Author Archives: Don Corrigan

Print journalism: don’t erect the tombstones just yet

by Don Corrigan

The “print is dead” mantra has been around for some two decades. That message was brought home to me as a professor at Webster University in St. Louis when my journalism department met to hire a new professor in social media. Also on the agenda were revisions to the curriculum for journalism majors.    Those revisions were needed to better reflect the inevitable move to digital technology in delivering journalism. When I protested that it might be too early to write off print newspapers, despite the encroaching new technologies, a colleague upbraided me severely. He supposedly was just trying to help me get it through my thick skull that we had entered a new media paradigm.

“Don, I like print journalism as much as you do. I used to enjoy getting up in the morning and reading a newspaper with my coffee, but it’s over. I can get it all online now. Print is dead,” he scolded, hammering his fist on his desk to drive the point home. When I tried to debate the issue further, I received some sympathetic glances from other colleagues – the kind of glances reserved for grandma as she tries to hold onto a few keepsakes before being moved from her old home to the retirement center.

I soon stepped down from advising the college student newspaper, the Journal. The departure turned out to be a great excuse for a 2010 retirement party – an old-school happening for an old-school journalist. Rather than leave journalism tutelage altogether, though, I continued to teach media law and started an outdoor/environmental journalism certificate. As for the revised journalism major, two of my favorite required legacy courses were summarily jettisoned: History and Principles of Journalism and Community Reporting. My work down the street from the university at Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc., publisher of three local newspapers, had been serving as a great resource and inspiration for teaching about covering communities as well as about print journalism operations.

Alas, the “buggy-whip factory” known as Webster-Kirkwood Times continues to prosper to this day. And now, almost a decade after I had to confront the reality that “print is dead,” comes an article in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that insists print is not dead with a subhead entitled, “The Revenge of the Real.” The article in the 2016 fall-winter issue notes that it may actually be digital that is dying on the electronic vine after years of newspapers trying to find a business model that will make digital news profitable, or at least self-supporting. According to the CJR article by Michael Rosenwald, digital may be working for a few large national newspapers, but for regional newspaper businesses all the Facebook, tweets, apps and websites are a bust. In the future, digital may just involve “add-ons” for the base print products, included as a benefit for readers, but definitely not “profit centers” meant to sustain the franchise.

As the 2016 CJR article notes: “The reality is this: No streamlined website, no ‘vertical integration,’ no social network, no algorithm, no Apple, no Apple Newsstand, no paywall, no soft paywall, no targeted ad, no mobile-first strategy has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership. And the most crucial assumption publishers have made about readers, particularly millennials – that they prefer the immediacy of digital – now seems questionable, too.”

CJR goes on to quote Iris Chyi, a University of Texas professor and new media researcher. Chyi observes: “The (supposedly dying) print edition still outperforms the (supposedly hopeful) digital product by almost every standard, be it readership, engagement, advertising revenue, and especially willingness to actually pay for the product.” Chyi examined data collected by Scarborough, a market research firm owned by Nielsen, for the 51 largest U.S. newspapers, finding that the print edition reaches 28 percent of circulation areas, while the digital version reaches just 10 percent. (And it is a business model that still pays the bills, including salaries.)

‘Thriving’ print

There’s no question that the big guys in the newspaper world have been weathering tumultuous times. Some have been saddled with debt from acquisitions made when newspapers were at their peak. Others have more recently been sold at bargain basement prices to new owners without journalism backgrounds. Many of these owners have continued to hack away at the print product; continued to cut remaining staffers; and, continued to put resources into digital platforms that have yet to produce significant revenue after years of experimentation with pop-up ads, paywalls and digital-first strategies. It’s a formula that has failed to stop the decline in readers and loss of circulation. The trade and general media focus on these “big troubles” at big newspapers has obscured the fact that print as a whole is thriving.

“Far too much emphasis has been placed on digital and national media,” said Tim Bingaman, president and CEO of Circulation Verification Council (CVC). “And very few companies have been able to produce meaningful regional or local editorial content on a digital platform and monetize it for significant profit.  However, local and niche print continues to be very profitable.  Interestingly, much of the digital content we analyze is actually sourced back to traditional media sources.  Much like radio stations were famous for reading the newspaper as their news content, we see the same thing in the digital world (where original print stories now become the content). Print is not dead.”

Bingaman and other industry observers note that people need to keep in mind that 97 percent of all U.S. newspapers have circulations below 50,000, and about 85 percent of all newspapers are weeklies. Collectively, the “community newspaper” sector accounts for more than 70 percent of total print newspaper circulation in the U.S. and 97 percent of newspaper titles. Two-thirds of U.S. weeklies have circulations below 10,000 (as do 45 percent of U.S. dailies). Any analysis of the “newspaper industry” that overlooks the community-newspaper sector, especially the weekly newspaper sector, is going to be inherently flawed and grossly misleading. And analysis that overlooks 97 percent of newspapers may miss the fact that print is holding its own and in many sectors is actually thriving.

