Inside Story: Texas Journalist Adapts and Digs Deeper on the E-Beat

July 15, 2009
Greg Harman

 

Greg Harman is a staff writer for the San Antonio Current, the alternative weekly in that city. He got into journalism a dozen years ago and has persisted in pursuing an interest in environmental and investigative reporting through a variety of jobs. They included work at small weekly and semi-weekly newspapers, dailies, alternative weeklies and a web-based environmental publication that he conceived and published in Houston.

Harman started his career at the semi-weekly Pecos Enterprise in West Texas, where he wrote about disposal of radioactive waste in nearby New Mexico. He then moved on to the daily Odessa American, also in West Texas, as the area reporter. At the American, he covered a variety of environmental topics, including the New Mexico disposal issue, black bears in Big Bend National Park and an environmental justice issue involving air pollution from a local chemical plant.

Along the way to his job at the Current, he worked as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun, was publisher-editor of a weekly paper in Alpine, Texas, for three years until the owner closed it, and served as environment writer at the daily Sun Herald in Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss. After that job, he joined the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, as a staff writer. After he lost that job in a staff reduction, he launched the web-based publication Earth Houston, which he produced for about eight months. After a brief stint at a non-profit wildlife rescue organization, he joined the staff of the Current (for which he had been doing some freelancing) a couple of years ago.

Harman's bio on the Current's Web site includes his future intentions: "He plans to quit the news-writing business just as soon as victimization and despair cease to be a natural outflow of economic progress." He answered e-mailed questions from SEJournal about his experiences as a person who wanted to be a journalist covering the environment and has stayed with that decision.

Q: Why did you decide to go into journalism? What drew you to environmental journalism? You've stuck with environmental reporting through a number of career changes. When did you realize that you had a particular passion for writing about environmental problems and issues?

A: I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that I would wind up in this mess. I grew up in a pretty politically minded family in the D.C. area. I had that not atypical connection youngsters have with all manner of the creeping, cold-blooded and scaly things. Of course, we also had James Watt at Interior and Reagan in the White House. That was good inspiration.

My family moved across the country in 1985 and by the time I hit high school I had a fanzine going, dedicated to hardcore punk music and dripping with anti-war, pro-Earth type messages. But by the time I was supposed to move into career-land, I froze. Eventually I found newspapers.

Without any formal training, I figured one place was as good as the next to get the basics and I accepted a job in West Texas, a little 2,000- circulation, semi-weekly in Pecos. ("Home of the World's First Rodeo." Try fact-checking that one!) This was cattle country at one time, but overgrazing did a number there. Then it was cotton country, until a handful of folks got rich sucking the aquifer up. During my stay, the economic development drivers were prisons, sludge spreading, radioactive waste disposal, and a bit of oil and gas. Pretty much in that order. That is to say, it's great country for environmental writing.

After a few gigs at other newspapers, I settled into a lovely, seldom-traveled corner of West Texas to run a weekly paper just north of Big Bend National Park. For three years, we took on all sorts of good fights, but as we were a safe distance outside the oil patch now, much of the more overt environment writing slipped into the editorial page. It was only after the paper was sold and shut down that I realized what it was I really wanted to do. I have E. O.Wilson's The Future of Life to thank for clearing that up for me.

Q: You're now a staff writer for the San Antonio Current, the alternative weekly in that city. You've been giving a good deal of coverage lately to the transition of San Antonio's CPS Energy, the nation's biggest city-owned energy company providing both gas and electricity, to a more sustainable path. What are some aspects of the story that might be instructive to reporters elsewhere, regardless of whether they're in cities with municipally owned utilities? Have there been notable challenges or rewards in covering the story? What are some other topics and issues you've handled at the Current?

A: We kind of went at CPS Energy with both barrels back in 2007, right after they became the first utility in 29 years to file paperwork for new nuke plants in the States. With the declarative headline "CPS Must Die," complete with cover art worthy of a Metallica album, we suggested that an aggressive campaign of energy efficiency and new renewable power — all based on a decentralized power model — would be a better path forward for the city. I had no idea there were so many energy wonks in South Texas. It sparked a huge amount of interest among our readers and has remained sort of a bread-and-butter topic since then.

Even though CPS is a city-owned utility, it operates independent of the council in everything but board appointments and rate-setting. They weren't used to public scrutiny, either, so Open Records (Act) requests have been a huge part of this story. I'll file an Open Records request on CPS sometimes before I even start making calls on a topic. While there are times the staff will refuse to comment due to the "pending legal request," we generally walk away with more then we would have gotten otherwise, being chummy.

When we came back for our second significant story, one chronicling some scary issues of workplace conditions and worker safety, their PR folks turned us over to the legal department and basically refused to play anymore. Fortunately, by then we had great access at the middle-management ranks, thanks to years of declining morale and contentious union negotiations.

