Circle of Blue Honored by Society of Environmental Journalists

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.


Circle of Blue, where I’ve worked since 2007, and full-time since 2010, is steadily earning a reputation for best-in-class reporting, photography, and data design graphics on the global contest for clean water. This week, Circle of Blue’s trendsetting reporting on Western water issues in the United States and its scintillating photography on the contest for fresh water in India, California, and the Great Plains were honored with two awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the premiere professional trade organization representing 1,400 journalists and academics in 27 countries.

Brett Walton, Circle of Blue’s Seattle-based correspondent, won third place for “outstanding beat reporting” in a small market for five articles encompassing drug disposal in California, water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin, water pricing in 30 American cities, drought in Texas, and disinvestment in water infrastructure.

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s Traverse City-based co-founder and managing director, joined Choke Point: Index photographers Matt Black and Brian Lehmann in winning second place honors in environmental photojournalism for five compelling photographs of the competition between water, food, and energy on two continents.

SEJ said that it considered 313 entries for the 2013-2014 awards and chose 21 winners in seven categories. Circle of Blue is the only news organization to win two awards in this year’s contest.

It is the second time in two years that Circle of Blue’s reporting and photography on the global contest for fresh water has been recognized for its excellence. In 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation honored Circle of Blue with its $US100,000 Centennial Innovation Award.

“It is with humility and gratitude that we thank our colleagues and peers at the Society of Environmental Journalists for these honors,” Ganter said. “The story we are telling about the shrinking global supply of clean fresh water is critical to the security of every nation, every economy, every community. It is an honor to work with our exceptional Circle of Blue team. With these awards, it’s very gratifying to know such an esteemed group of environmental journalists thinks we are on the right track.”

Circle of Blue joined a prominent list of mainstream and online news organizations that also won SEJ awards this year. They include: The Baltimore Sun, Climate Wire, High Country News, the Miami Herald, National Geographic, Natural History, The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Seattle Times.

The contest judges made these comments about Brett Walton’s work:

“Brett Walton’s stories on the timely topic of drought brought out the calculations and competing interests for water in three major Western states, and he spun the issue out to the international level. The judges liked his easy, digestible writing style.”

And the judges said this about Circle of Blue’s photographers:

“From India to the Midwest to California, J. Carl Ganter, Matt Black, and Brian Lehmann capture in both intimate portraiture and dramatic aerials the changes to lives and landscape brought and wrought by the world’s quest for water.”

Brett Walton’s Award-Winning Stories

Circle of Blue’s Award-Winning Photography

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.
Punjab Green Revolution rice wheat aspen poplar flood irrigation grain harvest Choke Point India water food energy nexus Circle of Blue Wilson Center

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Desraj Khai, 57, has worked the Sekhon family’s land for nearly five decades, since the start of the Green Revolution, when Western crop scientists introduced Punjabi farmers to hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and chlorine-based weed and insect killers. Click image to enlarge.
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California's Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California’s Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.Click image to enlarge.
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.

Credit: Photo © Brian Lehman / Circle of Blue
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.Click image to enlarge.

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Click image to enlarge.

View the complete list of winners at Society of Environmental Journalists.

— Keith Schneider

Circle of Blue is “Changing the Face of Journalism”


Bob Giles, a son of the Midwest, former Pulitzer Prize winning editor at the Akron Beacon Journal, and then again as editor and publisher of The Detroit News, has been the curator since 2000 of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. A working newspaper journalist and editor since 1958, Giles knows a thing or two about reporting. He just published a piece in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on the future of online journalism. The article cites Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based online multi-media news organization, as a prime example of the “news-gathering experiments that are changing the face of journalism.”

“As journalism quickens the pace of its move to the Web, Circle of Blue is filling a niche by providing specialized content that is considered essential by an audience of shared interests but that can’t be found in such detail anywhere else,” Giles writes. “In many ways, it is reflective of a shift in how we define journalism, or at the very least, in how we go about producing and sharing it.”

