'Solid Conflict' and Superb Writing — On the Daily Beat and for His New Book

October 15, 2011
Craig Welch. © Photo courtesy Craig Welch.

Inside Story

By BILL DAWSON

Craig Welch is the environment beat reporter for The Seattle Times. He won the 2009-10 SEJ Award for Outstanding Beat Reporting, Print. Describing the articles that comprised his entry, the judges said:

“Solid reporting is at the base of any good journalism. What set apart the entry from Craig Welch at The Seattle Times was the reporter's ability to bring together solid reporting on a wide range of topics, from the demise of local shellfish industries to conflict between wolves and ranchers, and deteriorating levees, with superb writing.”

This year, Welch was chosen to receive another top honor in the 2011 SEJ Awards — the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award for his 2010 book Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty, an account of geoduck clam poaching and smuggling.

The judges called the book “a wonderful combination of solid reporting, good historical research and fine writing.”

In a book review in The Seattle Times, Steve Weinberg told how Shell Games had grown out of Welch’s routine beat reporting for the newspaper several years earlier.

Welch, wrote Weinberg, “noticed a brief item in his own newspaper about the arrest of five poachers who had allegedly sold geoducks for more than $3 million.

“At the time of the arrests, Welch knew nothing about [one of the later-convicted poachers] or geoducks. ‘Who poaches clams and who hunts clam poachers?’ he asked himself. He learned that a case from the 1980s had involved a geoduck smuggler who paid a hit man to harm a rival, not to mention a poacher who agreed to serve as an undercover agent for federal law enforcers. Welch could not restrain himself. He felt compelled to write poaching stories for the newspaper and think about writing a book.”

Welch answered questions emailed by SEJournal about his work as a reporter on the environment beat in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city.

Q: First, please tell me a bit about your involvement with environmental interests. Does it trace back to college or even before that? When did you get into environmental reporting? How long have you been at the Times and how long on the beat there? Did you cover other beats previously?

A: I stumbled into environmental issues quite by accident. I grew up in the Midwest and went to college at the University of Kansas. Except for one vacation as a kid, I’d never spent time in the mountains. But on a whim, a friend and I took a road trip before graduating and tried to stay in as many national parks as possible in the West. My favorite stop by far was in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in northwest Wyoming. It was a landscape unlike anything I’d ever seen.

After graduating, I took a reporting job in Pennsylvania, but it lasted less than six months. I couldn’t get Jackson Hole out of my head. So I sent a resume and a few clips to the local weekly newspaper, which had just lost a reporter. I was hired over the phone. The paper was small, but the leadership was exceptional. Within a year or two, I was writing about grizzly bears and oil and gas development and wildfire policy and logging. I covered wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone back when it was still in the planning stages.

For a suburban kid, it was a great introduction to natural resource issues. I was hooked. I worked a few other jobs, writing about politics and extremists groups (though not at the same time). I was hired as The Seattle Times’ environmental reporter in 2000. It’s the only beat I’ve ever had.

Q: How is the environment beat organized and handled at the Times — and has that changed over time? For instance, how many reporters are on the beat now? Has that number gotten smaller with staff cuts of the sort that have hit so many newspapers? If there are other reporters on the beat, how do you divide subjects and duties? Do general assignment reporters or reporters on other beats report on environmental issues? If so, to what extent does that happen? Do you ever collaborate with them?

A: The beat structure at The Seattle Times is fairly fluid. Our foremost responsibility is to issues facing western Washington, but I also write about coastal issues and issues reverberating throughout the Northwest (which, for our purposes, means Washington, Oregon and coastal British Columbia). Since the state is so tied to Alaska we also frequently write about issues in the north country. (The country’s largest commercial fishing fleets, which work in Alaska, are based in Seattle, and many of the oil tankers filled with crude from the North Slope offload at refineries in Puget Sound.)

Technically, I am the only environment beat reporter at TheSeattle Times, but several other reporters write frequently about environmental issues. We have a regional reporter in Portland, Oregon, who often writes about the Columbia River, wind power and commercial fishing, and since he used to work in Alaska he often covers issues there. Another reporter officially writes about Native American issues, but it’s impossible to write about the Northwest’s Indian tribes and not write about environmental issues. She also does a fair bit of what many would consider nature writing. (She and a photographer also put together a special section this fall about the country’s largest dam-removal project, which combined all of her expertise.)

A few years ago we had two full-time environmental reporters, but when the other one left the paper his position was replaced. In my opinion, environmental issues are important enough that you can’t have too many reporters working on them. But given the realities of the news business these days, management of  TheSeattle Times still dedicates quite a few resources and lots of space to environmental issues.

Q: The judges in the SEJ competition in which you won the beat award praised your reporting and writing on “a wide range of topics.” Does the variety of that contest entry indicate that you regularly cover a wide variety of subjects? Three of the five articles were on issues related to ocean ecosystems and marine wildlife, one was on conflicts between ranchers and wolves, and one was an infrastructure story about old levees and flood risks. Does that mix reflect your typical mix over time — are marine issues generally predominant? How does the list of issues you cover compare to the issues that environmental reporters in Seattle were focusing on, say, 10 years ago?

