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.
©JGanter_India_G7_0095

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

Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Is Fun and, Perhaps, Something More

Pharrell Williams was born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his friends and family knew from his earliest days as a percussionist in the school band, and his singing performances in school plays, that the artist with the top song on worldwide pop charts for the last 10 weeks would amount to something rare. Even before Pharrell posted the ‘Happy’ dance video last October, he’d won seven Grammy Awards for songwriting, production, and performance, composed the soundtrack to Despicable Me and its sequel (which included ‘Happy’) and performed, produced, or composed alongside an A list of pop stars ranging from Beyonce’ to Miley Cyrus to Robin Thicke to Kanye West and Snoop Dogg.

With the ‘Happy’ video, and the enormous reach of the wired world, Pharrell has transcended boundaries of geography, class, and ideology. ‘Happy’ displays the powerful influence of music, verse, and video to attract and inspire a global audience. And though ‘Happy’ asks no more of its viewers than to laugh, dance, clap, lipsynch, and produce a video for YouTube, it proves just how quickly people, especially young people, can shape a global movement when they’re motivated.

On Christmas Day 2013 ‘Happy’ had 5 million views on YouTube. By May 10, 2014, it had 232 million views. Young people from nations on six continents had posted their own versions, many of which had attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

Now imagine, just for a minute, if that kind of global community could be called to come together to act on trends in a way that would make us just as happy.

One of the powerful unarticulated messages of ‘Happy’ is that it recognizes, ever so obliquely, that the world and its human community is a bit lost, what Pharrell describes as “a room without a roof.” His solution, emphatically stated, is “happiness is the truth.” Continue reading “Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Is Fun and, Perhaps, Something More”

Reporting on Change in America

Welcome to Mode Shift, a blog that chronicles accelerating transition in American life. Mode Shift looks at the economy, clean energy,  competitiveness of state and metropolitan regions, politics and policy, and the swift development of online communications and media. The focus is new forms, new techniques, the new rules of the game  in economic development and communications. I’m interested in change and how people respond to it. Never has change occurred as fast as it is today. I’m intent on applying to Mode Shift’s reporting and commentary nearly 30 years of accumulated knowledge and experience in writing about technology, government, business, transportation, agriculture and the environment. This blog, in short, is about evolution. And that also applies to the career of its producer, a journalist and public policy specialist, a non-profit executive and grass roots organizer, a smart and lovable guy who was raised on the East Coast, educated in the Mid-Atlantic, and lived in the Deep South, the West Coast, and Washington, D.C., before alighting here on the northern coast of Lake Michigan.

I came to this part of Michigan as a young man in 1990 and as a national correspondent for the New York Times. I began living here full-time as correspondent and resident in 1993. Not long afterward my new career as a public interest advocate began along the same route taken by thousands of other American environmental activists. Basically, it ran right past my doorstep.

In February 1994, just three months after I’d begun living and writing full-time as a New York Times national correspondent from a tiny cabin in the woods of Manistee County, a landman from the natural gas industry knocked on my door. The stranger said the entire region was the target for aggressive drilling. I joined a group of neighbors in forming the Michigan Communities Land Use Coalition (MCLUC) to make the case for energy development practices that were sensitive to the land and the communities that inhabited the land. MCLUC recruited local governments and other state environmental organizations as allies.

The work to bring reason to natural gas development quickly grew into the largest and most influential grassroots environmental advocacy campaign in Michigan. It also led to start of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which was based in Benzonia and formally incorporated on April 22, 1995, the 25th anniversary of Earth.

At the heart of the Institute’s distinctive approach to reasoned advocacy was an independent news desk, staffed by editors, writers, and designers that produced some of the best reporting in the country on land use, Smart Growth, energy development, transportation, urban development, local foods, and other subjects. During the 12 years that I spent at the Institute from 1995 to 2007, I served in almost every senior leadership position. I helped the organization grow to a peak of 21 staff members working out of Traverse City and four regional offices, and my work as a writer and editor helped to make Smart Growth the design standard for cities and suburbs across the country.

Since leaving the Institute I’ve expanded my work to include new specialities as a multimedia producer, communications specialist, and strategist. I’ve been recognized nationally as one of the leaders of a new dimension in environmental journalism made possible by technology, markets, urgency, and civic participation. I’m currently the director of media and communications for the US Climate Action Network, a coalition of 90 public interest organizations focused on solving climate change.

Prior to joining USCAN, I was director of communications for the Apollo Alliance, a coast-to-coast coalition of labor, green, business, and government organizations building a clean energy economy in the United States from its headquarters in San Francisco. I’m also the senior editor of Circle of Blue, a Traverse City-based online multi-media news organization reporting on the global fresh water crisis. And I am  a regular contributor to the New York Times, Grist Magazine, and Yale Environment 360, as well as an online communications, infrastructure, and message specialist who consults with for-profit and non-profit businesses and organizations across the country.