“Some of these new ventures will fail, some will succeed. But the vitality of the start-up culture suggests that if the twilight of newspaper journalism is upon us, a fresh capacity to sustain journalism is charging forward. Circle of Blue is among several non-profit news organizations testing one of the industry’s most-discussed ideas: that serious journalism can be supported with funding from a variety of sources behind carefully constructed firerewalls built on traditional standards of journalistic ethics. It is a prototype of a business model that supports specialized coverage, but it in fact embraces characteristics common among other start-ups and experiments that hold promise as a new way of paying for serious journalism.”

Giles’ article, thoroughly reported and stylishly structured, aptly captures the resolve and excitement gathering around serious independent online journalism. Stephen Engelberg, a friend and former colleague at the New York Times,  who helped win a number of Pulitzers in New York, just won another with his colleagues at Pro Publica, the first online Pulitzer ever awarded.

Giles is right on target in citing Circle of Blue as an especially effective model of what is possible in the new online reporting space. Next week J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s director and co-founder (with his wife Eileen) convenes a strategic planning and design session in San Francisco with a group of creative people he’s met from around the nation and world. The two-day session, facilitated by The Value Web, is intended to take Circle of Blue’s multi-media news desk to a new level of engagement, innovation, and effectiveness.

And that’s saying something. Since its founding in 2002 as an online newsroom covering the global freshwater crisis, Circle of Blue has dispatched multi-media news teams to cover some of the world’s most important water stories on five continents. It’s gathered journalists, scientists, and designers to produce probing reports that have made it the single most important source of breaking news about freshwater issues in the world. It’s done so with the highest standards of reporting, writing, design, photography, videography, and motion graphics.

Still, the real miracle of Circle of Blue, an aspect that wasn’t reported in Daedalus, is that Circle of Blue has produced its work, established new dimensions in multi-media environmental journalism, and influenced important global organizations like the World Economic Forum, on an annual budget that has never exceeded $250,000. Funders span the horizon, from a small New York family foundation to MolsonCoors.

For three years I’ve served as senior editor, writer, and producer at Circle of Blue, working a few hours a week under an agreement with Carl and Eileen. My roles also include fundraising, strategic advisor, outreach staffer, and occasional trip planner. I’ve joined Carl on Circle of Blue reporting  and development trips to Sydney, Stockholm, San Francisco, New York, Washington, Denver, and Aspen. (That’s Carl (l) and me (r) in the pix up top with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2007.)

Every month that passes Circle of Blue draws closer to gaining that major foundation grant that scales up the news desk and enables Carl to finally build, in Traverse City, what he calls “the newsroom of the future.” Bob Giles’ piece in Daedulus is the latest sign that the moment is drawing ever closer.

New Midwest Online News Entry


John Bebow, an active member of the association of newsies-who-became-public-interest-advocates, sent an interesting item in his weekly email alert about the emergence of online news organizations in the Midwest. John diverged from a decorated daily news career,  that included stops at the Detroit News and Chicago Tribune, to become the executive director of the Center For Michigan, a nearly two-year-old non-profit that focuses on state economic and competitiveness issues that was founded by Phil Powers, the founder and former owner of a successful chain of newspapers in southern Michigan.

Mr. Bebow notes that “traditional newspaper newsrooms continue to shrivel. In Michigan this year, the Booth papers closed their Lansing bureau. Gannett papers in cities ranging from Battle Creek to Detroit are cutting staffs with buyouts and, in some cases, layoffs. And Detroit News Business Editor Mark Truby, widely respected as one of the very best journalists in the state, left for a corporate job at Ford and, in the process, became the latest in a long line of veteran journalists (including your newsletter author) to leave newsrooms for other opportunities. In the face of these declines in traditional media, new kinds of journalism — funded by philanthropy — are cropping up all over the place. Michigan is ripe with great stories waiting to be told and meaty issues deserving of in-depth coverage. Journalism funded by philanthropy is a great hope for the future of public discourse in Michigan.”

