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Inside Story Q&A: Field Reporting Yields ‘Impact’ for Poaching Package
Freelance reporter Rachel Nuwer’s coverage of the international wildlife trade took top honors in one of SEJ’s most competitive prize categories: outstanding beat reporting, large market, in the 2018 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said that “her balance between fearless reporting and graceful writing leaves a lasting impression. …The bar was set high by this year's group of solid entries — and Nuwer blew right past it.”
Nuwer, who lives in New York, regularly contributes to The New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Future and other outlets. Her first book, "Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking," was published in September with Da Capo Press.
SEJournal Online recently caught up with Nuwer. An edited version of the conversation is below.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You'll be seeing more of Inside Story — this regular SEJournal Online Q&A feature will now appear every two months, instead of every three. Column editor Beth Daley will continue to bring you conversations with award-winning journalists about the behind-the-scenes practices, ideas and breakthroughs that led to their best work, and their advice on how to excel. Be sure to watch for upcoming installments. In the meantime, check out other winners from SEJ's 17th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, from which our Q&A subjects are drawn.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Rachel Nuwer: All came about in slightly different ways, but all had one thing in common: a connection to my new book, "Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking." Illegal wildlife trade is a topic I've been interested in since my days as an aspiring conservation ecologist, and when I pivoted into science journalism, I knew I wanted to write about it. It's one of the biggest contraband industries in the world, yet receives much less attention than drugs and human trafficking, and threatens the existence of untold numbers of species on our planet. The trade is receiving more and more attention in the news these days, but it's extremely complex and I wanted to create a resource for readers who wanted a deeper understanding than a 1200-word news story could provide, so I decided to write "Poached." Some of the winning stories (drones, tiger farms) were spun out of reporting directly for the book, while others (North Korean diplomats, wildlife-saving tech) were stories that later came up thanks to sources I developed during the book-writing process.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece/series and how did you solve that challenge?
Nuwer: Securing funding for field reporting was definitely the biggest challenge, both for these stories and many others that I write. I reported a couple of the stories from my desk in Brooklyn, but for the others (tigers, drones, wildlife tech) that approach would have greatly weakened the reporting and diminished the stories' impact. For travel to Malawi I managed to secure a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant; for Kenya, my amazing editor at BBC Future, Richard Fisher, covered all expenses; and for Laos, the NY Times pitched in on some expenses and I covered the rest myself (I was going to be in the neighborhood anyway for book reporting).
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?
‘I was surprised, however, to learn
just how dependent many areas
in Africa are on trophy hunting
as their sole source of income
— and thus conservation.’
Nuwer: The story about trophy hunting was the biggest learning experience for me. I had avoided reporting on the subject before, perceiving it to be mired in complications, conflicting interests and uncertainties (all turned out to be true). When my editor at the NY Times asked me to cover the latest changes to U.S. trophy hunting rules, I fully expected to write a piece condemning the industry. I was surprised, however, to learn just how dependent many areas in Africa are on trophy hunting as their sole source of income — and thus conservation. This doesn't mean all trophy hunting is good and that shady operators do not exist, but this story certainly changed my perception.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the series and why?
Nuwer: The only thing I regret is not meeting with North Korean diplomats. The North Koreans avoided my phone calls when I was reporting the NatGeo story about their diplomats trafficking in rhino horn, but after the story came out, they asked to meet with me in New York City. I got a little freaked out (this was at the height of Trump's Twitter rants against Kim Jong-un) and decided not to take them up on that invitation. Now that I look back, I realize they probably wouldn't have brought VX nerve agent along and that it actually would have been an interesting opportunity.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Nuwer: Reporting about the illegal wildlife trade can be overwhelmingly depressing. But it's also a fascinating, weird world full of equally fascinating, weird characters. Field reporting can help tap into those details and counterbalance what might otherwise risk being a very sad read. Figuring out how to pay to fly halfway around the world can be tricky, though. I've been a freelancer since 2012, and it's taken years to build up connections with editors to the point that they'll send me to Cambodia, Zimbabwe or Nepal (and even then, there's just a couple who are willing to do that!). But there's other ways to make it work, including grants: SEJ's Fund for Environmental Journalism grant once funded my travel to Myanmar; the Pulitzer Center covered my costs to South Africa and Malawi; and the Abe Fellowship for Journalists sent me to Japan for six weeks. I've also managed to cobble together funds for a trip by landing stories with a number of different magazines and newspapers, and then getting editors to all pitch in a percentage of the total cost. Finally, if I'm going to be somewhere cool anyway for vacation — Mongolia, for example, or Siberia — I usually try to look for stories to report while I'm there. I ask editors to pay for specific smaller costs associated with reporting and then write off larger expenses for taxes.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 43. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.