While this whole fight was going on, not many had an inkling that our outgoing mayor would spring a richly developed sustainability plan on us during his last months in office. That, coupled with CPS's startling contract with sustainability guru Jeremy Rifkin earlier this year — he was hired to help create a roadmap toward decentralized, carbon-free power for the coming decades — have made the power beat a hugely important one for the Current. If it is happening in Texas, I'd wager there's not a utility in the country that hasn't started at least exploring how it's going to adjust to the coming lowcarbon economy.

Water issues are huge here, too, and we've started to develop those a bit more deeply. And every once in awhile I can break away to do a little traveling. Last year, I spent three weeks on the U.S.-Mexico border, just meeting people and observing the realities on La Frontera — reporting, you know, through the lens of the national debate on the border wall. Not many people know that, together, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have spent tens of millions protecting thousands of acres of the most glorious and ecologically diverse habitat in the country. Now the border wall has begun to slice through this important wildlife corridor, places where the last known populations of ocelots in the States still roam, for instance. It's an important national story that, unfortunately, can't always out-compete the deftly manipulated fear over human migration.

Q: You worked for mainstream newspapers, including dailies in Mississippi and Texas, before moving to alternative weeklies in Houston and, now, in San Antonio. Has it been tough to make the switch from the mainstream to the alternative press? What are the biggest differences that you've experienced, especially in your environmental coverage?

A: It has been awkward. In Houston, I really just did straightahead investigative news features, albeit in that strict New Times mode. [Editor's note: New Times Media was the name of the national chain of alternative weekly newspapers. Owner of the Houston Press, New Times took the name Village Voice Media after acquiring that competing chain of alternative papers.] The pressures were intense, but I loved the freedom I suddenly had to more fully develop a story. However, once it's written, the story, those people, are pretty much history. It's on to the next freak accident.

As a smaller paper, the Current requires its three news writers to turn around copy at a quicker clip. On the positive side, that allows me to sort of build a beat more approximate to what you would expect at a daily. That's been fun. It's also here that I've really started to play around with voice and just generally mouth off. At first, I reserved my more loaded language for the anonymous news column you see a lot of alt weeklies do. But as we started blogging more frequently, my byline started going into it and it all just started to blur a bit more. It's my natural voice, after all.

Now, if I'm writing short, it's typically in character, with the unmistakable sound of gum smacking. The news features I treat a bit more reverentially. They're the product of so much work, you really want them taken seriously. But, you know, there's a prune in every pot. One deeply researched story I wrote about sprawl and the effect that the absence of county controls was having, one which also ran in the Austin Chronicle (the alternative weekly in that city), hit a dead end with a local sprawl-busting non-profit. They refused to e-mail it to their membership, a board member told me later, because it had one unsanitized word in it. Now, I don't regret the word choice. It was definitely the right word for the occasion. But it was an enlightening experience for me.

Ultimately, yeah, it's also been sort of scary making this switch. While there have been a couple SEJ members that have gotten a kick from my writings and have been crazy encouraging, there are those that judge my approach more harshly. This notion that what you're doing isn't "proper" journalism, or worse. If you let your guard down, you can kind of get walloped by that, especially when some of those that sort of hold you at arm's distance have been your role models in so many ways. But without a doubt, my job options have been affected positively and negatively by my willingness to become a writer with an obvious "activist" agenda.

Q: Early in your career, you covered WIPP — the deep geological disposal facility for radioactive waste in southeastern New Mexico — for the paper in Pecos and then for the much larger Odessa American. At the American, you also covered events at the Huntsman Polymers chemical plant that involved the burning of chemical wastes in flares and protests by minority residents nearby. An article you wrote about Huntsman for the Texas Observer, a nationally known biweekly in Austin, won an award from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. How did the WIPP and Huntsman stories shape you personally and shape how you view environmental journalism and your role in the field?

A: I think Huntsman was an incredibly defining — and empowering — story. I was the roving reporter for the American. The beat is literally one of the best in Texas, as far as I'm concerned. Thirteen enormous counties floating over the horizon off most larger dailies' radar screens. A feast of stories for the taking. Problem is, not many reporters are willing to live in Odessa (or Pecos for that matter). So, it's a "those who dare" sort of thing.

On one of my in-office days, the local plastics plant botched an upgrade to its olefins unit and started burning off huge amounts of polyurethane and whatnot. Someone who would have been on-spot to cover it wasn't there and I ended up on the story. The black smoke of poor combustion went on for two weeks. Worse yet, some sort of cold-air inversion trapped it close to the ground for many of those days. Incredible, awful stuff.

Now Huntsman, I think, was our largest employer at the time and we gave them hell and got to know those neighborhoods stuck in the thick of it. After a couple weeks, the corporate owners flew down from Utah and asked our publisher to take me off the story. Now no one had accused us of getting the story wrong. Anyway, the publisher, Bill Salter, told them to stuff it. I had never gone up to the line on a story like this before and I honestly hadn't expected the paper to be as ballsy as it was. But there it was.

I've seen that same equation several times since then — egregious examples inMississippi — and it just sort of took some of my ideological prejudices and mixed the lime in there and cemented whatever it was I thought I knew about environmental racism from reading other people's observations. This was also about the period that George Jr. was starting to primp himself for the White House, and Odessa became something of a symbol of his environmental record as Texas governor in some circles.

