Twenty-five years ago, the first issue of the Bay Journal hit the streets — or rather, the mailboxes — across the watershed. Its lone cover photo featured swans taking flight; the headline read: 1991: Taking a new look at an old goal.
The newspaper’s 12 pages featured stories about budgets, turtles, a list of “toxics of concern,” and an ominous report that nutrient reduction efforts could fall short in 2000. The entire publication, from writing the headlines to driving the paper to the printer, fell on the shoulders of Karl Blankenship, a Michigan native with a passion for the outdoors and an understanding that covering the Chesapeake Bay well meant spending a considerable amount of time indoors at meetings.
Today, the Bay Journal has a distribution of 30,000 and at least that many monthly visitors to its website. Each issue now averages 40 pages and it has broadened its coverage beyond Chesapeake Bay Program policy to include a variety of stories on topics ranging from fly ash to farming, sea-level rise to snakehead invasions.
The Journal’s readers have consistently said — in surveys the newspaper has commissioned as well as in letters, emails and calls — that the publication offers the most comprehensive information on the Chesapeake Bay’s health. That’s become increasingly important as mainstream news staffs shrink and the cleanup story becomes more complicated. What was once an unprecedented voluntary effort to restore the nation’s largest estuary has become a more tightly regulated — and litigated — mandate, as the six states in the Bay watershed and the District of Columbia must meet pollution reduction targets set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s pretty amazing to see where this publication has gone. And Karl deserves at least 95 percent of the credit,” said Frances Flanigan, former longtime executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. She hired Blankenship in 1990 to produce a newsletter about the restoration effort that eventually became the Journal.
“None of the other reporters would have sat through all those Bay Program meetings like Karl did,” Flanigan said. “To the scientists, he was a real person, a face, and they would read his story, and they would say, ‘Yeah, he got that right.’…It’s my belief that the scientists learned from Karl how you explain things to the public.”
Alliance staffer Cindy Dunn recruited Blankenship from the Harrisburg Patriot-News, where he had started an environmental news page. Dunn, now secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, thought Blankenship could produce the Alliance’s newsletter, the Chesapeake Citizen Report. Through a friend’s wife who worked for a printer, Blankenship discovered he could reduce costs if he printed the publication as a newspaper. A longtime fan of High Country News, an environmental newspaper covering the West, he decided to give it a try.
“I just got to thinking, what the Bay needed was a newspaper, not a newsletter. And there was just something about the switching the format to newsprint that really changed people’s perceptions,” Blankenship said. “The response of the first issue was just really amazing. We got so many letters. People just seemed more prone to read it.”
At the time, Blankenship’s wife, Kathleen Gaskell, was a layout/copy editor at The Baltimore Sun. In the week leading up to the Bay Journal’s monthly deadline, she would proofread its stories, headlines and captions. After their son, Grant, was born, the two would take turns with child care and work duties, often driving as a family to deliver the page proofs to the printer or to the FedEx office. Gaskell left The Sun in 1995 to become the Journal’s layout/copy editor and second employee. The pair work out of their home in Seven Valleys, near York, PA, nestled among woods and farm fields. In 25 years of working together, Gaskell said, they have never missed a deadline — not even when Blankenship underwent successful treatment for cancer several years ago, or when he broke his hip in a bicycling accident two years ago.
For more than two decades, the Alliance published the Journal as a part of the Bay Program’s overall communications and outreach efforts. In an unusual arrangement, the EPA underwrote the newspaper through the Alliance. Even more unusual: No one with the EPA or the state-federal Bay Program demanded to review Blankenship’s articles, or threatened to reduce funding out of displeasure with a story. In the last decade, Blankenship has diversified the organization’s funding, with grants from foundations and donations from thousands of readers. In 2010, Blankenship took the Bay Journal independent, forming the nonprofit Chesapeake Media Service to serve as publisher.
The print edition, produced 10 times a year, is mailed to subscribers and distributed to public libraries, seafood restaurants and various other locations. Schools can receive the Journal in bundles for their students. It remains free of charge.
And like many other newspapers, the Bay Journal has sought to broaden its audience by launching new ventures and expanding into other media. It has a travel supplement, Bay Journeys, that features the historical, cultural and natural features of the Chesapeake, encouraging readers to kayak, bike, hike and visit various natural features across the 64,000 square-mile watershed. There is a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a weekly e-newsletter, and a syndication service for op-eds and some news articles that reaches close to 2 million readers each month. For five years, the Journal co-produced and co-hosted a monthly show on Maryland’s main public radio station, WYPR, reaching 90,000 people.
The Journal’s staff of 10 helps to produce the print newspaper and its online and syndicated offerings. Over the past eight years, Blankenship has hired top environmental journalists with a history of covering the Bay. Among them: photographer Dave Harp, columnist Tom Horton and reporters Rona Kobell and Tim Wheeler, all formerly with The Baltimore Sun. Longtime staff writer Lara Lutz, of Annapolis, also edits Journeys and the website. Writer Whitney Pipkin reports from the Washington area and covers many stories in Virginia. Jeff Day, a veteran of the Bloomberg BNA news service, also helps to cover Virginia. Tim Sayles, former editor of Chesapeake Bay Magazine, edits the news service op-eds and articles.
