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The beat's basics: A primer on taking over the environment beat
The great book list: What every environment writer should read — or have handy
Tips on interviewing from some of the best
Using spreadsheets: It's not that hard and the payoff is huge (First installment of two parts)
Using spreadsheets: Graphs reveal otherwise hidden truths (Final installment of two parts)
OK, so you can't write. That shouldn't stop you.

The beat's basics
A primer on taking over the environment beat

For years you've been hoping to write about the environment as a full-time beat. Now, finally your editor has given you the chance. But you've had little or no training in this field.

Where do you begin?

As a starting point, I suggest you join the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). Through the organization's quarterly SEJournal, the organization's web site (, its tip sheets, its listservs and other activities, you'll quickly become immersed in the culture of environmental reporting. You might also sign up for SEJ's mentoring program and become linked with a veteran reporter in the field.

It would also be helpful to track down former reporters at your paper or news organization who have previously covered these issues. Chances are they will be extremely helpful in discussing environmental issues and controversies in your area, giving you the names of key sources and organizations and helping you become familiar with the history of ongoing issues.

Visit your news organization's librarian and ask to get copies of previous articles written by other reporters about air and water pollution, land-use controversies and other issues. From these articles you'll identify key sources, government agencies, environmental groups, experts at local universities and others who are familiar with the environmental issues in your area.

Then, begin making the rounds. Call up these sources and introduce yourself. Make appointments to meet with them and when you do, ask them to put you on their mailing lists to receive press releases, reports and other newsworthy material.

Begin compiling files on current issues and develop a Rolodex of key sources (including their home numbers since you may have to call them at nights or weekends). Also, develop a calendar of upcoming meetings, hearings, conferences and other potentially newsworthy events.

Obviously, many of these sources will have their own agendas and often strong points of view. But you'll also find knowledgeable experts (such as former environmental officials now working at a local university) who are no longer involved in the fray and who can provide you with perspective and guidance on key issues.

Read! Read! Read! In some areas of the country, some excellent books have been written about the natural and environmental history of your region.

When I began my career as an environmental reporter for the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, I read and reread Robert Boyle's excellent book, "The Hudson: A Natural and Unnatural History."

I also read histories of the region's politics and folklore and read many articles from other newspapers and magazines in the region.

Absorb everything you can. Make it your goal to become an expert on the environment in your region. When interested readers see that you are covering environmental issues, they'll call you up and offer you suggestions and ideas. Many of the best stories I've written have come from tips given me over the phone by knowledgeable readers.

Make it a point to learn about the requirements of key local, state and federal environmental laws by interviewing officials in environmental agencies. You'll quickly find that these laws require companies and other organizations to submit extensive paperwork to government agencies and that these agencies keep extensive files on the pollutants discharged by these companies.

If you learn to comb these files on a regular basis, you'll soon be breaking stories that few other reporters in your area have reported about or written. If the Alpha Manufacturing Company has been fined $50,000 by the state environmental agency for violating clean water laws, go to the agency and ask to review all their files. Check their permits, inspection reports, notices of violations of agency regulations and other documents. Become friends with the secretaries and clerks who maintain these files and they'll often become valuable sources of tips for future stories.

In most cases officials at the state agency will suggest that you speak to the media officers at the state agency to obtain the information you are looking for. You should meet with these officials and make sure you receive all of their press releases.

But resist the temptation to rely on media officials exclusively. Remain independent and ask to review the complete files on a company or a polluting organization. You'll often find nuggets of useful information in the files that never find their way into agency press releases.

In fact, you may find that a company has a terrible record of complying with state or federal environmental laws and that environmental regulators have done little to force the company to comply with the regulations. Perhaps the agency has lacked the staff to force compliance. Perhaps politics has intervened to encourage the agency officials to look the other way.

If officials are reluctant to let you look at the records, then utilize state open records laws or the federal Freedom of Information Act. You can find out how to utilize these laws through state press associations, the Society of Professional Journalists or the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Another useful organization is Investigative Reporters & Editors.

When you file FOIA requests, be sure to identify the precise individual to send them to in a state or federal agency and to be as precise as possible in your request for information. Read through state and federal environmental laws to find out what these laws require companies to submit and then ask for these records.

Many of the best environmental journalists use FOIA laws on a regular basis to pry out of state and federal agencies information that few other journalists ask for. Once you start reporting and writing these stories, chances are likely that individuals in these agencies will call you up to provide other useful information.

Cultivate these people! Meet with them and get to know them. Many state and federal environmental agencies are filled with altruistic people who genuinely care about improving the environment. You may discover inspectors or enforcement officials who are disgusted with the politics they see in their agency and who are willing and even eager to talk to you about the political pressures they see and experience.

