Programs/Publications

Feature Article from the January 2013 AIRblast

A Science Journalist Hedges Her Bets in Paonia, Colorado

A Localore Reporter’s Notebook

By Julia Kumari Drapkin

“You want me to go where?” is all I remember saying. It was Noland Walker from AIR calling. They were asking me to move to Paonia, Colorado, to produce iSeeChange, my Localore project about climate change. My fiancé and I Googled the town and looked at each other with knitted brows: One and a half hours to the closest airport; a population of fewer than 2,000; an 11-month stay? Absolutely not. “I signed up to help reinvent public media,” I thought, “not to be a one-woman media Peace Corps in a random rural radio station.”

AIR’s Localore Initiative with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was designed to let 10 producers team up with local radio or television stations to develop multimedia platforms that could connect with local communities in new ways. It seemed the perfect fit for an experiment I wanted to try. After seven years of covering natural disasters and climate science for the Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times, PRI’s The World, Global Post, and later The Nature Conservancy and the US Arctic Research Commission, I could see a fundamental problem with my job: both journalists and scientists are afraid to speak frankly about how climate change is affecting daily American life.

Our fear, in part, is a question of scale. It’s really hard to drill down from global models that average vast amounts of time and space and figure out how a single community’s experience fits into the big climate change picture. iSeeChange began as an attempt to create a safe space, on the air and online, for reporters, scientists, and local communities to have a real climate conversation, to talk about how people are changing in the wake of the wild and weird weather, to answer questions, and to bring scientists in to participate. I wanted to flip the script on traditional top-down climate change reporting, where people’s curiosity, not just the scientists’, could direct the conversation about climate changes happening in their own backyards.

But I designed iSeeChange for urban spaces affected by climate change — New Orleans, Boston, or Chicago. Places I knew, places with big radio stations, places with people! The “NO” to Paonia was so visceral, it made me pause — “Shouldn’t I at least check it out?” I made three calls: the first to Sally Kane, the force-of nature-station director at KVNF North Fork Valley Public Radio, where I’d be based; the second to Michelle Nijhuis, a Paonia-based science writer for National Geographic and High Country News.

The two women told me about the North Fork Valley, a community that is engaged with both the land and with each other for their livelihoods. Farmers, ranchers, gardeners, hikers, and skiers see change almost every day because they spend almost every day outside. Both women were so incredibly smart, funny, and supportive that it was hard not to wonder: “Why on earth are these women living in this tiny town?” The third call was to a scientist: “Was there real climate change in western Colorado?” Check. Climate change looms as large as the Rockies on communities dependent on snow for their water supplies.

Four months later, with my fiancé’s blessing, I packed up my life in Washington, D.C., and moved to a town with a main street barely three blocks long. Yes, I cried the first day, but it wasn’t long after that I realized it was the best “change decision” I ever made.

Like the drive south into Paonia, across the weathered desert adobe hills, past the train brimming with coal fresh from the mines, into the river valley lined with pastures, and organic orchards beneath the iconic West Elk Mountains, taking on climate change in the North Fork Valley is full of surprises at every turn. Before I even arrived, KVNF received a formal complaint from an individual alleging that iSeeChange was a “misuse of public funds” for reporting on global warming. But KVNF’s station director, Sally Kane, didn’t flinch. We went on-air together to explain the station’s position: iSeeChange was a conversation about climate change and an open invitation — especially to those who don’t believe in it — to participate and to ask questions. But iSeeChange was not a climate change debate, and KVNF would not approach climate change as a theory. Period.

It was a bold move for KVNF to take on iSeeChange at time when the station has been making a concerted effort to reach out to a wider range of community members. The Valley is known for its organic fruits and wines, but the biggest employers by far are the three coal mines upriver (one of them is owned by Bill Koch, the lesser known of the politically conservative Koch brothers). If the valley was crudely divided into camps between hippies and hicks, KVNF’s core supporters have been squarely in the hippy camp. But with a broadcast that reaches 10,000 square miles across Colorado’s Western Slope and the recent addition of a daily newscast, KVNF is trying to bridge divides and truly be a community news source to its diverse audiences, particularly conservative ranchers, farmers, and coal miners.

While a series on climate change appears divisive, changes in the weather and the seasons are things everybody connects to. Weather is that one topic that anybody can talk about. Seasons define the natural resource communities in the North Fork Valley: the first blooms mark the beginning of the agricultural year; the Cherry Days Parade on the Fourth of July celebrates the summer’s first fruit; the first cutting of hay may determine the day you get married or how many animals you can keep for the winter; and everybody keeps vigil for the first snow — not just for ski season, but also for next year’s water supplies.

