Using Bloody Run Creek to engage new environmental news consumers

By Emanuele BerryBloody Run Creek was once called Parent's Creek. The name was changed after a battle during Pontiac's Rebellion. The waterway was said to have run red with British blood. Photo: Emanuele Berry

Bloody Run Creek flows behind this bridge rail.  Photo: Emanuele Berry

By David Poulson
Making environmental issues relevant to the public means more than reporting for activists, scientists, regulators, industry types and others who are already engaged in them.
If you’re serious about covering the environment, you need to find the environmental angle to everything you report. That’s a surprisingly easy way to connect news consumers to environmental subjects they otherwise would ignore.
I’ve been thinking recently of a corollary: Find the non-environmental angle in every environmental story.
That has implications for story construction but perhaps even more so for story marketing. Here’s what I mean:

The Knight Center’s Great Lakes Echo is collaborating with WKAR public radio on a series about the Detroit waterfront. We ran the first story on Echo, and WKAR broadcast it and also ran it on the station’s website.
We’ve done similar things before. And the Echo online version typically draws much more traffic than the WKAR web version. That makes sense.  Echo has an established niche in the Great Lakes environmental community. WKAR’s audience is broader in interest and narrower in geography. Much of its audience is tied to mid-Michigan.
That’s fine with us. WKAR’s web presence is a bonus. Our main interest is engaging the station’s broadcast audience – listeners whom we may not otherwise reach.
But this time the WKAR web version of the story outdrew the Echo version. By a lot. In fact, the story is by far the most trafficked story on the WKAR site.
Our Echo numbers?  Just OK.
I was confused. WKAR had tapped a new audience, one that we didn’t have over at Echo and one that the radio station didn’t have previously on its website. It’s a mystery worth pondering because it has implications for engaging new audience at Echo.
The story in question explores how early explorers praised Detroit as a watery paradise. But since then, the city has lost streams, lakes and wetlands to urban development. The water is channeled under pavement and buildings and through sewer pipes.
Nowadays there is a push in Detroit and other cities to “daylight” some of these ghost waterways. One is in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery where a partially buried stream is named Bloody Run Creek because of a mid 18th century battle between Chief Pontiac and the British. Legend is that Pontiac won and the blood of the British ran red in the creek.
Neat story – except for the British.
But what made that WKAR link so much hotter than the one on Echo?
Emanuele Berry, who produced the segment, did some investigating. She discovered that a link to the WKAR web version had been posted to Historic Detroit’s Facebook page. Twenty-seven people shared it from there. And then who knew how it was passed around from that point.
Obviously the references to early Detroit and that Bloody Run Creek battle were of interest to Detroit history buffs.  They may or may not be interested in the environment. Regardless, it was the local history angle that encouraged them to consume an environmental news story that otherwise they may never have known existed.
It’s a good lesson when considering how to construct an environmental story for broad appeal. But it’s probably an even better lesson for targeting social media marketing. The story’s focus didn’t need to be changed. All that was needed was to highlight an angle relevant to another audience that was not particularly oriented to the environment.
We marketed our version to the usual suspects – our Facebook and Twitter followers, environmental organizations, water researchers, government regulators. It didn’t occur to us to tap into the history folks.
But environmental journalists need to be sensitive to such opportunities. Otherwise we’re just reporting for those who are already engaged.
And if you want impact, you have to grow audience.
David Poulson is the associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and the editor of Great Lakes Echo.