While early stories focused on the Bay Program and the Chesapeake’s cleanup efforts, the newspaper has expanded its coverage to a wide range of other issues affecting the fate of North America’s largest estuary. Among them: invasive species, sustainable seafood, urban greening, sea-level rise and population growth. Reporters have tackled controversies over the natural gas “fracking” boom, the pipeline push in the Virginia highlands, the expansion of poultry operations on the Eastern Shore, the water-quality impacts of power plants’ coal ash disposal, and the conundrum of what to do about the buildup of polluting sediment at Conowingo Dam.
Though much about the Journal has changed in a quarter century, some features remain the same. Kathy Reshetiloff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been writing the Bay Naturalist column almost since the beginning. Most issues have run a list of watershed volunteer activities and cleanups, now called Bulletin Board.
The Journal also provides a forum for varied views and insights about the Chesapeake and the effort to restore it. The head of the EPA’s Bay Program office is a frequent contributor, though deadlines are not as exciting as they were in the days of Bill Matuszeski, who served in that position from 1991 to 2001. With hours to go before the Journal went to press, Matuszeski would stay up all night writing his columns, Blankenship remembered, and once he faxed one in the wee hours of the morning with this note: “Here’s 900 words. Eat them.”
Matuszeski, who had been a political appointee for his whole career except for his 10 years with the Bay Program, fondly remembers his Journal experience.
“I found that writing for the Bay Journal was an excellent discipline, because it forced you once a month to explain, in clear terms, just what the hell we were doing, and there really weren’t that many opportunities to do that at the federal level,” he said.
The Journal’s greatest accomplishment, Matuszeski said, was to give credibility to a novel concept: That money, will and science could restore an estuary. And, he said, if such an effort could succeed in the heavily populated Chesapeake watershed, then the rest of the world would have no excuse.
“We were not off on a lark somewhere. We could actually get measurable results,” Matuszeski said. “And Karl was probably exactly the right person for the job, because he is sufficiently loquacious without being at all threatening. If he was a different kind of person, it would not have worked.”
Over the years, the Journal’s readership has broadened considerably beyond Bay Program insiders to include farmers, watermen and seaside residents. Staffers have been surprised to encounter fans in places like Rhode Island, Arkansas and Kansas.
Journalists from mainstream newspapers have long used the paper as a source for stories. While he was still at The Baltimore Sun, Horton further encouraged that practice by praising the paper and Blankenship in one of his columns. It was, Horton noted, the only time his Sun editors let him write about another publication. “I knew good, solid reporting, especially when it came to the Bay,” Horton said. “Time and time again, articles on topics I was familiar with came out in more depth in the Journal than I was seeing anywhere else.”
Looking back over a stack of issues encapsulating his career, Blankenship recalled a few watershed moments. The Journal, he said, was the first to report a connection between air emissions from power plants and vehicles and the nitrogen causing algae blooms and dead zones in the Bay. The paper tackled pollution from septic systems, which was tricky because while they’re a relatively small factor in the Bay’s overall water quality, they can be significant sources of nitrogen getting into rivers. He covered the ups and continuing downs of trying to restore once-abundant spawning runs of American shad, and the successful rebound of striped bass after a controversial fishing moratorium in Maryland.
His coverage has garnered praise. He received the Renewable Natural Resource Foundation’s first excellence in journalism award in 2001. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Besides getting praised, some stories have helped change policies. Blankenship said he’s been told his coverage of a program to drive eels around the Conowingo Dam led to ongoing funding for that effort. Others have changed lives. A story in 2013 about Kelley Phillips Cox, a Tilghman Island native trying to launch an environmental center, led to a reader pledging $50,000 so she could buy the shuttered oyster shucking house that is now her headquarters.
Scientists appreciate the coverage Blankenship has given their work.
“Karl’s grasp of Bay issues is more comprehensive than anyone I know,” said Robert Orth, a biologist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Orth, who directs an annual survey of the Bay’s submerged aquatic vegetation, credits Blankenship with being the first journalist to publicize the results, which are now looked to as a key indicator of the Chesapeake’s ecological health. “He could easily pass any of VIMS student’s Masters or Ph.D. qualifiers or defenses,” Orth said of Blankenship’s knowledge of Bay issues.
Blankenship’s bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, coupled with his intense curiosity, have been more than sufficient to drive the Journal as it has evolved over the last 25 years. Now, he would like to expand its reach, engaging a growing share of the watershed’s 17 million residents in the continuing challenges of restoring an ecosystem that’s played such a key role in the nation’s history and culture.
“In those early days, I remember how optimistic everyone was. It seemed like things were doable. I remember wondering what I was going to do in 2000, when they met their goals,” Blankenship said. “In those early years, they didn’t appreciate just how hard some of these things would be.”