To track the hot issues at the EPA, you can also check the enforcement docket or even use FOIA to request all the FOIAs that have been filed. Multiple FOIA requests for a particular waste site, for instance, can signal a brewing storm over cleanup.

Some regulatory agencies also use weekly or monthly "activity reports" that can help you track issues.

Developing sources within agencies and organizations is crucial for most journalists. I'm a strong believer in cultivating what I call "front line people." These could be inspectors within an agency, nurses in an emergency room or neighbors living near a nuclear power plant or chemical factory. They often are eyewitnesses to all sorts of activities and can really tell you what is going on.

Sometimes important sources aren't official or even immediately obvious. When I've written about water pollution being discharged into a river by a chemical company, I've sometimes found it useful to interview anglers, swimmers or water skiers who utilize the river to get their views on the situation. When I've written about air pollution, I've interviewed window washers, city foresters and pilots.

I'm a strong believer in basing environmental reporting on accurate scientific information. It's important to understand the basics of biology, chemistry, geology, meteorology, ecology and other scientific fields. When I began reporting about the environment I had never taken a course in environmental science. But I enrolled in a "fundamentals of ecology" course at a local community college.

If this is not possible, at least buy some basic books on environmental science, read them and use them as reference works. Among the classics are books by Eugene Odom. Other useful books include "The Dictionary of Ecology and Environmental Science," edited by Henry W. Art (Henry Holt) and "The Encyclopedia of the Environment," edited by Ruth A. Folen and William R. Eblen (Houghton Mifflin).

Science professors at local universities can often be very helpful. When I was writing about toxic waste problems in Kentucky for The Louisville Courier-Journal, I found several chemistry professors at the University of Louisville who were willing to take the time to explain to me basic principles of toxicology and to loan me useful books and articles to read on the subject.

One helpful University of Louisville chemist was even willing to run scientific analyses for me. I needed to find out whether well water in a suburban community was contaminated with toxic chemicals from a nearby factory. State environmental officials lacked the staff or resources to carry out such tests. But the University of Louisville professor conducted these tests for me and I was able to use his analysis in stories I wrote for the newspaper.

If you need to find scientific experts, consider using the Media Resource Service of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society in North Carolina. This nonprofit organization has compiled a list of more than 30,000 scientific experts who are willing to be interviewed by the news media. They can be especially useful when you need to track down an expert on deadline.

Another valuable resource is ProfNet, which links journalists with professors and other experts at universities and research centers around the world. If you send a question to, your query will be distributed to public relations professionals at many universities who will then assist you in finding answers to your questions.

There are two easy sources for information about chemical hazards available in most communities in the United States. The first is the local Poison Control Center. The second is the local fire department. Both organizations have access to databases and reference tools for helping you find out whether specific chemicals spilled during an accident or fire are a threat to citizens in your community.

You can find out some background information about chemicals in your local community by calling up, a website established by Environmental Defense. If you type in your community's zip code you'll find which companies are storing and discharging chemicals into the environment.

Another useful site is the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which also supplies information by zip code. The EPA has other useful information, including details about chemicals. You can also find background information on the toxicity of chemicals by calling up the web site of Michigan State University's Institute for Environmental Toxicology and clicking onto the area for journalists.

Other useful websites for environmental journalists are the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, the National Association of Science Writers and Bill Dedman's Power Reporting site.

Since scientific knowledge about the environment is not static and because new information is being discovered constantly, it's important to regularly attend conferences and educational workshops. The Society of Environmental Journalists holds an annual conference, as well as many regional events.

Among the other organizations which hold ongoing training programs for environmental journalists are the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

Finally, remember to follow up both on your own environmental stories and stories written by your predecessors on the beat. Environmental controversies have a habit of receding from the headlines but in many cases never really disappear. They merely await the next new journalist who has been assigned to write about the environment for the first time.

Jim Detjen holds the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism and is the Director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He spent 21 years reporting about science and the environment for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers and was the founding president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer 2003, available here.

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The great book list
What every environment writer should read — or have handy

From Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the beginning of modern environmental journalism, to the recently released in paperback "Nail 'Em!," an anti-media screed from former Reagan spinmeister and current corporate crisis manager Eric Dezenhall, environment books could easily buckle your shelves, bury a desk or wipe out your social life.

Some, Rachel Carson's masterpiece is the prime example, are must-reads. As is most anything by John McPhee.

Reading McPhee — any McPhee really — can both inspire and depress you, but it is a necessity. His prose is so wonderful that it takes you to places like the Pine Barrens or Florida orange groves or Alaska. What's depressing is that there seems to be no way anyone can match his ability at nature writing.