A: The best — and most challenging — part of my job is the sheer volume and variety of issues I’m expected to keep tabs on. One day I’ll be trying to break news on ocean acidification or the world’s most complex nuclear cleanup and the next day I could be writing about asbestos contamination or crab poaching or pesticide use or air pollution in a south Seattle neighborhood. I love that. The diversity guarantees my job is never boring, but it’s also hard to avoid a bit of whiplash from time to time. It’s not like there are a handful of sources you can check in with regularly who are on top of all of those issues.

It has taken awhile for me to really start to grasp the inner workings of the half-dozen state agencies and dozens of federal ones that dominate coverage. It’s probably always been that way, and my predecessors on this beat were some of the best in the business. (The Seattle Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and the paper’s former science writer and environmental reporter were central to that effort.) Still, for much of that time there was often a single issue — cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Exxon Valdez spill, the spotted owl controversy — that clearly dominated. That’s just not the case these days.

Q: Have there been notable changes in the way you cover the environment beat since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer laid off the great majority of its staff and ceased publishing a print edition in 2009? The two papers previously had a joint operating agreement, with news articles on Sundays by the Times staff, but on other days the P-I provided spirited competition with beat reporters vigorously reporting environmental news.

A: I liked having competition. I read Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler every day. We covered issues differently — and, often, we covered different issues. But they’re both smart reporters, and each brought something different to the table. There was a healthy mutual respect.

That said, I wouldn’t say that I’ve dramatically changed the way I cover the beat. I probably write often now, because I feel a great deal of responsibility knowing that if  I don’t cover something it might not see the light of day anywhere. But the Northwest has great public radio coverage of the environment and, unlike some regions, also has a few really smart TV reporters who focus on the environment. Plus McClure is still writing for InvestigateWest, a new outfit that focuses on doing journalism and then partnering with traditional media outlets to publish reporters’ pieces. (The Seattle Times has published quite a few of his stories.) And Stiffler is doing a fair bit of freelancing.

Q: Hearst has continued the P-I brand as a web-only publication. It now has a dedicated environment page but apparently without staff reporting or blogging, just AP stories and five reader-written blogs. One of those reader blogs appears to feature press releases and another hasn't been updated in six months. Not much journalistic competition there — in the usual sense. Previously, environment beat reporters at the P-I wrote a well-regarded blog, with original reporting and analysis. Has the Times ever had an environment blog? Any discussion of adding one? Any personal thoughts on what it would mean for your regular reporting if you were expected to blog too?

A: I don’t think it’s really my place to critique Hearst’s operation. There are great reporters working there under trying conditions, doing the best work they can. In terms of blogging, The Seattle Times has a quasi-environmental blog called Field Notes. It’s focused primarily on natural resource issues, and is a mix of reporter’s notebook and breaking news and other observations. You can find it here.

Q: How do your duties break down now, in terms of the kinds of articles you write? By that, I mean is there a typical ratio of daily stories to Sunday features to longer projects? Has that ratio changed over time, especially since the big changes at the P-I? Has it changed in connection with shifting economic conditions in the newspaper industry — that is, is there a different mix because of declining news space in the print edition?

A: It probably won’t surprise you to learn that there is no such thing as a typical day, week or month in my job. Earlier this year, I spent almost eight weeks on a story about nuclear-safety problems at a $12.2 billion project to turn two-thirds of the waste left over from the nation’s atomic weapons program into glass.

Sometimes I’ll write three or four stories in a week. The ratio almost certainly has changed over time — we all simply have to write more than we once did — but the Times is no less ambitious. Our executive editor likes to say that he knows it’s unrealistic to expect his staff to do more with less, but I think we all try.

The people who still work in our newsroom are there because they love the job and the mission, so when we have to do more short-term work, we often try to be more efficient with our time so that we still can do the more thoughtful, longer-term work. We may do fewer big projects in a year, but we still do them. And while the bar may be much higher now to get approval to spend the time and money to do a big project, I have no doubt that given the right pitch, editors at The Seattle Times would still say, “Go for it.”

Q: I noticed on the print-edition copies of some of your contest entries that there were boxes directing readers to “web extras,” including video in a couple of cases. How common is it now for video or audio reports to supplement your usual text-based reporting? Do you have a hand in those yourself? Do they mainly accompany in-depth articles, such as the contest entries?

A: The Seattle Times has really started to invest in multimedia work quite heavily. We have two full-time video producers who are exceptionally talented, and they’re really great about sharing their knowledge and skills. I spend a lot of time on assignment with photographers and almost all of our photographers now shoot their own video as well as take pictures.

I haven’t done much myself, but it’s now an important part of my job to try and take video possibilities into consideration on every assignment. It’s forced me to think more creatively about how to be on scene when people are doing visual work as part of a way to tell a story. I’m no photographer, but I like to think I’m actually starting to think like one.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.


From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2011 issue.