Showing Off Circle of Blue Colleagues and Reporting in Traverse City

Circle of Blue's Choke Point: China project showed how China's massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China's energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: China project showed how China’s massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent a confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China’s energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — On Wednesday evening October 8, 2014 Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based global news organization, is inviting colleagues and friends to meet our talented staff and learn about the state-of-the-art multimedia work we are doing that is changing the world.

This is no exaggeration. And while Circle of Blue has developed expertise and new digital tools to report on the consequences of the fierce global contest for natural resources, the successes we’ve enjoyed really aren’t that unusual in our home region.

Traverse City, you see, is a civic boil. With its rich diversity of community-shaping groups — environmental, progressive business, new media, local foods, transport, and clean energy — the small coastal city of 15,000 near the top of Lake Michigan is a crucible for new approaches to succeeding in a century of ecological and economic transformation.

Circle of Blue is privileged to be a member of this committed community of change. No other news organization in the world is doing more to inform citizens and global leaders about water security, and what the 21st century holds for national economies and communities, including our own Great Lakes region.

On Wednesday evening join me at the Inside Out Gallery in Traverse City to meet the members of the Circle of Blue staff.  Our team will present exclusive stories and stunning imagery from the world’s tightening water-food-energy choke points. This is an evening to introduce our circle of northern Michigan friends to the critically important work this Traverse City organization is doing here at home and around the world.

We are so privileged to be part of a Traverse region community of such talent and commitment to making a difference. Join us for what promises to be an evening immersed in exploration and good cheer.

Inside Out Gallery
229 Garland Street
Traverse City, MI

Wednesday, October 8
7 p.m.
with music by Blair Miller beginning at 6:15 p.m.

Your tour guides:

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue director and co-founder
Keith Schneider, senior editor and chief correspondent
Brett Walton, reporter
Codi Yeager Kozacek, reporter
Kaye LaFond, reporter & data visualizer
Aubrey Ann Parker & Jordan Bates, social media
Matthew Welch, change manager
Continue reading “Showing Off Circle of Blue Colleagues and Reporting in Traverse City”

Luka Lesson and ‘Exit’ Enter Global Realm With A Rapper’s Reach

Luka Lesson, one of the southern hemisphere's great rap artists and poets, released his 'Exit' album earlier this month. Photo/Keith Schneider
Luka Lesson, one of the southern hemisphere’s great rap artists and poets, released his ‘Exit’ album earlier this month. Photo/Keith Schneider

On Thursday, May 15, Jacksonville, Florida hosts the World Arts Film Festival, a three-day exploration of 21st century short videos, discussion, workshops, and creativity. One of the stars of the weekend is Luka Lesson, an Australian hip hop artist, poet, and activist. Three of Luka’s videos will be among the 100 or so shown at the festival.

This is turning into a big month for Luka Lesson. On May 1 he also released ‘Exit,’ his second LP, which Lesson produced in Beijing in collaboration with Jordan Thomas Mitchell, an American musician and composer.

‘Exit’ is a triumph of insistent rhythm, and tremendous writing. Its 11 tracks are evidence of a maturing artist’s skill in expressing passion, love, anger, and urgency. Check out ‘Celebrate The Storm’ here.

One of the joys of my life these last fives years reporting and speaking around the world is to meet the impressive people doing their part to change what we’re doing. I met Luka last year in Beijing, where he performed at a conference of high school students from across Asia.

I followed Luka that day. And as I told those kids, Luka and I come from different continents, different generations. But we do the same thing. We look at the confusion of what we face and translate it into language and images and narratives that help people understand.  We make the complex simple.

Luka’s worked hard on his craft. It’s been two years since his riffs on love, the playful prose on fate and birth, the gifts of lyricism and rhyme, the easy charm and apparent intelligence, touched so many audiences that Australia, almost by consensus, named the Brisbane-born artist the nation’s slam poet champion.

It’s also been two years since Lesson released ‘Please Resist Me,’ a high wall of slam poetry that at times is slick hip hop ice blown to high ridges by the strong grooves of such songs as “Killing Time,” and “The People.”  The album’s other tracks form emotional caves and cultural crevices jammed with politics and personal pain, love and anger, and learned critiques of custom and society.

Continue reading “Luka Lesson and ‘Exit’ Enter Global Realm With A Rapper’s Reach”

Multi-Media Environmental Journalism at Circle of Blue


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


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.

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.


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.