After Rough Start, Radio Story on Green Architecture Turns into Award Winner

January 15, 2011

Inside Story

By BILL DAWSON

Reporter Jason Margolis on assignment in Liberia for The World, a nationally syndicated news program co-produced by Public Radio International and the BBC at WGBH in Boston. Photo courtesy of PRI's The World via Flickr.

Jason Margolis, a reporter for Public Radio International’s program “The World,” won first place in the 2010 SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment in the category for “Outstanding Beat/In-Depth Reporting, Radio.”

The judges said this about Margolis’ winning entry, “Architects Share Green Building Ideas:”

“This piece stood head and shoulders above the competition for the reporter’s skill in taking a simple and increasingly familiar concept — greenhouse gas emissions — and helping the listener understand it in terms of the spaces so many of us inhabit during our workdays. Margolis used sound exceptionally well to bring the listener to the streets and buildings of Toronto and Mexico City. His writing and interviews helped make architectural challenges, which are so often opaque to the lay public, clear and understandable. The content was surprising, revealing and compelling, and the manner in which it was conveyed to the listener was masterful.”

PRI describes “The World” as “a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe.” The program is a co-production of WGBH/Boston, PRI, and the BBC World Service.

Margolis has been a reporter for the program for nearly five years. The PRI website’s biographical sketch includes these details:

“Jason focuses primarily on economics stories but also covers a wide range of topics from U.S. foreign policy to climate change. Jason has reported from the top of a rickety tower 150 feet above the Panamanian jungle, an abandoned town near Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the grassy plains of North Dakota. Prior to coming to “The World,” Jason was a reporter at KQED Public Radio in Sacramento, The Seattle Times, and “CBS MarketWatch” in San Francisco.”

Margolis answered emailed questions from SEJournal’s Bill Dawson.

Q: Tell me about your work for “The World.” How long have you been a reporter for the program? Always focusing mainly on economics stories? How did that concentration come about — was it something you did in previous jobs? Were you hired for that beat? How far-flung are your reporting travels?

A: I’ve been a full-time reporter at “The World” since April 2006, and had been freelancing there since 2001. We’re too small a staff to have reporters dedicated exclusively to beats, but that being said, all the reporters have areas of specialization. I tended to focus on environmental and immigration issues, then started covering economics toward the end of 2008 when the economy was in a full tailspin and the show producers decided that we had better have somebody on it more regularly.

I had covered financial news before as a reporter with Marketwatch.com. The executive producer of “The World,” Bob Ferrante, called me into his office and asked me if I’d like to cover economics again. I was a bit reluctant as I felt I was really hitting my groove with environmental coverage, and was really enjoying it, but the producers assured me that I could continue to report stories about environmental issues too. While covering economics, I’ve realized that much of what drives environmental regulation comes down to how it impacts the economy.

As for my travels, basically I go wherever we don’t have a full-time reporter or reliable stringer. I don’t get sent to London or Tokyo; I go to some pretty under-reported areas, such as Liberia, the Philippines, or Mississippi. I really enjoy treading the less-worn path. I also do a lot of reporting from my desk in Boston.

Q: Have you reported much in previous jobs about environmental and sustainability issues? In your current job, how often do you cover such concerns, as in your award-winning story on green building techniques?

A: I’ve always leaned toward environmental and sustainability issues in past reporting jobs. The topic really matters to me; I think it’s a worthy way to spend my time. I try to cover the environment as often as I can, but it’s only about six to 10 stories a year these days. I’d like to do more and help do my part to erode the false perception that being pro-environment amounts to being anti-growth or anti-business. That’s a red herring that bothers me.

Q: Was the architecture story assigned to you? Was it your own idea? Was the subject something you’d reported on in the past?

A: The architecture story was my idea. I read a paragraph about the organization Architecture 2030 on an environmental blog — which I’d love to give credit to but can’t remember where I saw it — and I thought, wow, that’s a great story! I had reported a bunch on climate change issues, but never on how big buildings factor into the climate change discussion. I really liked this story because it was about people, architects in this case, being proactive.

Q: How did you decide to spotlight the two architects and their two cities — Toronto and Mexico City — that were featured in your report?

A: I needed to do this story from a foreign country as our program focuses on international news, and I was heading to Mexico to do some other stories. Meeting with the architect in Mexico City only tacked a few hours onto my trip, so I thought why not have a meeting? After we met, it dawned on me that the techniques he was using to cool his building would be relatively useless for much of the year in a cold weather climate. Canada was the coldest foreign place I could find that was also easy to get to, so I headed up to Toronto next.

Q: Were there any surprising or difficult aspects of reporting this story, compared to others that you handle?

A: I had a lot of trouble communicating with the architect in Mexico. He was a very intelligent, thoughtful person, but his spoken English was rather slow, which made for tough radio. We tried chatting in Spanish too, but his English was better than my Spanish. Originally I wanted the story to be just about him, but his voice couldn’t sustain several minutes of radio.

Figuring out how to resurrect the story got me thinking of heading to Canada. Convincing my editor that I needed to visit another country was a tough sell, however. My editor said if I found a few more stories in Toronto to justify the cost of a trip, he’d send me. In retrospect I’m glad the Mexican architect’s English wasn’t the best, because it resulted in a much more dynamic story.

Q: Did the architecture story suggest ideas for other stories on related topics? Do you have anything environmentally-related in the works that SEJournal’s readers can look forward to?

A: I keep a running list of fantasy stories I’d someday like to cover from remote parts of “The World.” I’ve got some wacky ideas for the interior of Australia, but we’ll see if I get there in this lifetime.

I’m really curious about people who are trying to live off the grid, and the best, most affordable way to do that. I’m particularly fascinated by people who are building windmills on their property. I’ve tried to convince my Dad to do that because he likes to tinker with stuff, but he won’t go for it.

Q: How does “The World” approach environmental coverage institutionally — for instance, is there an environmental issues beat, per se? How is the environmental coverage by various staff members coordinated? I know that Peter Thomson, an SEJ board member, has the job of environment editor for the program.

A: We are very fortunate to have Peter coordinating the environment desk. He alone is our environment section (again, small staff) and has really elevated our level of environmental coverage. Peter assigns a lot of stories to various reporters and suggests interviews for our hosts, Lisa Mullins or Marco Werman.

Reporters also regularly approach Peter with ideas, which he can approve or reject. The show producer, Andrew Sussman, always stresses that he wants stories to be about people, not statistics, so I try to pitch stories that are driven by interesting voices.

Q: I noticed in reading the online text version of your architecture story that you took the photos. Browsing the program’s website, I came across an unrelated video by you. Is it now standard practice that reporters for “The World” — best known as a radio program — are expected to handle audio, video and photo duties? Are there plans to boost the multimedia character of the website even more?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s standard practice, or a requirement, for reporters to come back with photos and/or video from a field assignment, but it’s strongly encouraged. It’s really a matter of time. If I’m out in the field, I’ll always ask a person I interviewed if I can take their photo after our radio interview. That’s pretty easy to do. If the story is really dynamic, and again if I have the time, I’ll try and take a bunch of photos so I can later build an audio slideshow.

Video is tricky. It’s virtually impossible for me to get good audio and video at the same time, especially when there’s action, so one or both has to suffer. Or rather, I haven’t figured out how to do both well. So, video is a rare feat I can pull off in the field. That being said, it’s fun to keep trying.

Bill Dawson, SEJournal’s assistant editor, is the editor of an online magazine, Texas Climate News, published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He also works as a freelance journalist.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2010-11 issue.