Part of John’s post is personally satisfying. Of the five independent online news organizations he cited, I’ve been deeply involved in two, the Michigan Land Use Institute and Circle of Blue, both based in Traverse City. They reflect the ability of talented journalists, editors, producers, and graphic designers to make the complex simple — land use and economic policy in the Institute’s case, the global freshwater crisis for Circle of Blue — and produce consistently compelling work that is reaching large audiences. The 21st break-up of mass — mass media, mass audiences, mass marketing — has opened the opportunity for news organizations to be small, nimble, very good, attract significant numbers of visitors, have influence, and be financially successful. 

The other side of that trend, of course, is that the large news organizations of the 20th century, designed to reach the masses, are struggling to develop the new business model. 

The New York Times, which literally shrunk the size of the pages of its print edition a few months ago, is likely to survive as a global news organization because it is great, and it is building an exceptional Web presence that attracts seven or eight times more readers to its online report than its print newspaper. But it’s only a matter of time, probably sooner than later, before the Times decides that all that infrastructure — forests, paper plants, printing plants, delivery trucks and the rest — needed to deliver a paper edition to roughly 1 million readers a day is just not worth the trouble. About 20 percent of what I write for the Times now heads to what editors call the “web-only”  report. 

Regional daily newspapers and many general interest magazines, though, may not survive in print or online. The cost of maintaining 50 or 100-member newsrooms at roughly $100,000 a person (including taxes and benefits) is just too high.

The other intriguing portion of John’s alert concerned a number of prominent old-school journalists in Minneapolis who say they’ve raised over $1.2 million to open, a new online daily set up as a non-profit.  The roster of staff and contributors numbers 45 people. Though just a handful are full or part-time payroll employees, and the rest freelancers who will earn from $100 to $600 per piece, that looks to me like a sizable weekly and monthly churn. I have no doubt that what publishes will be useful. Journalists love adventure and challenge and is both. I wish the group great success. 

But as an observer of new models I have a question. Will this distinctive mixing of strategies — large numbers of reporters seeking to succeed financially in an online news world that rewards compact newsrooms — survive? And if it does, will have invented something important for readers and their communities?

The new online journalism models that have been successful — Grist, Alternet, MLUI, Sightline, MetroMode, Truth DigTalking Points Memo,, Voice of San Diego, and others — thrived because they were good and small. A few editors, a small number of journalists, a graphic designer or two, a Web producer, a multi-media producer. That is especially important for the online non-profits because attracting donors and foundations is hard work. Though foundations say they admire communications, and call on their grantees to pay attention to what they say and how they say it, grants for communications are some of the toughest money to find. The measurements of success, as defined by philanthropies and donors, can be murky. Is it readership, page views, changes in policy? 

One small news operation that became large is Slate, which operates on a profit model, is owned by the Washington Post, has 59 editorial staff members, and was fortunate to have Bill Gates’ money to get started in 1996.

I don’t know of any independents, especially a startup online non-profit daiy news operation set to launch on November 8, that ever had as many journalists ready to go as Minnpost. com. It is for that reason alone that if they’re still here a year from today it’s a potentially enormous breakthrough for regional media. I join a number of my colleagues in the online news world in wishing our friends in Minneapolis the best.

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello


As a lifelong member of the tribe of career adventurists it’s time to announce another turn in the journey. I am leaving the Michigan Land Use Institute to take a new position as senior editor and strategist for Circle of Blue, an independent online journalism, research, and movement building organization focused on helping to solve the freshwater crisis. What’s especially keen, along with the great promise of a new way to influence a global environmental and economic crisis, is that I won’t have to leave home. Circle of Blue, based in Traverse City, is the second organization devoted to public interest journalism, research, and social organizing in northwest Michigan. The first, of course, was the Michigan Land Use Institute, founded in Benzonia on April 22, 1995, the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.

In many ways the same three factors — trends in news and communication technology, a compelling public interest, and opportunity — that drew me to Circle of Blue also prompted the founding and strategic vision of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Both organizations are devoted to executing the highest standards of journalism and perform that mission at a level of reporting, framing, and narrative that well-exceeds the capacity of the mainstream media. Both organizations understand how to apply email, the Internet, multi-media, motion graphics, and the other evolving communications tools to attract and inform large online audiences. And both utilize the power of great storytelling to support citizen movements that influence the course of events on complex economic, environmental, and cultural issues.

