An Interview With Beth Daley of The Boston Globe
By BILL DAWSON
Beth Daley began her Journalistic career 19 year ago at the Newburyport Daily News in
northern Massachusetts. In 1994, she joined The Boston Globe, where she has covered breaking news
and features and was the education reporter before moving to the environment beat in 2001.
Over the years, Daley has won numerous fellowships and awards. Earlier this year, she was named as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the Explanatory Reporting category for her occasional series about the regional effects of climate change, "The 45th Parallel: Warming Where We Live."
The Pulitzer judges praised Daley for her "evocative exploration of how global warming affects New Englanders, from ice fishermen to blueberry farmers. " She answered questions from SEJournal about the climate project and her regular work as the The Globe's environment reporter.
Q: Please tell me first a little about how The Globe organizes environmental coverage. What is your particular assignment and how does it mesh with the paper's other coverage of the environment? Were you the main staff member responsible for climate change coverage before your series?
A: At The Globe, there is one designated environmental reporter – me – but other reporters regularly cover the environment. Our Washington bureau tends to cover broad environmental policy and legislation while our weekly sections tend to cover very local issues. I try to focus on enterprise stories – mostly regional issues or trends that could also be important nationally. I've been the primary reporter covering climate change since 2001, although I didn't really get started until late 2002 because I was covering 9/11-related stories.
Q: The series was a wide-ranging regional examination of different aspects of climate change across New England – science, economics, public policy. Why did you decide to undertake this project? Was it easy to persuade your editors to let you have so much time? Was the series a direct outgrowth of earlier climate coverage, which suggested a need for The Globe to produce a more in-depth treatment of the subject?
A: I undertook the project because covering climate change the way I was doing wasn't working. Too often I was writing dire report stories that all started with the same sentence: "Yesterday, scientists announced…" and then some observation that Arctic sea ice was diminishing, glaciers were melting or species were disappearing. I would also write about computer climate modeling or worldwide temperature data trends. But after a while, most of these stories seemed removed to me – about places far away with few real people in them. My editors thought so too.
The stories began falling off the front page. There are only so many similar-sounding reports that readers can stomach before getting bored. So I began thinking about different ways to enter the climate change story that would grab The Boston Globe readers and keep them reading. I actually drew a circle, put global warming in the middle, and began thinking about what would change as the world warms – local economies, behavior, genetics, etc.
At the same time, it was clear something funky was going on with New England's weather. I noticed flowers blooming earlier. Readers wrote me to say it didn't seem to get as cold. Snow was less predictable. I found a scientist at the University of New Hampshire who had pulled federal data and concluded that New England winters had warmed about four degrees Fahrenheit in the last 30 years. All these facts seemed the making of a powerful story.
But how could I be sure it was manmade climate change? Five years ago, scientists would tell me there was no way to say local impacts were being caused by the worldwide phenomenon. But more recently, researchers shifted their tone: Many told me it was increasingly clear some of the impacts were from the global rise in temperatures. Thirty years of solid temperature data — always in an upward trend, better computer modeling and consistent changes over the entire region gave them confidence to say that. That's when I knew I had a story.
I spent six months thinking about the series before I presented the idea to my editor. He was intrigued and gave me more than a month to report the first piece. The first story, which meshed people's anecdotes about the changing climate with science, was received well by The Globe and I was given the time to pursue subsequent stories. The Globe's been very good about giving time for reporters to pursue longer, more time-intensive stories – even as our staff shrinks.
Q: Was the series explicitly planned to coincide with the release during 2007 of the major update reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Did the content of the IPCC reports prompt any change in plans for the series?
A: The series wasn't planned to coincide with the IPCC reports but their findings helped guide some of the coverage. One report that dealt with adaptation – that we had to start planning for the inevitable changes from global warming – helped me form one story about what Boston and the rest of the country was doing to prepare for higher sea levels, etc.
Another IPCC report gave me the idea to do a story about the difficulty in changing individuals' behavior to reduce emissions. Reducing an individual's emissions requires dozens of behavioral changes – driving fewer miles, using less energy. It's pretty hard to do.
Q: In the first story of the series, published in January 2007, you refer to a reporting venture in fall and winter that involved traveling 1,000 miles and interviewing 150 New Englanders, including farmers, ice fishermen, ski resort owners, maple syrup producers. Was there a lot of additional reporting during 2007 – after that launch of the series in January – as the different stories were being written and published? If so, did it alter the original series plan substantially?
