We're told as journalists that every story should be about only one thing, but I'm going to break that rule and make this story about two things:
Journalism and the Delaware River watershed.
That's because in this project of mine the two are entwined like the DNA double helix that is the blueprint of life.
I have been a journalist for a long time, starting as a reporter on weekly newspapers (great training, everyone does everything -- or else the paper doesn't get out!), then as a reporter on dailies. First it was the News-Times in Danbury Conn. (circulation 30K), where I was hired as a features editor (not THE features editor), then became a columnist and Lifestyles editor, then health and human services reporter, then City Editor. After that, I went to the Oneonta Star in Oneonta, N.Y. (circ 20K) where I was the executive editor. Then another paper in New York, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown (circ 95K), where I was first managing editor, then director of strategic initiatives and then managing editor again.
So my background is in what we call community journalism. This is a specific area in the journalism field, not as flashy as big-city journalism but just as likely to win Pulitzers while creating community conversations over important issues that matter to communities large and small: How good are our schools? How good is our police force? How effective are our town/county/state governments? etc.
Community journalism helped me see how communities can change by noticing (via stories in a local paper) what's happening with your neighbors, even when those neighbors are miles away. I was a health reporter when the AIDS crisis forced many young men home to die in communities that they never felt welcomed by. As those obituaries began to mount, and people recognized the guy on the football team from their high school, or the boy who always showed up for band practice, or that sweet boy who took your niece to the prom, the community began to embrace, if not the young men, then the families who were grieving. The response became humane.
Lots of people have issues with all sorts of journalists, from the big city to small towns. Journalists rarely make friends when they're doing their jobs. Often it's because they expose the misdeeds of people who are powerful. Sometimes it's the missteps of people not so powerful but who like to scream about coverage that did not bend to their idea of what should be covered, or how it was covered. (Yes, by all means run the story on the police blotter about my neighbor's DUI -- I never liked him since he cut down that elm tree -- but don't do the same to my daughter!)
Sometimes, too, we make unintended mistakes and sometimes too we have blinders on and don't see what we should see. Rarely are there journalists who intentionally mis-report something to someone's advantage. Think about it: We're in it for the long game.
Or at least we were.
I came into work one day and found out what thousands of journalists have found in recent years -- that I was out of work as a result of cost-cutting by the owners/publishers.
And I get it. When the money isn't there, all businesses have to cut costs, but the result of that cost cutting has been a drastic reduction in the quality and quantity of news all over the United States. Many newspapers have closed, creating what we now call news deserts. Most have half the staff they once had, and now, often half the circulation creating ghost newspapers. I am surprised how hard it is for people to "get" this new reality. When there are fewer reporters, fewer journalists, there is less ability to report on a wide range of important news.
Added to that, thanks to the internet, we've got the notion that news is free.
It isn't. In order to be able to trust the news, we have to figure out a way that journalists can ply their trade AND make a living. If we don't have journalists ferreting out the truth, you end up with a thousand bloggers telling you what they think is true. And then an echo chamber takes over and a thousand half-truths get spread and amplified. Regrettably, as humans we gravitate towards what's hot and snappy -- the real world is usually way less dramatic and way more incremental.
As newsroom staffs have shrunk, so have reporters dedicated to specialty beats: education, for one, courts is another, and the environment is another.
So now we're getting to the other strand of the DNA of Delaware Currents.
After I was fired, I had a tussle with cancer (it was quite a year!) Thanks to a lot of smart people, I survived. I completed my master's degree (in poetry -- I have quite an eye for my own financial well-being!) So it was time to find a way to make a living!
First I turned to teaching, both writing and journalism, but I missed the real world in all its confusion and glory. I live about 15 minutes from the Delaware River, and wondered about it: all the journalism words: what, how, why, where, etc. And I thought I could write freelance pieces and sell them to media outlets in the watershed.
Well, just as budgets for reporting have been slashed, so have budgets for freelancers, so that didn't fly. The other thing I noticed is that there were maybe two environmental reporters in the whole of the watershed, and that includes Philadelphia, Trenton and Wilmington. WHAT? Just when we desperately need news about our environment? What's more, most of the environmental reporting is focused on a specific locality, NOT on the whole water system.
I realized that there is a desperate need for us to understand what miracles this watershed performs: providing drinking water to 14 million people; home to many endangered species; home to three very different national parks and the largest freshwater port in the world.
I was lucky enough to be selected for a spot in a course called Entrepreneurial Journalism: a summer's-long course at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism, and thanks to yet more smart people, came up with the idea of a journalism website where I would report on stories about the Delaware River and its watershed.
Voila: Delaware Currents. My first website -- and my great logo -- were designed by David Dann, a friend from newsroom days and suddenly I'm hard at work and have been for the past eight years. Though, truthfully, I haven't made much of a living!
I have "discovered" the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has authority for the water quality and quantity of the Delaware main stem. I have learned that there is an unusual opportunity for the Delaware to get some real love in the grants provided by the William Penn Foundation to the many environmental groups that are working to help get the Delaware and all its tributaries clean. It's also funding the study of the river by academics and students.
There are groups unifying around the cause of the river, like the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. That there are groups who are inviting all users of the Delaware to the table like the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. Or one that gathers all the "big" users of the river's water: Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin.
At all levels there is study and understanding and bridge building. Unfortunately, the regular Jo(e) is not -- for the most part -- aware of all this.
It's my humble ambition to include them in this conversation.
This is a big, complicated river. The more we understand it, the better we'll be able to take care of it.
Thanks for taking the time to read this!