“Trends vary greatly depending on the type of print measured,” said Bingaman.  “Daily newspapers and large national consumer magazines continue to lose significant print circulation and those losses receive a majority of the attention in the media industry.  However, a much larger segment of print – community newspapers, shoppers, city & regional magazines, business publications, and niche publications like parenting, 50+ lifestyle, ethnic, and special interest publications are thriving and have very stable or even growing circulation numbers.

“For instance, community newspapers, typically free weeklies, have lost less than 1 percent of their circulation in the last decade.  City and regional magazines, and business publications have also fared the poor economy well with less than 2 percent circulation loss.  Most of these losses come from publishers simply trimming expenses on less valued circulation types.  Niche publications have fared well overall with a 1.5 percent circulation increase in the last decade.  The most important item I take from these numbers is that intensely local community based print is thriving. The ‘print is dying’ message is so prevalent because of the high profile of major losses from large metropolitan daily newspapers and national consumer magazines,” Bingaman stressed.

Guy Bergstrom, a writer for About.comMarketing, continually declares,  “Don’t Believe the Hype: Newspapers Are Alive and Kicking.” Community papers have negotiated the new digital era and America’s economic downturn quite well. Newspaper trade organizations such as the Independent Free Papers of America (IFPA), the National Newspaper Association (NNA) and the Inland Press Association (IPA) are all working to get that message out to readers and advertisers: “We’re Just Fine And We’re Not Going Away.” These groups say it’s vital to get this information out, because the drumbeat about the demise of print can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not countered.

                            READOUT: Is digital “dying”?

Perhaps newspaper trade groups need to go on the offensive and declare: “digital is dying.” There’s plenty of evidence for such a new mantra on digital. A number of attempts have been made to challenge the dominance of the hyper-local, print fare of community newspapers with internet products, foremost among the challengers is AOL’s Patch sites, which have practically disappeared after losing tens of millions of dollars. Jock Lauterer, a community journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, makes the important point that print newspapers are retro and after a day of working in front of video screens all day, many readers want a return to retro. They want “the old portable, clippable, hold-and-fold legacy media,” according to Lauterer.

Digital news advocates and the so-called “technological utopians” will argue that print does not have a future because the kids are all on their smart phones and many don’t know what a print newspaper looks like – they regard it as a relic of some bygone era. Bingaman of CVC insists that young people may rely on smart phones now for information, but they will take up the dependable print newspaper habits once they settle down in a community and want to know what is going on in their schools and at the city council. Bingaman said CVC has the data to prove his contention.

“In 1999 CVC audited 516 community newspapers and shoppers in North America.  In 2016 we audited 2,976 papers and 463 of those original publications are still with us from 1999. In 1999, 7 percent of their audience was made of readers under the age of 25.  In 2016, that number for those same 463 papers is 6 percent. The under-25 age category has never been a large consumer of print, and never will be,” Bingaman said. “However, for community-based publications, young people begin to read these publications as they become involved in their communities.”

“As they buy cars, get married, buy homes, and have children they are drawn into reading about their community,” Bingaman continued.  “In 1999, 17 percent of readers were between the ages of 25-34. In 2016, that 25-34 demographic is 18 percent. This leads me to believe that community-based publications continue to replace their aging demographic with a young audience as they have in previous decades.  As a matter of fact, readership of community-based publications has increased from 74 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2016.  Overall, a larger percentage of households are reading this form of print than they were in 1999.”

Bingaman is echoed by Bill Reader, an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and a longtime member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper editors (ISWNE). Reader said millennials may be digital natives who prefer digital delivery when available, but they are not as print-averse as many media experts would have us believe. Offer them a good print product, and they’ll pick it up.

“The best model for reaching young people today is digital-only for routine daily news, sports scores, and other ‘hot news’ items,” said Reader. “However, they will use higher-quality print news offerings for long-form reporting, analysis, and opinion. Special sections are still going to thrive in print with young people, if they are done well. Getting a new generation of talented, trustworthy journalists to embrace and work on community newspapers will be the key for the print future.”

No one makes a stronger case that print newspapers are in the catbird’s seat, while digital is dying as a sustainable news technology, than Iris Chyi, who is heavily quoted in the 2016 CJR article. In her 2015 monograph, “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles toward Inferiority,” Chyi provides plenty of data to show that digital news products have fallen far short of expectations. Companies that hoped to move their news content from print to only online during the past two decades are finding that 85 to 90 percent of their revenue still flows from the old, legacy print product.

The problem is that most assumptions on the all-digital future have never had any reliable empirical support, according to Chyi. The result is that during almost two decades of trial and error, bad decisions were made and unfounded strategies adopted. The audiences for news were totally misunderstood and the original print product deteriorated through all the attention and experimentation with digital products that no one would pay good money for. Part of the problem is readers viewed the digital products as available, but inferior. And they were conditioned not to pay for them.

