Inside Story Q&A: Prize-winner Looks for ‘Stories that Surprise’
National Geographic staff writer Craig Welch’s coverage of the environment and natural resources, with a focus on climate change and oceans, took top honors in the outstanding beat reporting, large market category in last year’s SEJ Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. The judges said, “Craig Welch’s stories showed how the mastery of a beat can produce compelling, cutting edge journalism.”
Welch, who lives in Seattle, recently talked with SEJournal Features Editor Jennifer Dorroh. An edited version of the conversation is below.
SEJournal: How do you come up with your story ideas?
Craig Welch: At National Geographic, I write both for the web and for the magazine. I’m always looking for stories that surprise me — something so unexpected you would tell somebody at a bar about it, or tell your grandmother about it.
With the web, the stories are more newsy, and we can use stock photos. With the magazine, of course, the focus is always on what will make a good visual story. What pictures have you never seen before?
SEJournal: Each of the stories in your award-winning entry quotes scientists saying that they do not know the answer to a question. Could you talk about that?
Welch: I didn’t realize I had done that, but I think it’s important to be clear about what scientists don’t know, as well as what they do know. One of the things I love about working at National Geographic is they aren’t trying to hype things. If we don’t know, we don’t know and that’s ok. Our credibility is only improved by letting people know what isn’t known yet.
Misery makes great copy.
The more uncomfortable I am,
the better the story will be.
SEJournal: How do you think the environment beat has changed? And what lessons have you learned covering this beat that you or others could apply to future coverage?
Welch: Climate reporting in general has gotten a lot more sophisticated. Right at this moment there is no shortage of smart climate coverage from The Washington Post, The New York Times, InsideClimate News and others. There are a lot of people doing a lot of great, groundbreaking work.
[As to lessons]:
- Get out into the field and observe the work of scientists and experts you are covering. I also try to get scientists to talk to me long before publication. I spend a lot of time trying to find out about what people are working on, so I can follow them throughout the process. Because of this, people will call me to say, “Want to come hang out and watch this?” I don’t want to write too early in the process, but it’s good to see the whole process if you can.
- Misery makes great copy. The more uncomfortable I am, the better the story will be. I hate those situations in the moment, but love them later because they make for great stories. Once I was sent to the Arctic, and we were trying to travel cheaply, so we camped in a condemned wildlife lab. In the same unit with us, there were people killing Arctic foxes because they ate duck eggs. The fox killers became the lede of my story.
- I’m constantly reading the “Best American Science and Nature Writing” anthologies. When I’m having a problem in a particular story, I read good work from others and look for another story with a similar problem. In the end, though, every writing problem can probably be solved with more reporting.
- Working side by side with others who are talented and passionate makes your work better. Now that I’m not in a newsroom, I share my work with former colleagues. We critique each other’s work and try to make it better. One is a far better writer than me. I tend to be a more linear thinker. Another is a great investigative reporter. My wife is also a former writer and the only person who has no problem telling me what is wrong with a story.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 32. 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.