Q: Are there any other particular stories you've handled (or are covering now) that have done a lot to influence you and your approach to the job?

A: That newspaper adage about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? That was first shared with me by the editor of the Mississippi Sun Herald. I just try to live that. You can get a good ways on words like that. Huntsman was a story like that. But, like I said, West Texas is that story. The crap builds up where the money and influence is not. I enter every story with bias. It is the bias that urges me to first seek out the point of view of those who can't afford to hire a communications company. Then I'll get on the paper trail and see if I can substantiate what I've been told. Once I have that, then I'll open myself to the company line.

There was a Seabee base in Gulfport with a legacy of mishandled and dumped Agent Orange that reminded me a bit of that time in Odessa. Now, the residents had complained for years about supposed ill effects, but their story had never been really told. I spent time in those neighborhoods. It turned out the Navy had done the best surveys and cancer studies itself. It was all sitting in the library. The Navy documents showed they actually had to hire counselors for the contractors who went door-to-door hearing all these horror stories. As I put all that together, I found old news clippings reporting a rash of stillbirths and birth defects we now know to be linked to dioxin exposure. It was a relatively easy story to assemble in the end, but I had to be willing to trust those that had lived it first.

Q: After being laid off at the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, you launched a Web site called Earth Houston and kept it going for several months. Please describe Earth Houston and tell me what you hoped to accomplish with it. What did you learn from the experience?

You identify yourself on your Linked In profile as an investigative reporter and multimedia producer. Your blog, Harman on Earth, has links to your videos, photos and audio, posted on YouTube, Flickr and Ovi, respectively. There's also a link to your Twitter comments. When, why and how did you get into multimedia work? As part of your Earth Houston venture or before that? How do you see it meshing with your role as an investigative reporter? Do you have any advice for other journalists about developing the varied multimedia skills that you've acquired?

A: First of all, I am not a Facebook baby. My generation was already deep into their 20s and 30s when all this social media stuff hit. So, it wasn't like a part of growing up or anything like that. When I took on Earth Houston a few years ago I didn't even know what a blog was. I took an HTML class and pretty much built the thing up from scratch. It was relatively successful in terms of traffic and got me a little more deeply enmeshed with the environmental community out there, but I simply had no idea what to do about the business end. I just ignored it. I did a bit of freelance as well, but selling stories has never come easy to me, and I eventually had to shut it all down and find steady work. Go figure that literally in the month or so before I pulled stakes I had two other media folks contact me about working with me on EH.

I started my blog only about two years ago. Coming back into the business, I decided that I needed to take a more direct role in promoting my work, that I couldn't leave it to my employer. There were lots of stories I had written in Odessa and Biloxi, for instance, that were only available to paid subscribers. I wanted those stories up on the Internet and findable.

The video and audio editing I do is also just since joining the Current. A lot of it I have taught myself. Some trickier elements our old IT guy down here helped me with. But with the economy of this last year I really did start sweating. So many better and more experienced writers were getting canned. I thought, what else am I qualified to do? The answer is nothing. So I've just dug in a little bit deeper, tried to make sure everything I do for the Current is available online somewhere. Folks hate the term branding, but reporters simply have to have a presence online these days.At least folks of more middling talent like myself do, I think. You want to be available in plain sight, for whatever story opportunity comes up.

Q: You had a job involving wildlife rescue and rehabilitation work near San Antonio between your work at the Houston Press and San Antonio Current? What did you do? Did that job influence your decision to try to keep working in journalism? Were there times when you seriously thought about getting out of journalism for good? What made you decide to persist? Any advice for other journalists, based on your own experiences?

A: In 10 years, I had been cut adrift twice. The website, a feat of the heart, hadn't fared any better than my more heady moves with the papers. I was pretty fed up. I wasn't willing to go back to daily work if that meant covering a small-town council or chamber ribbon cuttings. I had found my stream on the eco beat, I felt. Off and on over those years, though, I had wondered about non-profit work, about advocacy. Would it be a better fit? I finally decided to give it a shot.

Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation offered me a position as their director of advocacy and education. They loved, for instance, that I'd been vegetarian for a dozen years. That turned out to be a requirement for the job. I don't know where that sits with Equal Opportunity law, but I wasn't asking those sorts of questions. I stayed for only seven months. I guess I would say if anyone out there is exploring the advocacy option, think hard. These groups are not only far more competitive and nasty with each other than I had realized, but the personality factor can't be overstated, especially if you don't have strong board oversight, as was the case with WRR.

I had connected with the editor of the San Antonio Current while I was freelancing out of Houston. I started to contribute again. When a slot opened, I leapt for it. I told my boss, Elaine Wolff, at the time: I still have a lot of writing left to do. I only hope that the forces guiding the market and our industry will allow all who feel similarly to have that kind of opportunity.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue.

 

 

 

BILL DAWSON