Dig Up Dirt with Fewer Clicks at New EPA Site (Review)

September 10, 2008

Reporters starved for environmental information and desperate for local story ideas, rejoice. Well, at least don't look so glum. EPA has thrown you a bone or two with its newly redesigned web site.

The pedicure-to-eyelashes makeover, which seems to have popped mid-day September 9, 2008, may be mostly old wine in new bottles. A crack battalion of environmental reporters is clicking away at the site as this WatchDog goes to ... er ... press, searching for fatal flaws and buried treasure.

First the good news. It may actually be a few clicks easier to get information about environmental conditions in your local area. There is a place on the top page where you can enter your ZIP code and get information about local utility emissions, watershed pollution, or UV index. And there is another inside page where entering your ZIP code once can take you quickly to a number of EPA databases with local environmental info.

The WatchDog does not at first glance see much actual new information here. Attentive Dog readers already know about Envirofacts, TRI Explorer, Surf Your Watershed, the ECHO enforcement database, and others. But the repackaging consolidates them and makes them more accessible. Most of the underlying databases have not changed.

The bad news is that databases may not have all the answers, or even the right answers, or even present those answers in an unskewed way. These problems are not new either. Without context, historical background, skepticism, insight, alternative viewpoints, ground-truthing, and shoe-leather reporting, the databases could bamboozle you. But it's better to have them than not have them.

The WatchDog's quick visit to the "Newsroom," or media page, revealed only a few changes from the old one. It does look more professional and offer quickly the one phone number the EPA press office wants you to think you need (its own). The WatchDog has not gotten any useful information, or perhaps any info at all, from this number for many years.

But how many environmental reporters know that they can (and could before) actually get the cell phone numbers and e-mails (as well as direct office lines) for all EPA press officers on one page? You might want to have those.

The old newsroom has been brightened by a creative artistic piece or installation ... we might call it a Photoshop montage. To the WatchDog's imagination, it suggests that a news conference is taking place somewhere. In recent years, there have been few if any news conferences at EPA (except telepressers), and few reporters are allowed to attend them, much less ask questions. But art always livens up a Web page.

The WatchDog was briefly excited when he noticed an offering of photo resources that he hadn't noticed before. But the thrill did not last. There was a decent tugboat pic — but mostly it was pix of President Bush standing stiffly with neatly groomed Boy Scouts. And pix of Steve Johnson looking like a neatly groomed Boy Scout himself. There are a great many other free and copyright-free photo resources out there. One of the WatchDog's favorites is Documerica — a visionary project from the birth of EPA that was killed by the Reaganauts. Two ways to access these photos: Michigan State's Knight Center and the National Archives.

The good news is that EPA's new site may actually be trying to relate to a multimedia news-o-sphere. There are audio actualities for radio newsies. The bad news is that the format (EPA officials talking to interviewers who are only vaguely identified) is the sort of fake-news-like format that can lead to misunderstanding if not outright bamboozlement. An example: a video of one Judy Pino interviewing EPA office director Lori Stewart on small engines. Pino is not otherwise identified in the video, and not listed as an employee in EPA's locator/director, although her LinkedIn profile shows her as an "audio producer at EPA." Pino appears to be interviewing Stewart outdoors on a dais high above Federal Triangle, where the weather appears eternally sunny.