In its  basic outlines none of this is really new.  The environmental historians among us will recall that John Muir, the essayist and founder of the Sierra Club, applied his tremendous reporting and storytelling skills in the pages of Century Magazine in the late 19th cenury to argue for conserving the Sierra Nevada. That work, disseminated to Congress, prompted the United States in 1890 to establish Yosemite as the nation’s second national park. 

Yet all of it is new. What we learned at the Michigan Land Use Institute is that great reporting, well-told and broadly disseminated, helps to shape, clarify, elevate, and support the grassroots groups that are making all the difference now in our state. The Institute recruited terrific reporters – Kelly Thayer on transportation, Patty Cantrell and Dianne Connors on agriculture and local foods, Andy Guy on the Great Lakes, Carolyn Kelly on energy, Glenn Puit on investigations — and gave them the time to dig in and pursue important stories. Though there are exceptions, the opposite is occurring in the mainstream media. My epiphany on this subject came in 1995 when my own newspaper flooded the OJ Simpson trial coverage with elite writers only to discover that the National Enquirer consistently produced the best reporting. 

The Institute’s founding came just six months after CompuServe and AOL offered the first dial-up Internet service. We very quickly recognized that the print publishing strategy we initially developed would move online. In 1998, when the Institute launched its first Web site, the organization’s work was read by the 5,000 families and businesses that received our three-times-a-year Great Lakes Bulletin magazine, the several thousand more who saw our work in mainstream newspapers, and others who caught drift of the Institute’s efforts through events and word of mouth. Last July, in contrast, nearly 200,000 visitors came to the Institute’s main Web site, some 25,000 more visited our Taste the Local Difference fresh food site, nearly 20,000 people read our weekly email alerts, almost 1,000 reporters and editors received our weekly Great Lakes Bulletin News Service feed, and some 4,000 people were attracted to our two blogs: this one and Great Lakes Guy.  

What does a public interest organization do with that kind of capacity? Help make things better. You make the case stick for an alternative to environmentally ruinous and needlessly expensive, energy-inefficient, land-wasting new highway bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City. You help an alliance of a conservation groups establish safeguards for two new natural rivers, the first designated since 1988. You begin rebuilding the market, processing, and transportation infrastructure to make it easier for buyers and producers of fresh home grown food to find each other. You provide citizens the information they need to ban oil and gas drilling along the Great Lakes shoreline. You convince the conservative state Supreme Court to overrule an equally ideological state Appellate Court and reinstate the right of all citizens to walk every mile of Great Lakes beaches. You help Michigan and the nation understand that prosperity is intimately connected to how communities are designed. And you report on the prosperity that Chicago and Salt Lake City, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City are achieving by embracing a new energy-efficient, transit-oriented, neighborhood sustaining, environmentally-sensitive development strategy.

Although I will continue my affiliation with the Institute early next year as a part-time special projects writer, my departure as a full-time senior leader produces two emotions: lament that comes with things ending, and the ferment that accompanies things new. The Michigan Land Use Institute is a superb public interest organization with a committed and capable staff. Twelve years is a long time in the life of a person and an organization.  One adventure has ended. Another is starting. You say goodbye. I say hello.    

New Media, Old Media, Race and the Internet


In May 2004 when writer David Brock launched Media Matters For America, the Web site that specializes in documenting the lies and other distasteful discourse that permeates talk radio and TV, I paid immediate attention. went up near the top of my favorites list for a couple of reasons. The reporting was entirely new and airtight — the Web site made very good use of on-air clips and transcripts. The frame was values driven and righteous. Brock and his staff served to answer the question a lot of us had been asking of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and the boneheads at CNN talk shows for years. Did you hear that? Can he really say that?

