Knight Center grads discuss book, environmental journalism careers

 We interviewed Knight Center graduates Amanda Peterka (BA ’09) and Hannah Northey (MA ’07) about a book they contributed to as reporters for Environment & Energy Publishing in Washington D.C. They also described what it’s like working for the news service and how to prepare for a career in environmental journalism.
Q: Who was the most interesting person you met while reporting for this book?

Amanda Peterka

Amanda Peterka now

Amanda Peterka: We spoke only by phone, but it has to be the former head of the Biofuels Center for North Carolina, W. Stephen Burke. He seemed grateful that I called out of the blue to ask for his story, and when we spoke he chose each word very thoughtfully and deliberately. He writes emails as if he were writing a letter, very formal with the date written out at the top and an electronic signature at the bottom. And I only found this out at the end of our conversation, but he owns the country’s largest collection of miniature folk art houses. I immediately knew he had to be my lede in my chapter on biofuels.
Hannah Northey

Hannah Northey now

Hannah Northey: Jim Rogers, a charismatic and loquacious man who served as president and CEO of Duke Energy for seven years, was an interesting interview – both for what he said and what he didn’t say. Rogers has been burnishing his reputation as an influential and progressive utility executive willing to tackle climate change since he stepped down at Duke. He’s now a familiar face among D.C. energy circles, known for his comments about embracing distributed solar energy and greening the U.S. electric grid. I asked Rogers about criticism that he was leaving a fossil-heavy legacy at Duke despite his call to embrace renewables. Rogers blamed climate-denying Republicans and outdated regulations. Rogers’ view into such a large and complex utility that has a lot of weight in North Carolina was enlightening – it also flies in the face of critics who say Rogers himself didn’t try hard enough to push renewables. Others, notably, have said Rogers just couldn’t “turn the Duke ship.”

Q: What was the hardest thing to write about?
Amanda Peterka: I don’t necessarily have a specific part that was hard to write, but the hardest part in general about this project was coming at it as an outsider. I was very conscious that we haven’t been as deeply immersed in North Carolina politics as reporters who live and work in the state, and I think we all worked hard to use our trips to the state to their full advantage.
Hannah Northey: I found it challenging to simultaneously touch on the political, financial, regulatory and social side of an energy company in flux. Crafting a story with so many moving parts – the company’s changing leadership and political alliances, the coal ash spill and the focus on solar  — made for more complicated storytelling. Using a light touch when writing about rather wonky issues was also a challenge. Keeping a narrative style meant staying out of the weeds on the practice of “net metering” for rooftop solar panels, for example!
Q: How did contributing to this book differ from your typical work?
Amanda Peterka, left, as an MSU student in 2009.

Amanda Peterka, left, in 2009 at a party of the home of professor Howard Bossen. She was his research assistant.

Amanda Peterka: Contributing to this book allowed me to explore a longer, feature style of writing that’s different from the usual quick hits that make up the bulk of my typical work. Our editor and colleagues really encouraged us to be descriptive and to shape the story around characters rather than strictly around policy.
Hannah Northey:The ebook presented a new way to collaborate. Reporters from across the newsroom covering energy policy, politics, transportation, law and various agencies all took a step back from the daily grind to brainstorm as a cohesive group. We discussed layout, story arcs, how to knit the chapters together, layout, images, timelines – elements that many of us tackle on our own each day.
Q: How many stories do you typically write in a day? In a week?
Amanda Peterka: I typically write between one and three stories a day, which ends up being about 15 stories a week. They are mostly quick hits covering new regulations, pending legislation, lawsuits and the latest noise from lobbyists, but I often take deep dives into wonky policy subjects.
Hannah Northey: During a busy week when Congress is in session, I’ll write two to three stories each day. That makes for about 15 stories on a week, but that always varies. I oftentimes try to take a step back from the daily deadlines to write features or travel. In July, for example, I traveled to Japan for a month-long fellowship. Admittedly, I filed a daily story from Tokyo.
Hannah Northey, with crown, at a Knight Center Halloween party in 2007