If you haven't read any McPhee, start with "The Pine Barrens," "Oranges," "The Control of Nature" and "Coming into the Country." If you want short (for him) pieces, go for the "The John McPhee Reader." Its introduction details how McPhee goes about his work, even his outlining methods. It is a true must.

Many other books are should-reads. And more are handy to keep on the desk for easy references. Unfortunately few are free, although some people in SEJ are talking about some kind of book buying system to save costs.

Perhaps the most useful of these categories is the reference books that any good environment reporter has within arm's reach (or at least those of us who still use books).

Eric Nalder, a two-time Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who has worked on several environmental projects, said, "What I keep is a horrible mess of papers.''

His bookshelf, while not environment oriented, provides the good meat-and-potatoes of any project writer and Eric is one of the best in the business. His shelf, minus the esoteric stuff on ship safety, includes:

World Almanac, dictionary, three different Investigative Reporters and Editors handbooks, spelling dictionary, thesaurus, Brant Houston's "Investigative Reporter's Handbook" and "Computer Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide," "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," "Say It Safely" by Paul Ashley, "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser (a classic!), "Black's Law Dictionary," "The Craft of Interviewing" by John Joseph Brady, "Get The Facts On Anyone" by Dennis King, a Congressional guide and "lots of phone books."

Nalder emphasizes the usefulness of good old-fashioned phone books: "State of California, FERC phone books, any agency I'm dealing with I've got phone books.''

Getting those phone books, I can attest, is not easy. I've got some pirated agency phone books that I guard with my life (NASA, CDC, EPA).

As far as the traditional environment writer's reference books, an April listserv discussion on SEJ-Talk provides an impressive list of reference books. You get mine first, along with an explanation.

They are, from closest to the keyboard to farthest:

"Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really in the World Around You." SEJ member David Ropeik and Harvard think-tanker George Gray write this 2003 Houghton Mifflin book that teaches about risk analysis, albeit with a slightly conservative bent. It has a useful risk meter that looks at the likelihood of a problem and the consequences of such a problem. There are many good books on risk. Jim Detjen has "Environmental Risk Reporting." Michigan Sea Grant puts out the highly recommended "Reporting on Risk: A Journalist's Handbook on Environmental Risk Assessment." (Sea Grant sells this $8 book on their website for $3 and tosses in "Exploring Science Writing" for free.)

"The Handy Science Answer Book" by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. It's nine years old but really has some good dumbed-down, easy-to-find explanations.

"State of The World" from Worldwatch. It's a regularly updated standby.

"The AMA's Encyclopaedia of Medicine" and "The American Press Dictionary of Science and Technology." Good find-'em-quick definitions.

Several experts guides, Sea Grant, University of Southern California, Brookings Institute, Johns Hopkins, American University, University of Miami, Washington University in St. Louis. Sometimes expert guidebooks are easier in print, than on the Web, but that shows my age.

"How To Use The Federal FOI Act" by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of The Press. Until you have it down by rote, a great resource.

"The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook" by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. When your editor makes you feel like jumping out a window, this book tells you how to, literally. It's a great tension reliever.

Books recommended by fellow SEJers, without much explanation, include these science encyclopedia: "The OED of Science Terms: Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia," "Grimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia" (13 volumes and 31 years old), "Oxford Dictionary of Biology," "Concise Oxford Dictionary of Botany," "Encyclopedia Britannica," "Encyclopedia of the Environment," "The Environmental Almanac," "Encyclopedia of Mammals," "Merck Index" (a necessity!,) and the "Condensed Chemical Dictionary."

Maps, you need maps, and places to find birds and other critters and faunas. For that you should have: "Maps With the News" by Mark Monmonier, "Dorling Kindersley Reference Atlas," "American Wildlife & Plants" (one SEJ member called it one of the most useful books ever picked up,) "National Geographic Atlas of the World" and, of course, the Audubon Field Guides.

Reports are important, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's numerous reports, the "Tenth Report on Carcinogens" by the National Toxicology Program, several National Academy of Sciences reports (including favorites "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," "Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury" and "Understanding Risk",) and "Status and Trends of the Nation's Biological Resources" by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Don't forget Rutgers' "The Reporter's Environmental Handbook," Todd Davis' "Brownfields," "News & Numbers" by the late Victor Cohn, Rodes and Odell's "A Dictionary of Environmental Quotations," "The Essential Researcher" by Maureen Croteau and Wayne Worcester, "Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America" by Wall Street Journal reporter Cynthia Crossen, Detjen's "Field Guide for Science Writers," and "Media and the Environment" and "Who's Poisoning America."