In the conclusion of her study, Chyi contends that newspaper managements have been wandering in “a digital jungle” for 20 years with no sense of direction, doing what everyone else is doing rather than doing what is best for the print newspaper, the anchor for their operations. She offers newspaper managers a number of directions for finding the way out of the confusing and unprofitable digital jungle. Among her points:

  • Accept the fact that online display ads are not effective and may never be very effective, no matter how obnoxious and annoying newspaper businesses make them.
  • Acknowledge that print newspapers don‘t have to die, unless they are mismanaged or ignored for the new shiny things out there. In many communities, readers still will pay $300 to $500 a year for the “dead tree” format.
  • Realize that consumers view the digital news product as inferior, much like fast food or ramen noodles. Not many are interested in actually paying for digital news products.
  • Concede local newspapers are never going to benefit from the economies of distribution of a Google or a Yahoo operation. Chasing readers with multiple platforms will wear down your journalists, erode your print product, and can be a waste of valuable resources.

READOUT: Academics need to be more responsible

Chyi argues that newspaper owners need to listen to their managers, editors and reporters who increasingly lament: “All the effort that is going into the website is hurting the print edition. Could we just not do it?” She insists that newspaper owners, who get upset looking at all the young digital natives on their mobiles, need to realize that they are using their phones for entertainment and not for news. To retain or attract younger readers, newspapers need to focus on noteworthy and essential content – and not fret about the means of distribution.

Chyi and other media observers, such as Marc Edge, author of ‘Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers,” have clearly seen the beacon of light through the dense digital jungle. To use another such metaphor, they can see the forest through the trees, and they can actually see that the dead-tree media still prosper. Newspapers have an important place in the media mix when not burdened with all the illusions about their supposedly inevitable digital future.

Journalism academics can be forgiven if they have fallen under the spell of the digital utopians. Academics generally are not “bottom line people” who worry about the business model as they embrace and explore the new media technologies. Also, journalism academics are continually attending webinars, seminars and conferences where the media high priests preach the gospel of digital distribution. At the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conventions, I’ve listened to the experts tell us for years that if news companies were not on a website within two years, they would die. Five years ago, I listened to the experts tell us that if news companies were not on mobiles within two years, they would die. In both presentations, I asked the experts what the business model is for these platforms. The answer in both instances: “The business model will come. The important thing is that you have to be there when it arrives.”

Obviously, journalism academics are as lost in the digital jungle as are many newspaper managers. They’ve all been warned over and over about the coming print apocalypse lurking out there in the bush, but it has yet to materialize. So what should academics be telling their journalism students? Tim Bingaman of CVC suggests that courses in the new media should not discount the old media. A course in history and principles of journalism should show students that newspapers survived radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and now the Internet with the arrival of a new century.

Rem Reader at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University believes that far too much journalism instruction ignores or is dismissive of the community press. Journalism students who are not exposed to the community press are often surprised to learn about the diversity of local and niche media that exists today, the important roles they play in society – and the jobs that are available with this legacy media.

“Journalism professors really do have to get their heads out of their … sand boxes,” said Reader. “Too many J-school profs are just as ignorant about the community newspaper sector as their students. The irony is that most J-school students work in community journalism while on campus – student newspapers, student-run magazines and websites, student-run radio and TV news shows – but don’t even realize it. Many do their internships with community media and community newspapers continue to be a steady source of entry-level jobs. There is digital innovation in the community press, too, and lots of success stories to share.

“There are plenty of examples of ‘best-practices’ coming from the community press in terms of reporting, editing, visual and multimedia journalism, professional ethics and more,” added Reader. My advice for J-school profs is to contact their state press associations and ask them to name the five best “small newspapers” in the state, and then for the profs to get to know those papers and their staffs. Invite them to campus to talk to classes.  They will attest that print is not dead.”

READOUT: Community and daily journalism differ

Jock Lauterer, who wrote the book on community journalism with the book, “Community Journalism,” contends that students need to know successful community journalism differs markedly from the troubled big city journalism. Community journalism works because it involves relentless local coverage that helps a community define itself. Community journalism works because it’s extremely personal as the reporters live among those whom they cover and feel a special accountability to them. Community journalism works because the wider-frame national and global issues are localized.

Although Chyi, Reader, Lauterer and other journalism academics are adamant that print is not dead, they would certainly not counsel students to ignore the news successes of the digital age. Digitalization does seem to be working for larger, national news operations. Digitalization has allowed for interesting websites that aggregate news and features for reader convenience (although sometimes violating original copyrights). Digitalization has provided useful add-ons for newspaper operations, from websites to Facebook to the tweets that provide a heads-up for late-breaking stories. Above all, digitalization can improve reporting. Computer-assisted tools allow reporters to gather more data, contact more sources, check more facts and write better-researched stories. There is, however, a flip side to all this, as Reader points out.

“The flip side of digitalization is that there has been a proliferation of fake news, advertorial, and crassly ideological garbage on the web. The culture war in the U.S. also has led to an across-the-board “dumbing down” of the general population, to the point where they only believe media messages that confirm their own personal biases. They are openly hostile toward media that challenge their beliefs,” Reader said.

“This is not new in human society. Francis Bacon lamented such willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness in the Novum Organum, first published in 1620: superstition, stubbornness, dismissing ‘difficult” information,’ gravitating toward entertainments and trivia, etc. The Internet has empowered those who would exploit such willful ignorance using the trappings of ‘real news,’” Reader contended. “The challenge for journalists today and in the future will be to stand, always, with integrity, bravery, and tenacity. That is how real journalists will stand apart from charlatans, and how community newspapers will stand apart from the putridity of cable television and crassly ideological websites.”

