"As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hagridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity."
During summer 2007 I had an internship at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a non-profit environmental protection group. I learned about the Sleeper Lake Fire, a wildfire that started in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in early August. The fire was of particular interest to me because I traveled to Wyoming right around the same time. I actually saw enormous plumes of smoke billowing above a wildfire in Yellowstone National Park. I also learned about quarrels that have occurred between national park employees and the public over firefighting practices. Apparently a couple decades ago, there was a huge fight about the proper way to handle naturally occurring wildfires. The public felt that the enormous fire -- one that was doing sufficient damage to our country's first established national park -- should be extinguished. The park service stuck to the modern view that the fire was part of a natural cycle, and the overall effect on the forest would be decidedly positive. Scientists never considered the positive effects of wildfire until the 1930's. But it seemed that the public dissidence arose from the Smokey the Bear campaign, which gave people the impression that all fires must be prevented and put out.
I viewed this as the perfect opportunity to get involved with EJ Magazine, a student-written environmental publication that is printed once per semester by the Knight Center at Michigan State University (MSU). I had shied away from participation the previous semester, mostly because my attention was focused on SpartanEdge.com, my veritable sandbox for online journalism endeavors. I attended EJ's informational meeting in September, and proudly announced that I wanted to write an article about the Sleeper Lake Fire. Then I met with the editor to officially pitch the story. She liked the idea, so she suggested types of sources to approach and a general idea of how to present the information. Basically, I would speak to an MSU professor, a contact at TNC, and whoever was in charge of the firefighting at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It all made sense, and I was excited to get started.
Through my research for the article, I discovered that Michigan has had a less than favorable interaction with wildfire. Two fires in the late 1800s were so destructive that they each burned more than 1 million acres and killed more than 200 people. Fast forward to August 2007. The Sleeper Lake Fire turns out to be the third most destructive fire in Michigan's recorded history. Naturally, I was glad I committed to this subject. Let's not forget that I am, and probably always will be, a science nerd at heart. Questions started pumping through my mind. Was this scenario similar to the one I heard about in Wyoming? How was the fire being suppressed? What were the long-term effects of the fire? Would citizens riot and rampage if the authorities didn't take appropriate action to fight the fire?
Despite my excitement, I didn't start right away. I was an amateur journalist, and I'm not a very outgoing person. At times, I despise the very idea of an interview. Usually I build it up into a monstrous idea. I get nervous that I won't ask the right questions. Or maybe my lack of expertise on the subject will make me appear incompetent. Even worse, perhaps I'll say something that directly offends the source, and they'll hang up on me or ask me to leave. I know some of this is the result of never taking an undergraduate journalism course and never having any proper training.
Naturally I procrastinated, and it took me a couple weeks to actually get in touch with my primary sources. I kept putting this off until after my halfway check-in point on September 20, when, as a first-time EJ writer, I was actually supposed to have my first draft submitted. I did manage to speak with all three of my sources by October 4, the first deadline for fall stories. I hit a small speed bump when I spoke with the MSU professor, and she informed me that a few other students had also contacted her about articles for EJ Magazine. I asked, "Really? During this semester?" She replied affirmatively. I then asked my editor if it was a problem that multiple writers were using the same contact. She said, "No, that should be fine. I gave the other writers her contact information, but they're all writing about different topics. If there are any problems, we'll handle it in the editing process." I didn't think for a second that those other writers would also be speaking to the professor about wildfires. They were all writing about different topics, like the editor plainly said. I wasn't just being naïve.
I rolled on and wrote the article in the manner that made the most sense to me. I started with a reference to Smokey, then got into the Sleeper Lake firefighting specifics, and related that to general information about wildfires in Michigan. I incorporated quotes from the MSU professor with wildfire expertise, the fire manager at TNC (the organization, by the way, is the biggest landowner in the Sleeper Lake area), and the manager at the DNR Newberry office. Most importantly, I was happy with the story.
* Graphic made by Nick Meador using a public domain image.