Hannah Northey, with crown, at a Knight Center Halloween party in 2007. She was a Knight Center graduate assistant.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?
Amanda Peterka: One of the things I like best about E&E is really being able to explore environmental and energy topics with a depth that you don’t often get with “mainstream” media outlets. Our readers are extremely knowledgeable about these topics, so we don’t have to explain concepts that we’d have to if we were writing for a newspaper.
Hannah Northey: A highlight of working at E&E Publishing’s Greenwire – if I had to name only one – is having the ability to continuously grow, whether it be through travel, finding a new way to cover my beat, trying my hand at a new project or taking part in a fellowship. I’m also very proud of our company and our coverage.  E&E Publishing has a strong reputation for solid, in-depth coverage of complex issues that resonate with readers who care about climate and energy issues.
Q: You write for a major national environmental news organization. What should students do while they are students to prepare for similar careers?
Amanda Peterka: Start writing about environmental and energy topics. Look for outlets where you can explore the issues, from student-run organizations at MSU to blogs. Find yourself an internship at an environmental news organization (E&E offers a great one – I started as an intern for two months before being hired on fulltime). Take any courses you can find at MSU on environmental reporting. And one of the most helpful things for me was getting a master’s degree in environmental policy on top of my undergrad journalism degree.
Hannah Northey: Get as much experience as possible. Graduate school can be a difficult time to complete internships, but it’s also an ideal time to build up a body of clips that will help you in the future. While earning a master’s degree at MSU’s Knight Center, I also had an assistantship and a part-time job at The Lansing State Journal. When I wasn’t working at the newspaper, I had an internship with Michigan Public Radio and later traveled to Athens, Greece, for a two-month internship with the Associated Press. Each and every one of those professional experiences helped me build a strong resume and body of clips, and helped me advance after grad school. Bottom line, employers want to see you can write and report.
Q: What should students do after they graduate to prepare for similar careers?
Amanda Peterka: Reach out directly to editors and work your contacts from previous internships. Apply for any and all writing jobs, no matter where they were located. I got offered jobs in Roswell, N.M., and Sheboygan, Wis., before ending up at a small paper in New Jersey for a year, where I gained invaluable experience speaking with people, covering local politics and learning newspaper writing style. Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up.
Hannah Northey: Network. Keep moving forward. Be flexible. Find a company you’re proud of and aim to land there. It’s no secret that finding your dream job can be difficult after graduating, and it takes perseverance to find the right fit.  After graduating from the Knight Center in 2007 with a master’s degree in environmental journalism, I moved from Michigan to Virginia for my first full-time gig at a newspaper. Instead of writing about the environment, I covered the crime beat on the night shift and wrote about water quality issues in the Shenandoah Valley in my spare time. So have patience!
Q: What journalism experience do you remember most while at MSU?
Amanda Peterka: My most memorable journalism experiences at MSU occurred outside the classroom, writing and editing for some of MSU’s alternative news publications. I pulled some all-nighters to complete stories and nearly pulled my hair out teaching myself Dreamweaver to redesign one of the news websites, but it helped me break of my shell and improved my writing, reporting and editing more than anything I learned inside the classroom.
Hannah Northey: What stands out in my mind is the AP internship I completed in Athens, Greece, in the summer of 2006. It was my first time working abroad in a country where I didn’t speak the language or have contacts. The AP’s headquarters there – a smoky, upstairs apartment unit turned newsroom – is located directly across from the Temple of Zeus in downtown Athens. During those two months, I learned a little Greek and how to maneuver the city, I got the chance to cover protests, wrote about the effect tourists are having on ancient theaters, and interviewed refugees from a conflict in Lebanon. It was a powerful experience – one I never would have had if it weren’t for MSU contacts.