Post-Dispatch report on West Lake sparks social media criticism

After decades of controversy about the dangers of the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfill and nearby Coldwater Creek, the Post-Dispatch set out to ask the nation’s experts to assess the dangers of radioactivity at the site.

Reporter Jacob Barker says he was surprised by what he was told. The nation’s nuclear experts said that the danger had been exaggerated – a finding published in a May 15 story.

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/radiation-risks-from-west-lake-coldwater-creek-low-say-experts/article_22b09b56-e8d4-5473-8caf-d417561c9bf1.html

Environmental advocates were surprised too – and mad.

by Don Corrigan

When Dawn Chapman and other members of Just Moms St. Louis read a front page story titled, “Misplaced Fear,” they immediately went to social media to express their upset with the piece.

They were not happy with the finding of the article that perceptions of radiation risks in the area of West Lake and the Bridgeton Landfill may be exaggerated. The article also examined risks from Coldwater Creek radiation contamination dating back to the role of St. Louis in the production of atomic weapons.

“This downplays every second that not only this group has done to educate people (on the atomic legacy in St. Louis), but that the Coldwater Creek Group has done – meticulously counting every cancer and illness that your loved ones and you have ever reported,” declared Chapman on a Facebook post.

“There are so many facts and one-sided quotes and arguments used in this article that it is nearly impossible to count,” added Chapman. “I urge anyone who has lost a loved one or has suffered an illness to please call the Post and let them know what you think!”

The Post-Dispatch did get some blowback after the radiation risk story, but the editors and reporter Jacob Barker stand by their story. Barker said he was actually surprised himself by the responses from the experts he consulted for the story and who ratcheted down the risk.

“There’s tons of data on West Lake and concentrations of radionuclides that have been found in West Lake,” said Barker. “But until now, no one in local media has really tried to quantify the risk that these quantities pose.

“Because radiation has been so intensely studied, that’s doable. KMOV did do a story last year that talked to a local radiologist, one who I didn’t talk to for my article. That story was also criticized by the Moms group and other residents and activists after the doctor said he saw little risk from the radiological contamination,” Barker added.

Barker noted that when he brought the data tables to Dr. Sasa Mutic, the director of radiation oncology physics at Washington University, he was surprised by the doctor’s observations.

“Because the interpretation – we initially got – challenged our preconceived notions, we spent six months finding other scientists and doctors who know radiation,” said Barker. “All of the other scientists who reviewed the data said pretty much the same thing.”

Barker said the Post-Dispatch wanted to stay away from advocacy groups like Beyond Nuclear and stick to scientists for the article. He said if someone who works with radiation, and who isn’t part of a group with an agenda, comes to the paper with a different interpretation of the data, the Post-Dispatch will publish a follow-up

“As for the risk from the burning Bridgeton landfill, we did not deal with that in this article,” Barker noted. “This was focused solely on radiological hazards, although we did mention the measurable toxins emitted from the Bridgeton landfill.”

Setback For Moms

Chapman called the story a major setback for her group. She said Moms St. Louis has been working tirelessly to get a situation addressed in which an underground fire in the Bridgeton landfill is moving closer to the radioactive materials dumped in the nearby West Lake waste depository. The “fire” – officially called an underground smoldering event – involves chemical combustion with no visible flame or smoke.

Some scientists have suggested that a barrier be fashioned and placed between the two waste areas in order to keep them isolated. Chapman said she fears the Post article will set back months of effort to get Congress and the Missouri legislature, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to act to protect residents from a dangerous situation.

Chapman said the Post-Dispatch article diminishes the threat from exposure to radioactivity and makes irrelevant comparisons on risk. She said readers could not be blamed if they scratch their heads and ask what all the fuss is about with West Lake and the Moms St. Louis group.

“We have a fire that’s been burning for years in the Bridgeton landfill that is several football fields wide,” said Chapman. “These fires are not easy to deal with and this one is getting closer to an area where radioactive contaminants and anything and everything was dumped.

“Residents need a guarantee that this fire will never hit the radioactive waste,” said Chapman. “The heat from the fire constitutes a ‘heat front’ that precedes the fire. EPA said it does not want the heat front to reach the radioactive waste at West Lake, never mind the actual fire involved.”

No Safe Threshold

Chapman said she is floored by assertions in the Post-Dispatch article that suggest that “groundwater contamination levels beneath the landfill are low enough that someone would have to drink more than 1,000 gallons to be exposed to as much radiation as the average American gets annually from radon.”

According to Chapman, there are plenty of scientists who question whether there is any absolutely safe threshold for exposure to radiation, because exposures can be cumulative and humans exhibit varying degrees of sensitivity to exposure. She added that effects on fetal and embryo organs are especially of concern.

“I have to be honest, I took the better part of a day to read the Post story over and over again and it felt like a betrayal. It felt like a hit job,” said Chapman. “They seemed to go across the country to find critics to say what they (the Post-Dispatch) wanted to say about this issue from the beginning.

