Move from Daily Newspaper Job Rewards Science Writer and Book Author

April 15, 2011

Inside Story

By BILL DAWSON

Author / journalist Alanna Mitchell. Photo courtesy Alanna Mitchell.

Alanna Mitchell’s own website sums up her work this way:

“Alanna Mitchell is a Canadian author and journalist who writes about global science issues. She specializes in investigating changes to the earth’s life-support systems and travels the world in search of scientists at the centre of what’s going on.”

Mitchell worked as a business reporter for Canada’s The Financial Post before taking a job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s Toronto-based national newspaper. After covering other beats, she became a feature writer covering earth sciences for The Globe. Her work for the newspaper earned four major national and international awards.

After 17 years of daily newspaper work, she began writing books and magazine articles about science in 2004. Her second book, an international bestseller, was published in the U.S. with the title Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth. It was the first book to win the $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment in 2010.

“Reading Alanna Mitchell convinces you that the ocean is at least as important as the atmosphere when we worry about climate change,’’ The Grantham Jury stated. “Because of its depth, the global ocean contains 99 percent of the earth’s living space, and it’s in trouble. She traveled around the world to get this story, reporting it like a demon and writing like an angel. That’s an important combination for science writing, because it gets the information into our heads, not just our hands. You cannot put this book down without understanding that, for life on earth to continue as it is, the ocean from which we evolved must remain healthy.”

Mitchell answered SEJournal’s emailed questions about Seasick and her career.

Q: Please tell me a little about how Seasick came to be and how you went about reporting and writing it. Your first book, Dancing at the Dead Sea, was mainly about environmental issues on land, including such interrelated subjects as extinction, biodiversity and tropical deforestation. Was the second book conceived as an oceanic complement? Were there significant differences in the ways you approached the two subjects?

A: Seasick wasn’t conceived of as a complement. It was just the next great story, and one that I hadn’t understood until I started researching it. I had a much more consciously scientific approach to Seasick than Dancing. That’s because the secrets of the sea — and therefore the planet's future — are locked in the brains and papers of scientists and I wanted to unlock them.

Q: How did you go about selecting the places and scientists to feature in Seasick? Had you reported on any of those researchers’ work previously? Was ocean science a fairly new subject for you? Did you generally anticipate or suspect that the situation you detailed through your reporting would be as dire, environmentally speaking, as you found it to be, or was this a surprise for you?

A: Ocean science was a closed book to me until I started the research for Seasick. The depth of the problem was an utter surprise to me. The scientists were all new to me. I chose them by reading their research papers. I remember downloading papers in the middle of the night and devouring them — Nancy Knowlton, Ken Caldeira, and on and on. I selected the scientists by the quality of their published research and by the recommendations of scientists I had already discovered and knew to be brilliant. The places I wrote about were totally dependent on the scientist and other characters I chose to write about.

Q: In an interview in 2008 with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, you described Seasick as “a journalistic take on what the scientists are finding out.” In a general sense, what are they finding out — or rather, what were they finding out when you did the reporting for the book?

A: It’s the same as what they’re finding out now. The global ocean is in very, very serious trouble. That has to do with the chemical changes happening in the global ocean, caused by humans. The main one is the acidification of the ocean, which is happening in lockstep with the increasing CO2 that humans are putting into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels.

Q: Have any major findings since the book’s publication confirmed your overall appraisal or provided important new details? Have there been major new findings that lend themselves to a less worrisome assessment? Any significant developments or initiatives in policy or law or technology or other areas that give you reason for greater hope?

A: All findings since the publication have confirmed the worst. New findings have lent themselves to a better assessment. If anything, things are more dire than I wrote in Seasick. Since the book came out, scientists have made two international statements declaring ocean acidification to be a human problem and calling on world governments to take it into account in CO2/Kyoto negotiations. That hasn’t had an effect yet in the negotiations. The Obama administration clearly understands the issue and has issued oceans policy that talks about mitigating the effects of ocean acidification which is one of the first official acknowledgements in the world that ocean acidification is happening. So a tiny bit of progress there.

Q: As a newspaper reporter, you covered real estate, banking, social trends and statistics, and a geographically-defined beat —Calgary and its region — before you began covering earth sciences. That latter work led to your designation as the world’s best environmental reporter and an opportunity to study at Oxford University in a Reuters Foundation competition. Why and how did you become interested in and involved in reporting on earth sciences? Did the fact that you came from a family of scientists, with a biologist father, have something to do with it?

A: I ate biology for breakfast. Because of my dad, I had a burning need to understand how everything fit together. At first, it was just on the prairies where I grew up and reported, and then later, it grew to the planetary systems. It was just this huge curiosity to understand things. I remember having a stack of books and scientific articles at my bedside and devouring them, night after night, making notes.

Q: What persuaded you to make the move from newspaper reporting to a multifaceted role as an author of books, a public speaker on environmental and other subjects, a consultant for clients including non-profits and private companies, and an associate of the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development? Was it tough to make that transition? How do the challenges and satisfactions of that mix of activities compare with life as a newspaper reporter?

A: I made the leap because I could no longer write the types of stories I wanted to for the newspaper I worked at. I had been banned from writing about science, mainly because the paper wanted me to write about something else — education — and I couldn’t bond with it. I couldn’t bear to let go of all the expertise I had acquired by that time. Plus, planetary science was absolutely the best story going and I couldn’t not write about it. But it was terribly difficult to say goodbye to regular salary, benefits, pension. I had a single $7,000 contract when I left and I was a sole-support single mother of two kids. But I’ve ended up making more money every single year but one as an independent. The one year was when I spent six months writing Seasick. Not such a tough transition, but very focused. I have so much more freedom to write stories I know are important now that I’m independent.

Q: How tough did it get — leaving a regular salary? And could you give others thinking of such a risky move some practical advice?

A: How tough? There are still times I lie awake at night worrying about where the next gig is going to come from. Something always shows up, though. And none of it is as hard as staying in the newspaper job would have been. I lost a lot more sleep over the newspaper job than I do over where the next check is going to come from. Advice? My breakthrough was when I began to think of myself as a creator of income and value — an entrepreneur — and to realize that my skill set had value to others. Plus, I realized that being an independent journalist has a nobility of its own. Before, I bought into the idea that I could only be successful if someone employed me full time.

Q: You were awarded the 2008 Atkinson Fellowship in Journalism, a $100,000 prize, to study the intersection of neuroscience and education. Does your work in this area signal a move away from work on environmental concerns? Is a book in the works?

A: A book is in the works. It’s a natural progression from the enviro stuff. Environmental issues are just a function of human behavior, so the new book is an attempt to understand the biology of human behavior.

Q: Do you have any practical wisdom — advice, encouragement, warnings, whatever — for other environmental journalists or aspiring environmental journalists on the basis of your experiences as a reporter and author?

A: My advice is to care passionately, to adore what you’re doing and keep going even if everyone else says you should be nonchalant. Why write about it if it’s not important? Whether it’s finance or arts or politics, or even, God forbid, the science of the planet, just keep going. Explain things to me that I don’t understand. Please!

Bill Dawson is SEJournal assistant editor.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2011 issue.