For her award-winning work on at-risk coastal communities, reporter Neena Satija interviews a ranger in a Connecticut park that suffered extensive damage during Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Mike Gambina, Connecticut Mirror.
Reporter Neena Satija was first-place winner in SEJ’s 12th annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market, with a series of stories  she wrote forThe Connecticut Mirror. The work of Satija,now an environment reporter for The Texas Tribune, was cited by the judges as an “example of the best of beat reporting, shining a light on important, under-covered stories in often overlooked areas, and using human experience to highlight environmental issues.” With the assistance of Awards Committee Chair Beth Daley of The Boston Globe, SEJournal caught up with Satija recently to ask her a few questions about her work.
SEJournal: Your two-part exposé on Stamford’s Water Pollution Control Authority’s pursuit of an ill-planned waste-to-energy project during an era of serious infrastructure problems was a classic case of shoe-leather reporting and indisputable statistics. How did you find the story and how did you decide when to use numbers and when to use people to build your case?
Satija: I really have to credit Kate King of the Stamford Advocate, that city’s local daily, on her initial reporting of the issue. After seeing her stories on the mismanagement and problems there, I wanted to answer some additional questions: How could this happen in a city while it was being run by our current governor? Who’s responsible? What’s the bill to the taxpayer? Because officials kept trying to minimize the impact of their mistakes, the numbers helped show the real impacts of their missteps. And using people to build the case worked best to show how many of their actions were driven by hubris and ambition.
SEJournal: Your stories on residents who are unable to move from flood-prone areas illuminated the financial problems cities struggle with in climate adaptation, especially for its most vulnerable residents. Has the city made any progress since?
Satija: Unfortunately, I don’t think any real progress has been made. City officials in Norwalk, where the public housing development is still prone to flooding, have tried for years to get funding to rebuild the complex, but have not been able to. There’s no quick fix for residents who live in flood-prone areas, so solutions will take a long time. I know the city was hoping for some Sandy relief dollars to help their effort, but only around $100 million was available for the entire state, and Connecticut has been very slow to decide how to use that money. Most of it will go toward repairs of single-family homes. Some of it will help multi-family complexes, but very little will be left to protect them from future storms.
SEJournal: How did you and your editors carve out the time to do such ambitious work at a small paper?
Satija: I was lucky to work with some of the best and most patient editors out there. They let me take a back seat from reporting a lot of breaking news so that I was able to focus on longer-term projects, and I think it really paid off. We’re lucky, as a small nonprofit news site with a small staff, to be able to pick and choose what we want to cover.
SEJournal: What was the most challenging piece to do of the stories and why?
Satija: The series on the Stamford sewer treatment plant was probably the most challenging, because the writing and reporting took so much time. A lot of the public really don’t understand how these plants work and how crucial they are to public health, safety, and the economy, so much of the piece was devoted to explaining those aspects. In addition, I realized there was very little reporting on the mismanagement of the plant and the flaws with the waste-to-energy strategy in the early and mid-2000s, when the project was being worked on in earnest, because there was simply no media there asking questions. So I really had to find people who were there at the time, and read memos and documents they were willing to share with me, to get a sense of what had been going on. I also want to add that along with reporting these stories for The Connecticut Mirror, I also reported them for Connecticut Public Radio, since I was shared by both news operations. Putting the story together for radio was rewarding, but very difficult.
SEJournal: What trend is most noticeable to you in journalism and why do you like it or not?
Satija: I’m really encouraged by what seems to be a trend, or at least an increasing interest in, smaller, usually not-for-profit news operations entering the journalism scene in a particular state or community. Having worked at several of these – the New Haven Independent, The Connecticut Mirror, and now The Texas Tribune – as well as at newspapers before that, I would say that non-profits really do their best to avoid the ‘herd’ mentality that a lot of journalists follow (not necessarily out of their own volition, but simply driven by the news cycle and expectations of their editors). That means we’re able to look deeper than just the daily or quick-hit story. And I think that really pays off for the public.
SEJournal: What advice would you give to a young journalist entering the field?
Satija: Don’t focus your energy on trying to work at a big, prestigious news outlet. Work at a place where you know you’ll be valued and your editor will devote the time to you that you deserve. That is way more valuable than a byline at a well-known news outlet. And for those just starting out as beginner reporters or interns: Come up with your own story ideas. Don’t sit around waiting for assignments. Better yet, do some preliminary reporting before you pitch to your editor.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013.  Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here  or learn how to join SEJ.  Past issues are archived for the public here.