“As for me and Karen Nickel (co-founder of Moms St. Louis), we will not be going on the record anymore with the Post. They have their stance,” said Chapman. “We know where they stand. We don’t have time to sit and debate about whether there is a problem with the radioactivity. We have to put our energy into working with EPA and the federal authorities who can do something about the fire and the radioactive contamination.”

Barker said he hopes the Moms group will not put an embargo on dealing with the Post-Dispatch.

“We have diligently followed the situation with near weekly articles and always strive to be accurate,” Barker said. “The Moms group brings a valuable perspective to the efforts to find a solution at West Lake.

“If they have concerns that the experts we spoke with downplayed the risk, I invite them, or anyone, for that matter, to let us know about a scientist who isn’t from an anti-nuclear advocacy group with a different interpretation,” Barker added.

Barker said the paper will continue to cover the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills closely because “it is a major issue that is hurting the livelihood and threatening the health of many area residents. Just because some experts say the risk has been blown out of proportion doesn’t mean there is no risk, and radiation is only one of the problems at the two landfills.”

(To hear an interview with Moms St. Louis with the writer of this article, go to environmentalecho.com).

Don Corrigan is editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, a professor at Webster University and author of outdoor and environmental books. His work has been recognized by the Society of Environmental Journalists and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. An earlier story on the Post-Dispatch coverage of the West Lake issue was published in the GJR last fall. http://gatewayjr.org/2015/11/04/media-cover-and-uncover-environmental-problems-in-st-louis/

One of the primary donors to the Journalism Review is Kay Drey, who has long been outspoken about dangers of the West Lake landfill.

Media cover – and uncover – environmental problems in St. Louis

Twenty years ago, the Society of Environmental Journalists chose St. Louis for its 1996 Convention. St. Louis had study trips galore for its 700 writers: dioxin at Times Beach, atomic waste at Weldon Spring, river ecosystem degradation at the Confluence.

Two decades later, St. Louis can add some new field trips for environmental writers, from abandoned lead smelters south of the city to invasive Asian carp in its rivers to a smoldering landfill in Bridgeton that is too close for comfort to a radioactive dump.

Short-staffed local news media cannot begin to cover all the hazardous waste issues and environmental problems that plague the region. Residents directly affected by the environmental hazards complain that they get precious little print, and even less local TV coverage of their problems.

Then there’s the state legislature, which not only avoids addressing Missouri’s environmental maladies, but actually proposes legislation to shield companies from liability for many of the dangerous messes they’ve created. And a dearth of coverage of the legislature shields it from public scrutiny for such perfidy.

Occasionally, outside media swoop in to check up on what concoctions the Gateway City has brewing in its polluted streams, abandoned quarries and industrial wasteland areas.

In 2013, Rolling Stone took a good look at the underground landfill fire in Bridgeton. Rolling Stone writer Steven Hsieh spent time at the landfill as well as at the nearby location of 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons waste. He also met with area residents Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel, who were alarmed by cancer rates in the area.

Hsieh heard how Chapman and Nickel have issues with stinky, rotten-egg westerly breezes that waft from the landfill – and the potential for that air to be laced one day with radioactive elements from the large West Lake Superfund site of the Environmental Protection Agency.

West Lake’s radioactive waste goes back to 1942, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis began processing thousands of tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project. Over the next quarter century, huge amounts of radioactive waste from the processing were quietly dumped at sites throughout the metropolitan area, including thousands of cubic yards that ended up at the West Lake location.

Toxic time bomb

Chapman, Nickel and other north St. Louis County mothers formed Just Moms STL in spring of 2014. They said their mission is to educate the St. Louis region about the West Lake Landfill, the role St. Louis played in the Manhattan Project and the toxic legacy left behind that they say needs to be addressed.

“Unfortunately, we have witnessed a pattern with this dangerous radioactive waste,” said Chapman. “Wherever it has been allowed to sit out, peoples’ lives have been devastated. It has literally left a path of heartbreak, illness and destruction.

“It does not discriminate,” added Chapman. “It has proven deadly to whoever encounters it – not only for them, but for generation after generation of their families. It’s like some Biblical curse — popping up in children and their grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Chapman and Nickel became especially concerned after a 2013 press conference including economist, Peter Andersen, who has studied landfills for several decades. Andersen raised the prospect of a “dirty bomb” resulting from the underground landfill fire reaching the radioactive site.

Andersen pointed out that a dirty bomb does not involve nuclear fission and is not a weapon of mass destruction. However, a reaction involving groundwater, the landfill fire and radioactive waste could cause a release of radioactive particles into the air that could travel 10 miles from the Bridgeton site.

“Both the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone have covered the issues occurring at the West Lake Landfill and the radioactive Superfund site,” said Nickel. “Rolling Stone’s was very accurate. I wish that they would do a followup. So much has happened. We know so much more about the seriousness of this site. Al Jazeera recently sent a team to report on it.”

Andersen’s assertions about the landfill fire and a radioactive dispersal apparently caught the attention of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. Although he described the risk of the fire contacting radioactive waste as a “remote hypothetical,” he sued Republic Services which runs the landfill operation.