Just as significantly, MediaMatters represented the blossoming of the new Internet-based media that was asking different questions, reporting angles never considered by the mainstream media, and doing it on a new global medium accessible to thousands of readers. Rush Limbaugh’s career has been slipping ever since MediaMatters began keeping a daily log of his hateful, error-filled enabling of the radical right.  And with the development of broadband and video file sharing sites, Media Matters has become the central watchdog of the cable news and television talk show discourse, too. 

This week MediaMatters displayed, more emphatically than ever before, just how significant a force it and the Internet media have become. And conversely, why the mainstream media’s role is gradually waning as a source of original reporting and taking on the role as amalgamator and synthesizer.

MediaMatters, which attracts about 120,000 visitors a day, was the first to report Don Imus’ racist attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which reached and lost the national championship game last week. Had there been no MediaMatters it’s almost certain Imus’ act of career suicide — he called the team of mostly African American players “nappy headed hos” — would have gone unaddressed. Imus’ many friends include a host of white bigfoot magazine, newspaper, radio, and television journalists and broadcasters who regularly appear on his nationally broadcast show. They  didn’t think the attack was a big deal. Some of them — Howard Fineman, Tom Oliphant, Mike Lupica  — raced to Imus’ defense in the days after MediaMatters’ reporting began to generate the national storm that is ending his career. Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, displaying more evidence that he’s lost his political pitch, said Imus deserved a second chance. 

After all, several of the major figures in the story had issues of their own. Brock himself was once a media hitman for the radical right, writing vile pieces for the American Spectator about Anita Hill and Bill Clinton before recanting and veering left. Al Sharpton, who called for Imus’ removal, once championed a young black girl, Tawana Brawley, who made up from whole cloth a story of how she’d been attacked by whites and smeared with feces. Jesse Jackson, who’s been calling for more civil discourse on rap records and the like, referred to New York during his 1984 presidential campaign as “Hymietown.”

The authenticity of MediaMatters’ reporting on the Imus remark and its aftermath kept the story in a firm path. MediaMatters compiled the clips, transcripts, video files, and commentary — all available with a mouse click — that gave the running story new content, pace and context. That made it much simpler for readers to draw conclusions, bloggers to make assessment, and for mainstream journalists to stay abreast of events. Rarely has a single news desk so completely owned a major national political and cultural news event.

The real value of what MediaMatters did, of course, is open new ground in the ongoing epic of race, class, and equity in America. The saga had a main character — a media humpty — who made a hateful remark that is causing him to publicly break into a dozen pieces. Last night MSNBC removed him permanently from its airwave. CBS Radio, which broadcasts the radio show, is sure to follow. Imus’ brand is so grievously injured that the car, soap, food, media, and travel companies that supported his show aren’t going to threaten their brands.    

This blog, Mode Shift, is intently interested because race touches everything, particularly where we choose to live. Anything that can lead to understanding helps. In Michigan, the most segregated state in the country, we are especially mindful. The sprawling patterns of development that emptied Michigan’s cities and prompted suburbs to consume land at a pace four to eight times faster than population growth, were largely caused and are still the result of racial distrust. 

The inability of southeast Michigan to develop a regional rapid transit system is defined by public officials as solely a matter of money. But those of us who’ve worked hard to dig out the facts and talk about the problem know that at the very core, the lack of a rapid transit system is because of discomfort – I use the word carefully — the mostly white suburbs and the mostly black cities have about linking to each other. 

Michigan residents last year approved a measure making affirmative action illegal. For decades our legislature has systematically skewed its public investments for roads, sewers and other infrastructure toward the suburbs, and away from the cities. Michigan’s many barriers to achieving a more competitive economy and ending its obsolete political and business operating systems is tied to the state’s commitment to division instead of collaboration and cooperation.

MediaMatters played a role in the Imus affair that not nearly enough mainstream media are pursuing.  It broke a big cultural and economic story, served as a forum for discussion, fed the conversation with new facts, context, and Internet links. By the strength of its original reporting, MediaMatters also pushed the conversation about race a few steps forward and served the public interest. Nice job.