Veteran Newspaper Writer Finds Teaching's Hidden Pleasures

October 15, 2009



We're midway through an academic quarter at Western Washington University's Planet magazine, and it's time for second-draft panic.

The spring of 2009 is our student environmental magazine's 30th Anniversary, and we've got stories with no point, stories with gaping holes, stories that ignore AP style, stories with no lead, stories that stop instead of end, stories with no pictures, and pictures with no stories.

By the pajamas of Captain Planet, have I jumped from the frying pan of daily journalism's freefall to the frustrating fires of academia? Can the magazine (and thus the world) be saved?

Even worse, does anyone listen to a thing I say?

Eventually. Written comments, helpful suggestions, a timed tirade, coaching by student editors, encouragement, blandishment, and positive examples — combined with the usual student habit of last-minute frenzy — produces third-draft resurrection yet again.

Hallelujah, in five weeks we've taken student reporters, many of them with no journalistic experience, to authorship of reasonably sophisticated environmental stories. The final product — 32 pages, ten stories, 28 pictures — makes me proud to be affiliated as the adviser. In the end, the students won't let Planet, or our planet, down.

If teaching environmental journalism is more challenging and time-consuming than I expected when I began in the fall of 2006 — after 33 years as a newspaper reporter — it's also more rewarding. For my colleagues being squeezed by newsroom budget apocalypse, I recommend it as a possibility.

I'm the fifth faculty adviser in Planet's history, and the first with mainstream journalistic experience. Three were academics and another was an apostle of alternative advocacy journalism. All of us brought valuable perspective to the environmental journalism program at Huxley College of the Environment, a division of WWU, which is located near the Canadian border in Bellingham, WA.

Huxley, which turns 40 next year, is one of the nation's first environmental colleges. It was Huxley student Brian Blix (now a Zen monk) who in 1979 founded a student environmental screed that began as a crude mimeographed sheet. Its name, The Monthly Planet, was a play off the Daily Planet of Superman fame.

Over the years, Planet became a magazine quarterly and one of several WWU publications supported by student fees. Its current annual budget is about $35,000. Planet takes a local and regional approach to environmental issues, and while it makes no claim to "cover" the environment, it regularly scoops the pros by getting some stories first. It has won a series of regional and national awards.

The university itself is generally at the leading wave of environmental thinking, with early programs on recycling, efficient automobiles and sustainability. Students have voted to assess themselves extra fees to buy renewable energy through the local utility, and campus newspaper stories blasting pollution predated the first Earth Day.

Academically I'm an odd duck, but that's tolerated at this university. I was a newspaper journalist starting in 1973, ramped down to half-time until I left The Seattle Times in a December 2008 buyout, and am an author of not just sober environmental books but commercial historical thrillers. I came on as a half-time, tenure-track professor without an advanced degree: hired for my practical knowledge, a shared Pulitzer, and my long-time affiliation with WWU as an alum.

My program is odd, too. Environmental journalism majors take a combination of classes from Huxley and WWU's journalism department, with me straddling both. Just as Planet magazine was founded by students, this combined major was the result of student demand.

The magazine averages 30 students a quarter, most with no interest in traditional mainstream journalism as a career. They're suspicious of the media, worried about the environment, and excited about writing.

With an early magazine mission statement of "environmental advocacy through responsible journalism," my initial concern was that I'd have to rein in rabid environmentalists with the harness of objective journalism.

 What I actually found were young adults trying to negotiate a minefield of technological change, journalistic upheaval, and environmental debate with far less certainty than my boomer generation enjoyed.

For most, political memory extends back at most to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Theirs is a post-9/11 world of two wars, two recessions, a stagnant stock market, endless culture clash, tight elections, and relentless hype and spin. The line between news and entertainment has become confused.

What they retain, bless them, is the energy, optimism and eagerness of youth.

Instead of guiding genteel ivory tower debate over the finer points of environmental journalism — which is what I thought I might be doing — I find myself mostly teaching basic skills. How do you tell a story, instead of simply regurgitating a report? How do you interview strangers? Can you identify a clear problem, and clear solution, in a mass of information? How do writers and photographers work together? What's it like to be edited by your peers? How do you manage time to meet deadlines?

Some of my students have never been to a factory or farm, never met an elected official, never interviewed a scientist, and never used a newspaper archive.

And just how do environmental journalists do what we do? Translating career second-nature into teachable formulas is a challenge.

Most of my students don't expect to be newspaper environmental reporters any more than they expect to be supermodels or pro basketball players: it's not perceived as a realistic or even desirable possibility. They see themselves as environmental communicators more likely to wind up with NGOs, agencies, consulting firms, or schools.

So environmental journalism becomes a means to a more basic end. My real job is teaching research skills, critical thinking, careful observation, conciseness and the need to challenge one's own assumptions. We try to inculcate curiosity: to ask why, instead of accepting how things are.

Because the university is on a quarter system, there's never enough time. Query letters are written the night of the first day of class, and stories assigned the next day. There are three drafts to weigh in on, peer edits, individual conferences — and boom, final draft in five to six weeks. Editing, designing, printing and distribution consumes another four weeks. In a university of about 14,000 students we have the budget for roughly 2,000 copies (on 100 percent recycled paper.) This is supplemented by a website. Spring quarter saw the magazine's first video production: 21st Century, here we come!

There's no question that I learn more than the students do, another hidden pleasure of teaching. But will this generation save the world?

They will if given the chance. The pool of young talent is as deep as it ever was — if editors ever get a newsroom budget to tap it.

William Dietrich, a longtime science and environment writer at The Seattle Times, also has authored non-fiction books and novels.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.

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