Koster underscored a list of public health concerns and odor pollution violations posed by the landfill. He said the company must address the problems or face further state action.

More local coverage 

The mothers of Just Moms STL were gratified with the national coverage that began in 2013 and   prompted local and state agencies to take notice. However, they feel there is still a long way to go with educating the public and to getting some resolution to the problems at West Lake.

“The best local news on this has actually been a tie between KMOX Radio, the Post-Dispatch and NPR,” said Chapman. “Second would be McGraw Milhaven with KTRS Radio and KSDK Channel 5. FOX-2 news has not done as much reporting recently.

“Reporters have worked incredibly hard to understand all the complex issues occurring at this site,” added Chapman. “Things change at the site every week, making it really hard to do a quick and thorough reporting. We’ve learned, unfortunately, that local TV news is heavily influenced by St. Louis and our state politics. We’ve actually had reporters come to us off the record and tell us they want to do more stories, but are told, no!”

Rolling Stone blamed inaction by state officials and Missouri’s congressional delegation on the state’s bid to bring the manufacture of small, modular nuclear reactors to Missouri. A lot of ruckus about radioactive waste from the past would not sit well with company’s interested in siting a nuclear operation in the state.

“I think the manufacturing of small modular reactors has played a small role in causing politicians to be ‘slow to act,’ but it’s not the major problem,” said Nickel. “The major problem is unlimited campaign donations being thrown around behind the scenes by lobbyists for all the financially liable parties.

“With this landfill, there are a lot of conflicts of interest,” Nickel added. “For instance, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s son Andy Blunt is a lobbyist for Exelon, and is currently running his father’s re-election campaign.  Exelon is financially liable for West Lake Landfill. Another example is Senator Kurt Schaeffer, running for Attorney General 2016, who is also a partner in the law firm Lathrope and Gage, currently representing Republic Services against the State of Missouri. These conflicts need to be reported.” 

Wheres the outrage?

Just Moms STL argue there needs to be much more coverage of the state legislature and proposed laws to cap liability costs and to quash lawsuits against companies such as Republic Services, Doe Run and more. 

“The implications of some of the proposed bills go way beyond West Lake Landfill,” said Chapman. “I think if the public understood the role and influence of big business in Missouri legislature, they would be more upset.

“The problem is that many people are like we used to be,” Chapman noted. “If they have never been forced to confront one of these issues like our community has, then they don’t get to see behind the scenes. We desperately need campaign finance reform in Missouri. Without it, the citizens of Missouri do not stand a chance against the unlimited blank checks these companies can write to their candidates.”

Another kind of outrage that Just Moms STL said is noticeably absent in the news – and from consumers of news – is “taxpayer outrage.” Not enough questions get asked about who should be responsible for paying for cleanup of contaminated sites – and not just West Lake.

“Both Exelon and the Department of Energy should be responsible for the clean up of West Lake Landfill,” said Nickel. “Exelon (formerly Cotter Corp.) knowingly illegally dumped this radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill and is listed as one of the main responsible parties.

“Our federal government appears to have not adequately supervised their licensee in the processing and in the transport of this material,” added Nickel. “The U.S. Department of Energy is already listed as a responsible party for West Lake Landfill.”

According to Chapman, the EPA has to take responsibility for botching the original assessments of the dangers posed by West Lake. She said this is because the fox was in the hen house when those assessments were made under EPA purview.

“There has been a dangerous trend at EPA of rubber-stamping documents which were actually prepared by some engineers hired by Republic Services and the other financially liable parties,” said Chapman. “The result is a history of gross negligence at this site that carries with it severe consequences for the people who have lived next to it for 40 years.

“I think we’re already seeing the consequences, such as the almost 300 percent increase in childhood brain cancers in the (63043) surrounding zip code,” noted Chapman. “I believe these statistics will continue to grow – and they’re coming to light. It’s a horrifying consequence of a federal agency mishandling the world’s oldest and most dangerous nuclear weapons waste.”

Valuable help

Just Moms STL members have high praise for environmental groups and activists who have come to their aid. Many of organizations have staged actions that have drawn news media attention to the West Lake issue.

Without the visibility of protests, the news media might not be inclined to dig into the science and the history, which are the biggest part of the West Lake story.

Members of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, including well-known St. Louis activist Kay Drey, have been outspoken about the West Lake situation. The Franciscan Sisters of Mary of St. Louis have organized demonstrations and environmental education events.

Local labor unions also have assisted Just Moms STL by hosting press conferences on the smoldering landfill and the West Lake radioactive site. A crowd of 100 gathered at the Operating Engineers Local 513 in March to hear St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s new health chief talk about a change in direction at Clayton, Missouri headquarters on the West Lake issue.

“There was a lack of political will in Clayton (on the West Lake issue),” said St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Kahn. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Faisal added, “I’m here to tell you that has changed completely.”

Chapman of Just Moms STL said the visit by Kahn indicates the area residents have finally gotten the attention of St. Louis County officials. She said they seemed to be hitting a brick wall with County Executive Stenger’s predecessor, Charles Dooley.