If weather and the seasons define the rhythms of our lives and climate change is changing those rhythms, how are we changing too? That’s the core question that iSeeChange has been exploring all year both on air and online, across multiple platforms. Inverting the traditional way we report on climate change requires community engagement, but what strategies work best in a rural community? I started with on-air promos asking people to send simple text messages to iSeeChange with their phones: What have you seen changing this season? What questions do you have for a scientist? We experimented on Facebook, where the community keeps an active (often lively) message board, asking people to upload observations, photos, and questions about seasonal change and to tell us what was happening in their backyards.

Phones and Facebook led to face-to-face reporting and prescient leads about the extraordinary weather and climate events of 2012. Fruit farmers and naturalists alerted us to the earliest spring ever recorded since records were kept in 1895. In April, the local fire chief texted iSeeChange on the way home from fighting a wildfire in the snow, and was concerned that the wildfire season in Colorado was starting earlier and lasting longer, before the epic summer blazes started. We received texts and posts about drought months before states of emergency were declared across the U.S. And we had a head start on the mosquito population and the potential for local outbreaks of West Nile Virus. Quirky animal questions all summer long resulted in our first live three-way call-in show with clips (the radio equivalent of jumping off the Brooklyn bridge). And our live “old-timers” show featured some of the most conservative ranching families in the Valley talking about weird unforgiving hot winds and winter snows that just don’t stick the same anymore.

Reverse radio reporting works better than I ever imagined, and the conversations between citizens and scientists keep getting more interesting: How do we know this isn’t just another cycle? Who says humans have anything to do with these changes? What climate changes made all the oil and gas in the North Fork Valley in the first place? In the coming weeks, iSeeChange will keep peeling back the layers of climate change in an hourlong radio documentary. It’s a surprising conversation, much more nuanced and sophisticated than most people think.

But what does that radio conversation look like online? When we started producing iSeeChange radio features, I realized that scientists and people who live off the land are both paying attention to the same kinds of things: lilacs blooming, meteorology, even microbacteria. Scientists write papers about their change observations, while farmers, ranchers, and recreationists make decisions. What would it look like if we started to document those decisions in real time in order to provide advice for the next time an extreme climate year like this pops up? Well many people in the North Fork Valley already do that — in composition notebooks, scrawled in the margins of calendars. Yet to date, these records have never been shared, archived, or pooled. These farm journals detail not only changes in the weather, but also animal sightings, pests, harvests, and the daily details that add up to climate decisions and adaptations. Scientists call this qualitative data. Journalists call these stories. And when juxtaposed against near real-time climate data, I’m calling it a 21st-century Farmers' Almanac.

After months of what seemed to be unprecedented weather and climate here in Colorado and across much of the United States, I started doing interviews — more than 30 with local ranchers, farmers, gardeners, water managers, and recreationists — to understand what kinds of observations, questions, and decisions people were making in the wake of all the extremes. I started working with Lindsey Wagner, from Zeega in Boston, to develop a prototype almanac. Andrea Lecos, a Paonia-based graphic designer, created a signature look for site. Finally, we brought on two digital development ninjas in New Orleans, Jay Casteel and Dan Leininger, to build the site, which we just launched to the public at http://www.TheAlmanac.org.

“Farming is a gamble.” So I’m told all the time with iSeeChange. This summer, when I realized iSeeChange was succeeding, I doubled down on our success. The last thing I wanted to build was another website, but the community showed me the kinds of information they were interested in online. The iSeeChange Almanac is not traditional citizen science, designed to extract information; nor is it traditional public media, designed to broadcast information. The Almanac at its core provides a public service that, to date, hasn’t been provided: a community weather journal that allows people to see relationships between their experiences and their environment over time and decide for themselves how they’re being affected by climate change. By understanding a community’s information needs in a localized question- and decision-driven context, the iSeeChange Almanac will present opportunities for both public science and public media to better understand the value of information to communities.

The Latin root of the word journalism is journal, which in turn is derived from diurnalis, which is Latin for daily. Daily journal. For as long as I’ve been a journalist, journalism has been trying to reinvent itself, but without asking the public what they really want. AIR’s Localore initiative brought me to the North Fork Valley to help change public media, and the community changed me. Together we are collaborating to reinvent public radio, taking risks that can’t be taken in bigger stations, and learning things about climate change and each other that the science community is keen to hear. In the end, we may very well flip more than just the script. Stay tuned.

The iSeeChange website, www.TheAlmanac.org, just launched in mid-January. Also check out the iSeeChange and keep your ears out for the iSeeChange radio documentary early this spring!


AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org.