Environment reporter talks AP with Knight Center students
By Marie Orttenburger
John Flesher has spent almost his entire news career working for the Associated Press.
That’s given him an up-close view of the wire service’s evolution in the past 35 years.
He evolved as well, growing into environmental coverage and providing the AP with Great Lakes news—a coverage area it had not previously explored.
Flesher recently visited Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism to talk with students about his career path.
He began at the AP doing editing and broadcast writing assignments and general reporting at the Raleigh, North Carolina bureau. He covered a range of subjects before settling into a government and politics beat.
The bureau’s staffers wore multiple hats, he said. From clerical “grunt work” to investigative reporting, they each did it all. All that variety offered many learning opportunities. Re-writing stories for broadcast was one task that Flesher appreciated.
“It’s not really what I was interested in doing, but I’m glad I did it,” Flesher said. “The AP is a great place for a sort of boot camp, basic training for journalism.”
After eight years in the Raleigh bureau, Flesher transferred to Washington, D.C. to work as a Michigan regional reporter. He didn’t know anything about the state.
“I sort of had to get a crash course in what Michigan was all about,” Flesher said. He learned about the auto industry and its key players in Washington, as well as the state’s influential governmental actors.
That’s also when he started reporting on environmental issues in Michigan—polluted areas that the state was seeking federal funding to help clean up and the invasion of the zebra mussel. He became fascinated with the Great Lakes region and its issues.
Getting married and desiring a change of place led him to accept a position as an AP correspondent in Traverse City, Michigan in 1992. He became “the eyes and ears of the AP” in the expansive and largely rural area of the northern Lower Peninsula and the entire Upper Peninsula.
Regional coverage for the AP requires a different thought process than that employed by a reporter for the local Traverse City Record Eagle, he said.
“You have to think: ‘What is going on here that would be of interest in California or Texas or Kentucky?’” Flesher said. “So that is what I set out to do.”
Initially, he gathered feature stories. He covered the monks in the Keweenaw Peninsula who run the Jampot, a shop where they sell their homemade jams and baked goods. He wrote stories about the mines, the Traverse City cherry industry and fluxes in the moose population of the Upper Peninsula. Once he dove into Lake Superior’s depths in a submarine and witnessed the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald, turning out a story mere moments after he ascended.
Eventually the AP encouraged its correspondents to become more “beat-oriented.” In 1997, Flesher attended a Great Lakes environmental journalism seminar hosted at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.
“That sort of got me thinking about trying to focus more on the environment,” Flesher said.
A couple years later he took a sabbatical to attend a fellowship at the University of Colorado that focused on environmental journalism.
“When I came back, I was fired up,” Flesher said. “It’s really just sort of built from there.”
To his delight, the AP has started encouraging its reporters to do more investigative stories.
Fewer newspapers are able to do in-depth investigative journalism, Flesher said.
“We’ve tried to step in and fill that breach,” he said.
He’s since reported sprawling stories on oilfield wastewater spills and the poor condition of the flood levees throughout the country. In between those longer stories, which can take more than a year to report, Flesher writes about invasive species, Great Lakes water levels, legislation for Great Lakes protection and, most recently, the Flint water crisis.
“We’re definitely moving away from the little minor stories to the big stuff,” Flesher said.
“It’s quite a challenge, but it’s exhilarating for someone like me.”
You can read John Flesher’s work here.