“We are definitely encouraged by the County Health Department’s new stance – this administration’s support is giving us hope,” said Chapman. “It also speaks to the seriousness of the impact that this burning Superfund site has on the people living, working and shopping in this community.

“We still feel that those living within a mile of this Superfund site need to be voluntarily bought out,” she added. “While we are extremely pleased to see a new health study by the county proceeding, the study by itself is not a permanent solution or relief for those people living within a mile of this site.”

Posting mixed reviews

Just Moms STL members offer mixed reviews for the daily newspaper covering the region, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Post-Dispatch remains the most comprehensive source for St. Louis news, despite dwindling pages and reporter layoffs in the last decade.

“Jacob Barker of the Post has spent a lot of time researching West Lake and attending community meetings, which gives him a good understanding of how the residents feel,” said Chapman. “His articles start out really strong and are factual, but in the end the businesses always seem to get the last word or quote in every article. By doing this it softens the message and makes it seem more pro-business.”

If there is an explanation for this, perhaps it’s because Barker is part of the Post-Dispatch’s business team, Just Moms STL says. He is not exclusively an environmental reporter, but covers the energy industry on the business side as well as the environment.

At one time, energy and environment were separate beats, but because of staff consolidations at the Post-Dispatch, they were combined. Current business editor, Roland Klose, said the merger of the beats happened before he arrived at the Post-Dispatch.

“If you have to combine beats, this one makes a lot of sense,” said Klose. “It’s good to have an environmental reporter who is comfortable looking at, and understanding, a company’s SEC filing. It’s good to have an energy reporter who understands the regulatory and consumer issues that affect a company’s bottom line. It makes for deeper, more authoritative coverage.”

Plenty to go around

Klose noted that there are plenty of environmental stories to go around at the Post-Dispatch – and reporters from different sections of the paper get in on the action.

“As for environmental coverage in general, we have other reporters who contribute,” explained Klose. “Todd Frankel, who has since joined the Washington Post, did important coverage of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways controversy last year.

“Jeremy Kohler, investigative reporter, did work on the remediation of the abandoned Northwest Plaza site. Virginia Young and Alex Stuckey cover regulatory and legislative issues from our Jeff City bureau. Freelancer Jack Suntrup did stories for my section on Coastal Energy’s tank farm near the Eleven Point River,” continued Klose.

“Tim Barker, who covers biotech for my team, also has done important environmental stories — from the rise of ‘superweeds’ to GMO labeling,” explained Klose. “Chuck Raasch, our D.C. reporter, has done work on the Monarch butterfly and Monsanto.”

All of these issues, from the use and abuse of Missouri rivers to endangered species and genetically modified organisms, might logically point to the need for a reporter focused and dedicated to the environmental beat. And not just at the Post-Dispatch, but also at radio and television stations.

“I think we definitely need more environmental reporters here,” said Chapman of Just Moms STL. “St. Louis has just so many environmental issues that the public needs to learn more about. Having dedicated beat reporters  would make it easier for the press to understand these issues.”

All the environmental issues here point to an overdue return of the Society of Professional Journalists to St. Louis holding another annual conference here and putting the region under the microscope.

After all, St. Louis has it all — from A to Z, from aluminum to zinc, with some lead, dioxin and mercury contamination sandwiched in between.

 

Author’s note:  Don Corrigan is a long-time journalism educator at Webster University in St. Louis and well-known weekly newspaper editor and writer for Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. He is the author of Environmental Missouri, published in 2014, and he directs the Outdoor/Environmental Journalism Certificate at Webster University, which has brought him recognition from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and a distinguished achievement award from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.   

Better Business Bureau uses Ex-Journalists to Investigate Problem Firms

Newsroom cuts at TV stations and newspapers across the country have put a damper on investigative projects. However, in St. Louis, the Better Business Bureau is picking up the slack.

Michelle Corey, president and CEO for the BBB of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois, can point to a stable of experienced reporters the agency has picked up to help with its consumer investigations. She can also point to dozens of BBB investigations picked up for publication by news media short on staff and resources.

“We’ve received awards for our work, and been recognized as one of the top BBBs in the U.S. for earned media coverage,” Corey said. “We are in the 16th media market, but we place second or third in the amount of coverage our work gets.

“I really credit the news people we have hired for the quality of our projects and the production of good, solid information that can be used with confidence. I do think that with news operation cutbacks, we have been able to fill the void in a number of ways.”

Among the well-known St. Louis newsies now working for the BBB are Bob Teuscher, Bill Smith and Jerri Stroud. Stroud is the editor of The Bridge, the BBB publication that comes out every other month to highlight many top investigations.

The final issue in 2010 featured Bill Smith’s investigation of air-duct cleaning scams. The story tagged a company in suburban Chicago that has been preying on homeowners in both Illinois and Missouri with high-pressure sales tactics, enormous bills and useless services. The scam air-duct cleaning story was picked up on network and local television news, as well as by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Consumers who answered flyers and direct mail ads for $69 cleaning specials found themselves socked with bills 10 to 20 times the original amount in the offers for cheap, quality service.

