Knight Center alum wins national SEJ award, gives tips for success

Brian Bienkowski

Brian Bienkowski

By David Poulson
A graduate of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism has  won national recognition for a series of environmental stories about the Great Lakes.
Brian Bienkowski, now a reporter and editor at Environmental Health News, received second place in a beat reporting category in the contest sponsored by the national Society of Environmental Journalists.
The series is called Stories of the Great Lakes’ People, Places and Creatures.
Bienkowski, a former reporter for the center’s Great Lakes Echo news service,  also received the same award in the same contest last year. He received his masters in journalism degree with a concentration in environmental reporting in 2012 and is the recipient of the center’s Rachel Carson award for outstanding graduate student in environmental journalism.
Here’s a quick Q & A that probes his formula for success:

Knight Center: Why do you focus on the Great Lakes region? Do you find it particularly interesting or underreported?
Bienkowski: A lot of it is interest — I grew up here and I love the Great Lakes and the region as a whole.
I went to the Knight Center because I knew I would report on Great Lakes issues and was fortunate to land a job where I have a lot of say in my reporting. I brought the beat with me to Environmental Health News.
I think underreported depends on the definition. Are issues with the actual lakes underreported by the larger regional newspapers? I’d say yes, for the most part. But that information void is filled pretty substantially by universities, non-profits, and smaller, niche new organizations.
KC: Did your work at Echo prepare you for this kind of reporting?
B: Without a doubt. I have a dream job because of my work at Great Lakes Echo. I treated my time at Echo as a full-time job so the transition to another — very similar –newsroom, was very easy for me.
Perhaps more important than the actual reporting, editing and website design experience, my time at Echo taught me to work independently and take initiative.
KC: You’ve won similar recognition from the Society for Environmental Journalists for two years running. What’s the secret to good beat reporting?
B: The key for me is to remember that my job isn’t just to write stories. My job is to know what’s going on in the Great Lakes region — what other reporters are writing about, new scientific research, policy developments, economic changes. You basically have to be an expert on your beat.
I think it’s important to think about what would interest you as a reader. Some of the stuff I write about is quite complex and scientific, which can get boring for a reader. Every story I write, I ask myself, “why do we care?” And that guides the writing.
KC: How do you develop story ideas?
B: I try to stay on top of the news, research and policy developments in the region.
But the two most important things for me are curiosity and being a good listener. Where does my guitar’s wood come from? I see more bike lanes around, is that true elsewhere? My Dad is in the auto industry … what does he know about new emissions technologies? A lot of my friends fly fish … what do they notice about the rivers, bugs?
The best stories do not come from press releases, rather by connecting the dots between your beat and the things that matter to people.
KC: What’s the hardest thing you write about?
B: I frequently write about hormone disrupting chemicals, such as BPA, which are quite challenging to write about. Most people think of contaminants in the traditional sense: the more exposure, the worse off you are. But, in animal studies, researchers find many of these compounds impact health at very low doses.
It’s hard to get people to pay attention to very scientific stories littered with acronyms. But, again, I just try to keep the story’s focus on how these chemicals are, or could, impact people’s lives.
KC: What’s the most enjoyable thing you write about?
B: I really enjoy writing stories that involve my hobbies. Biking, fishing, beer, music … things like that. I’ve found there are environmental tie-ins to just about everything.
KC: What was your favorite story that you entered? Why?
B: I particularly like the Out of sight, out of mind: Carcinogenic chemical spreads beneath Michigan town story. It’s always fulfilling to tell a story from a community that doesn’t get a lot of attention and coverage otherwise. The people of Mancelona were so grateful to have someone give this issue national attention.
KC: What’s the best part of your job?
B: My favorite part of my job is when I have a stack of notes, a bunch of research, a big pot of coffee on and a blank Word document in front of me. The actual writing and organization of stories is when I feel most creative.
KC: What advice can you give aspiring environmental journalists?
B: No matter what stage of your career you’re at, act like a journalist. Be inquisitive, curious and work hard.
There’s been a large shift in journalism and while some of it is not good for young journalists, a lot of the changes are opening new doors. There are specialized publications all over now — so if you’re interested in say, water, report on water and try to connect with news organizations and non profits that share your passion.
It no longer matters if you work for the New York Times or a small web-based publication. You can break a major/interesting/quirky story and get people’s eyes on it.

Here’s what the SEJ judges had to say about Bienkowski’s reporting: “Brian Bienkowski’s solid storytelling on a range of topics impressed the judges. His story on Detroit’s overflowing sewers was alarming, as was a piece about a carcinogenic chemical spreading in the groundwater beneath a Michigan town. His reporting was thorough and his writing keeps readers engaged.”
And here are the stories:

David Poulson is the asociate director of MSU’s Knight Center for Envrionmental Journalism. A version of this column appeared in Great Lakes Echo.