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There were innumerable ways in 2007 to start Mode Shift, but the most appropriate was to begin in Buckfield, Maine, a cross road town in the woods about 80 minutes north of Portland. Buckfield’s been around since the early part of the 18th century. Still it’s entirely safe to note that never in the hamlet’s history has it encountered anyone quite like Fritz Grobe. I met Fritz last week at the door to his home, which is easy to find on North Buckfield Road. It’s the one with the rows of empty 2-litre bottles of Diet Coke on the stoop.

You probably never heard of Fritz, even though in the early 1990s, when he was in his 20’s, Fritz won five gold medals in international juggling competitions. And if you haven’t heard of Fritz, you certainly never heard of his partner, Stephen Voltz, a 49-year-old lawyer who practiced in Massachusetts before striking it big with Fritz last summer in the world of viral video. Still, you may have seen “Experiment 137,” the video Fritz and Stephen (Fritz on left, Stephen on right in pix) produced to explore in frothy glory what happens when Diet Coke and Mentos mints mix. Last summer, on June 3, Fritz and Stephen completed their new EepyBird.com Web site and posted Experiment 137. Stephen then emailed his younger brother, David Voltz, who lives in San Francisco, to tell him about the site and the video. David emailed a friend, who emailed another friend, and before the end of the day the video was posted to Fark.com, an influential Web agregator site, and Eepybird.com had 14,000 page views. On its first day.

work-bench.jpgThe next day someone posted Experiment 137 to Slashdot.org, an important technology site, and tens of thousands more viewers tapped into the video. On Monday, a producer who’d seen the video on a German technology site, called from the David Letterman Show and invited the EepyBird duo to perform on national television. Their lives haven’t been the same since, nor has the infant business of selling entertainment on the Internet. A full account of EepyBird’s contribution to the online entertainment space appears in the February 20, 2007 edition of the New York Times, which sent me to Buckfield.

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.

A Journalist Turned Environmental Activist in China

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My new MacBook has a video camera and communications features (okay, don’t laugh all you Apple freaks) that enables me to dial up sources on Skype and also see who I’m talking to on my screen. On Friday morning I used these tools to interview John D. Liu, an American-born videographer, soil scientist, and founder of the Environmental Education Media Project for China, a 10-year-old environmental organization based in Beijing. My questions concerned the growing frequency and strength of sand storms that start in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia and sweep across east Asia, closing airports, and filling the air of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cities with stinging clouds of sand, and choking dust.

Inner Mongolia, the largest contiguous grasslands on earth, is rapidly turning to sand. Mr. Liu described the source of the dust storms as increasing “dessication from devegetation,” the causes of which are “water management disruptions.” In other words a steady progression of bad policy decisions, increasing industrialization, and much larger numbers of subsidence farmers and herders are changing how available moisture is absorbed, making it much harder for dry and sensitive land to generate grass.

Northern China is not only the new global Dustbowl of the 21st century, it also is an indicator of how the massive economic development that has improved the lives of 400 million Chinese is producing conditions that could lead to a biological collapse unlike anything ever seen in human history.

Mr. Liu (see pix) was born in Nashville, raised in Bloomington, Indiana, and has lived in China since 1979, when he helped to open the CBS News bureau in Beijing. He left after 10 years to turn his video skills loose to help solve some of the global problems he encountered in an international reporting career that has taken him to over 50 countries. He’s since become a doctoral candidate in soil science at the University of Reading in England, and a well-known film maker, reporting on environmental issues for a number of European television stations.

Given my own history of deploying reporting and communications skills in pursuit of public interest goals I felt an immediate kinship. On Friday morning, in a personally compelling display of applied technology, our paths intersected. Mr. Liu sat at the desk in his Beijing study near midnight. I was my Traverse City office at the start of the day. Thirteen hours lay between us, yet we were linked by video cameras, computer screens, online servers and a common interest in trying to make complex issues easier to understand. Two veteran journalists using advances in environmental science and communications know-how to do what we do: learn from each other and tell stories.

“I think the hardest thing is to deal with the depressing information,” he said. “Right now there is little to gain from pulling punches.  We need to see exactly what has happened ecologically and deal with it.  It can be done but only if we face it quickly and accurately.  Putting off rebalancing the human relationship with the earth makes everything much worse.”

Somewhere in our micro human interaction, made so easy and so inexpensive by deft use of computers and software, lies the germplasm of knowledge and sharing that can be replicated. It was a 21st century experience, one that gives me hope.