A: I only had about three really solid ideas going into the series I knew I would do. The first story I reported in November and a bit in December, in between daily reporting and writing. Virtually all the reporting for subsequent stories was done in 2007. I wanted each story to focus on an impact being felt today – not in the future. I also wanted each story to feel surprising or give readers information they hadn't heard before.
Q: Were you largely or completely relieved of your regular duties while you were working on the series? If not, was it hard to juggle the routine demands of the job with the work on the project?
A: I was incredibly lucky. I'd say I spent about 80 percent of my time on the series, with the time increasing as my editors saw the value of it. I'm a daily reporter at heart, however, so it was pretty challenging to sit and think hard about how to find, execute and deliver a story – sometimes for weeks. When I was very frustrated, I would put down the series, do some dailies until a solution came to me. That said, there were tradeoffs.
Because I wasn't replaced we inevitably missed some environmental stories in New England.
Q: Was there one particular story that elicited a notably bigger or more spirited response from readers than others? If so, why do you think that one struck a nerve?
A: Yes – and it's one I still can't believe I actually stumbled upon. I discovered a coal-fired power plant being dismantled in Massachusetts and being shipped, girder by girder, to Guatemala to power a textile mill. It was a great illustration of how to get rid of a carbon-dioxide-belching technology here, only to give it to another country where the problem will persist for years to come. I received scores of emails from people saying they had never thought about something like that before, which to me feels like I did my job.
Q: Did one of the series stories prove to be the most challenging for you to report and write?
A: In the middle of a really rough Guatemalan city, the plant's owners decided they didn't want me to do the coal power plant story because they feared it would make them look like they were taking what the U.S. didn't want. The person that picked the photographer and myself up from the airport pulled the SUV over and just about ordered us out of the car. We ultimately got to the coal plant but it was a really tense situation. The story was challenging for another reason: The coal plant was actually an improvement over what the textile plant had before. Sure, it was emitting lots of CO2, but the environmental controls it had were capturing other pollutants. That was an improvement and the Guatemalans were incredibly proud of this. So the story had another twist to it that made it more interesting, but harder to write.
Q: Were you especially surprised by any one fact or insight you gleaned in your research – something that was really unexpected, even for a reporter familiar with the issue?
A: I was stunned at how much was already happening to New England's economy and environment because of warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Blueberry farmers in Maine were worried, not because of any change they were experiencing, but because a warming Quebec meant stiffer competition as Canadian blueberry growing went gangbusters. A mosquito was changing its genetics because of warming temperatures. Snowmobile dealers were going out of business because snowfall had become so unpredictable.
These were not small things – and they gave a hint to me of how much of our ecology and economy rides on relatively minor changes in climate. I think those changes exist in any geographic region that relies on weather to drive agriculture or tourism.
The other wow I got was a science one. I had written so many stories about the 70-degree day in January asking the question if global warming was the cause. We all have. But it turns out that isn't what we should be worried about: It's the lowest temperatures. Really cold temperatures act as gatekeepers to pests and animals we don't want. But it is these temperatures that in many places are warming up the quickest, allowing more and more creatures to survive the winter and take up residence.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for reporters elsewhere about covering the regional aspects of this global issue?
A: I learned three tools of the trade on the series for which I'm really grateful. One is that stories are very effective if you can merge anecdotes with science. For example, I know the Maine mud season (read that spring) is lengthening – records are kept of it. Sounds interesting but it was loggers who felt the impact: They were losing money because they were no longer able to bring machinery over frozen ground to get into low-lying areas to cut in the winter.
Second, I learned not to be afraid of writing a story about the process of science as opposed to some absolute finding. Many times I was stymied by a story because I couldn't say unequivocally it was global warming. The way I solved it was writing about how scientists were studying it.
Lastly, think about entering the subject through different portals – feature an anthropologist studying how previous cultures dealt with dramatic environmental change. Writing about the drama involved in getting ice cores in unforgiving places or businesses upset at the uncertainty of future regulation can give readers a fresh perspective.
Q: How and where are you continuing to pursue the climate issue in your reporting this year? Is blogging an increasingly demanding part of your job – on climate or otherwise?
A: Climate change is about 50 percent of my job this year. I'd like it to be more, but in the year I was writing the series, I didn't do a lot of other important stories I'm now pursuing. The Globe started a green blog about six months ago where several reporters, including me, contribute. I'm doing a short piece every day, which on average takes about 1-2 hours. I'm still sorting out its value. As reporting staffs shrink in these financial times, I'm not sure if blogging short items is worth the hours that could be spent working on enterprise stories of greater public value. It's fun learning how to post and do video though. I have some killer video of mating horseshoe crabs.
Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008