exceptional multi-media presentation. Frankly the reporting is as solid as anything produced by the New York Times, the pictures achieve the same striking quality as National Geographic, and the interactive map and video are simply superb.

For this old salt, the posting of “Reign of Sand” is an exciting moment in a long and productive career in writing about the competition between man and nature. Over the years I’ve reported and published in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee, International Herald Tribune, 60 Minutes, NPR, Esquire, and Outside. And I’ve reported for those out of the mainstream — In These Times, Sierra, Amicus Journal, E Magazine, Mother Jones, Oceans, Grist.

During all that time I made it a practice to keep my feet firmly set in both camps, and to keep pace with new technology and dissemination practices. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I wore out a Smith Corona electric typewriter just in time to buy one of the first IBM PCs in 1983, a system with a Volkswriter word processing program and a Xerox daisy wheel printer that set me back $6,000. I borrowed two-thirds of it from my Dad.

At that time I founded and edited two independent news services — SC Featured in Charleston, S.C., and NewsWest in Sacramento. I syndicated articles in national publications, along with black and white pictures. I sent my work in big yellow envelopes through the mail. When I wrote for the Times as a stringer, I read the copy into a recording machine in New York.

When I joined the Times in 1985 we used Radio Shack TRS 80 computers that showed three lines of type in a narrow window. The machine came with two black rubber cups, which you had to squeeze onto either end of a telephone receiver. Sending a file involved finding a pay phone with a good signal, dialing up New York’s computer, waiting for the high-pitched computer squeal, punching a key or two on the Trash 80, and hoping the connection would hold long enough to send the whole file. Often it didn’t. But it was easier than reading into a recording machine.

By the time the Web made its presence felt in the mid-1990s I’d jumped out of the mainstream and into the new media of the Michigan Land Use Institute, managing a team of journalists who broke stories and framed the environmental story in this state not as a litany of toxic assaults but as a story of opportunity and economic competitiveness. The Institute gradually discarded much of its expensive print reporting and posted most of its work on our own online news services, email alerts programs, and a Web site that eventually attracted nearly 200,000 visitors a month.

Circle of Blue advances and improves that model, applying great reporting and multi-media story telling to global environmental issues, and doing it in a way that is both fresh and absorbing. The reporting was undertaken by a writer based in South Korea, a photographer from Malaysia, and a videographer and editor from Traverse City.

The story the Circle of Blue team brought back from Inner Mongolia has global significance. The tools the organization used to produce and disseminate it sets a new standard for environmental reporting. For a writer who once earned his keep with an electric typewriter and postage stamps it’s both amazing and a ton of fun.

Reign of Sand

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Late last summer Circle of Blue, a global multi-media journalism project based here in Traverse City, sent a reporting team to Inner Mongolia, China to cover the front lines of the freshwater crisis in Asia. The members included a writer based in South Korea, a photographer from Australia, an artist and grasslands specialist from Beijing, and Eric Daigh, a videographer and multi-media producer from Circle of Blue’s main office in northern Michigan.

Circle of Blue’s strategy is to merge great independent reporting with the new online multi-media production and dissemination tools to elevate freshwater scarcity to a global priority. The project is the inspiration of Carl and Eileen Ganter, multi-media journalists who live in Traverse City and covered the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. They returned with the idea of doing what no mainstream media organization wanted to do: invest in producing great reporting and images to galvanize public attention around an emerging global environmental, cultural, and political crisis.

Circle of Blue is finishing its “Reign of Sand” multi-media report from Inner Mongolia, which includes more video, articles, photographs, and an interactive motion graphic map. This video is a taste of the great work to come from this online journalism project.

Flip: As Bali Climate Conference Begins, One Man Makes a Multi-Media Difference

How useful can imagination and multi-media imagery be in helping to explain the risks of global warming? Check out this remarkable interactive map produced by Architecture 2030, the non-profit founded by Ed Mazria, an architect based in New Mexico. Each of the red hot spots identifies a coastal community that would largely disappear in a torrent of tidal flooding caused by the melting ice caps. It’s among the most immediately visual scenarios of a potential national calamity I’ve seen. 

Achitecture 2030’s terrific work also includes examples of expert messaging that adorn almost every section of its first-rate Web site. The call to action surrounds a single essential assertion: America doesn’t need and shouldn’t even think about building one more coal-fired power plant.

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That also is a message that the world’s climate change scientists and activists need to carry to Bali, where the 11-day United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change got started today.

More quickly than many advocates of clean energy ever imagined, the idea of halting every new power plant proposal is gaining mainstream acceptance in the United States. The only comparable example in American environmentalism of citizens and scientists coalescing so quickly around a big idea to ban an industrial technology occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s with the global pact to end atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. It still took more than a decade to ratify the first nuclear test ban treaty in the early 1960s.

Who knows how long it will take to convince Americans that coal-powered plants are a fundamental hazard to themselves and their children. But the path to a national ban is now slowly being strewn with cancelled plants. Kansas halted a new plant in October. An Idaho utility in November abandoned its plan to build a plant. In 2004, citizens in Manistee, Michigan halted a proposal to build a coal-fired plant along the shore of Lake Michigan.

In each case, the idea of turning aside a bad idea began with one person deciding to make a difference. That is certainly the case with Ed Mazria, who  became interested in energy efficiency and architecture, and very quickly expanded his vision to include activism to respond to climate change. What’s so hopeful is that online technology, global dissemination tools, interactive multi-media, adept presentation skills, and some cash invested in the right places (great GIS and multi-media, and full page ads in the New York Times) made its possible for one individual to add real value to a necessary conversation.