“Seniors have really been exploited in the air duct scams,” Corey said. “They are shown phony videos of dirt and mold that the company says have been taken by its cameras – and then they are charged for all kinds of extra services. We found seniors who were too embarrassed to admit how badly they were taken.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has a site that says it’s not really necessary to clean your air ducts in most cases. In fact, it’s like asbestos, the dirt in the ducts is not harmful if you don’t mess with it. The dirt will not go anywhere unless it is stirred up.”

Top Notch Investigations

Diana Likely of Crestwood, Mo., credits the BBB with helping “wise her up” to the air duct scams after she used a $49 direct mail coupon that turned into a bill more than 80 times that price. She is still fighting the enormous $4,131 bill from Air Duct Cleaning Pros.

“I’ve learned two things,” said Likely. “Do your research with the BBB before contracting and know what kind of services you really need.’’

The BBB’s investigation into air-duct cleaning scams got plenty of ink, but so have a number of other recent investigations. Among them:

•   A payday loan investigation that revealed companies charging outrageous interest rates to those who can least afford them. Missouri allows an APR of interest up to 1,950 percent based on a two-week loan of $100, by far the highest of nine contiguous states.

•   An in-depth investigation into car warranty extensions that are seldom honored but totally oversold. In the case of U.S. Fidelis, misleading advertising included a halo over the logo to promote the company as angelic, as it bilked consumers out of millions of dollars.

•   A holiday investigation into unethical charities, phony online charities and agencies that purport to help veterans. The BBB found plenty of police, firefighters and veteran charities that were more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the supposed beneficiaries of their online and phone bank solicitations.

•   An exposé of timeshare fraud focused on owners desperate to get out of long-term agreements. Owners spent millions of dollars to sell their timeshares, with few actual sales resulting from selling fees charged.

Puppy Mill Scandal

Perhaps the BBB

report with the biggest impact was Bob Teuscher’s March 2010 study on the puppy mill industry in Missouri. The study found the state to be the puppy mill capital of America, with regulators overwhelmed by the sheer size of the dog breeding industry.

“When you have 90,000 puppies being transported out of Missouri annually to other states for sale – something is going on,” Corey said. “There is a reason that it’s so much cheaper to breed puppies in this state compared to others.”

The BBB investigation found that puppies from Missouri’s mills are mistreated and they also are a consumer rip-off. The puppies are raised in cages in which they can barely turn around; the cages are stacked on top of each other; and the puppies get sick from the feces and filth in these cramped conditions.

The BBB found that when a family buys one of these pups, they can end up with a diseased animal that can result in a big vet bill. Many puppies are shipped out of the state in huge trucks where they can be stuck for five days. When pet shops in other states reject them as unhealthy, the pups face another five days in the truck for the ride back to Missouri.

“We believe our puppy mill investigation had some influence in getting Proposition B on the ballot in 2010 to more closely regulate this industry in the state,” Corey said. “We did not take a position on the issue, but we know that the study was cited by those seeking to address the abuses in Missouri.”

Proposition B, otherwise known as the “Puppy Mill Initiative”, was passed by state voters in November 2010. Rural voters generally opposed the measure and urban voters heavily supported it. Now, rural lawmakers are intent on repealing Proposition B or weakening its regulations in the current 2011 statehouse session.

BBB Gets Recognition

BBB research had an impact on the battle over Proposition B, regardless of what the Missouri Legislature does to the voter-approved measure.

And, BBB of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois is getting recognition locally and nationally for investigative work performed by its crew of former newsroom types. The national BBB gave St. Louis the Myers Memorial Award and cited the work of Bill Smith and others in exposing fraud in the auto service contract industry.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster presented the St. Louis BBB with its Justice Award for Consumer and Senior Protection.

Some criticism of the BBBs nation-wide came up last year because of a new rating system for firms which  awarded them extra points if they paid to become accredited members of the BBB. Chris Thetford, spokesman for the St. Louis BBB, said it had voted against such a policy but it was approved for all 122 chapters. After lawsuits and criticism across the country that awarding extra points was unfair, it was scrapped last November. Still, a lawsuit was filed against the St. Louis chapter by a remodeling firm that challenged the rating system, but it was dismissed by a judge.

The St. Louis BBB recently moved its headquarters from a suburban office in Maplewood to the downtown Metropolitan Square Building; it has established an office in Columbia, Mo.; it is reaching out to university graduate programs to enlist students in its research efforts on advertising and business practices.

Corey noted that BBB was originally founded in 1917 to check out the veracity of advertising and to help the business community self-police the marketplace. Corey said that is still the major focus of the BBB mission.

“Unfortunately, when the economy is suffering as it is now, companies cut down on their advertising,” Corey said. “That means the news media that depends on advertising have fewer resources to devote to news projects, and the quantity and quality inevitably is hurt.

“They also are not scrutinizing the ads, which they are getting, for honesty as much as they might have before,” Corey said. “They turn their heads a little bit, because they don’t want to turn away advertising in tough times.”

Don Corrigan is a professor of journalism at Webster University in St. Louis and is editor, co-publisher of two suburban weeklies.

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