Phil Shabecoff deserves his own paragraph for "A Fierce Green Fire," "A New Name for Peace" and "Earth Rising."

Robert McClure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recommends "Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and The Public Relations Industry" by John Stauber who also wrote "Trust Us, We're Experts." He likes Michael D'Antonio's "Atomic Harvest," "Worlds Apart" on science writing by Hartz and Chappel, and "Chemicals, The Press and The Public."

There are libraries on climate change alone. To me they start and end with Ross Gelbspan's "The Heat Is On." But there are many more, including Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance" and the anti-Gore "Environmental Gore" by John Baden. "The Change in the Weather" by New York Times writer William K. Stevens is thought provoking, or so says the back blurb.

For unusual perspectives on how companies can work on global warming, there is "Turning Off The Heat" by Thomas Casten, who ran Trigen Energy, and former assistant energy secretary Joe Romm's "Cool Companies." "The Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century" from the National Research Council may be a bit too geeky and detail oriented, but it is useful. And then there are the vocal, often industry-funded global warming skeptics, such as Pat Michaels and Robert Bolling's "The Satanic Gases" and the more recent "Global Warming and other Eco-Myths" from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

No matter what you think of him, Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" should be on your bookshelf. Another less noticed book looking sharply at the environmental movement is "Global Greens" by James Sheehan.

More on the should-read and must-read category, anything by the never-before-linked James O. Wilson and Carl Hiassen (yes, it's fiction, but it's fun and has healthy environmental themes.) In terms of novels, go for John Hockenberry's "A River Out of Eden," which brings Northwest environment issues into a good thriller and along the same lines go for "Mean Hide Tide" by James Hall. "Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris is wonderful and gives insights into the start of the park and refuge systems. If you want water books, go for Sandra Postel's "Last Oasis." Recommended health books included: "Exploring the Dangerous Trades" by Alice Hamilton, Duff Wilson's "Fateful Harvest" and Jeanne Guillemin's "The Investigation of A Deadly Outbreak."

Bill Kovacs, vice president for environment at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, touts the chamber's book that makes fun of environmental leaders and purposely takes their quotes out of context to show how humorless they are: "The Environmentalists Little Green Book." On a more serious note, he recommends Scott Barrett's "really interesting" "Environment and Statecraft."

Former reporter turned enviro Frank O'Donnell, chief of the Clean Air Task Force, recommends: "A Season of Spoils: The Story of the Reagan Administration's Attack on the Environment" by Jonathan Lash and "Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution" by Jack Doyle. That brings up the SUV-tome "High And Mighty" by Keith Bradsher.

Two-time Pulitzer winner — feature writing and explanatory journalism — Jon Franklin has two good reference books for putting science and environment in context: "Timetables of History" by Bernard Grun and Daniel Boorstin and the out-of-print "The Timetables of Technology" by Alexander Hellemans.

Environmental writers, Franklin added, should make sure they read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" because some of us are (although we shouldn't be) true believers, not to mention many of those whom we cover. He also recommends "How To Lie With Statistics" by Darryl Huff and Irving Geis.

Mostly Franklin emphasizes narrative writing and storytelling in science with his must-read list of oldies but goodies: anything by Nigel Calder, the 1926 science classic "Microbe Hunter," "The Lives of a Cell" by Lewis Thomas, 1969's "Life On Man" by Theodore Rosebury, 1974's "Fever! The Hunt for a New Killer Virus" and the more modern "Betrayal of Trust" by Laurie Garrett.

In terms of narrative writing he recommends "Confessions of a Storyteller" by Paul Gallico. And I have to add Franklin's own "Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner."

There's more, but that's a good enough start for a week's worth of reading.

Seth Borenstein covers environment, science and health for Knight Ridder Newspapers' Washington Bureau and has read very few of these books and should be ashamed of himself.

**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer 2003, available here.

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Tips on interviewing from some of the best

Interviewing is neither the first thing nor the last thing reporters do. But it's arguably the most important. We asked four journalists from varied backgrounds for tips. This is not a comprehensive guide to interviewing; books have been written on the subject.

But these four journalists offer a wide range of basic and inventive suggestions about how to polish an essential skill: the art of the interview.

Looking for more interviewing tips?

See Eric Nalder's
"Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview."

Eric Nalder, investigative reporter, San Jose Mercury News:
Inner interviewing: As a warm-up (maybe during your morning shower), imagine a successful interview. Reporters who don't believe they will get the interview or the information usually fail. As far as I'm concerned, no one should ever refuse to talk to me. It works. When you approach the subject, appear innocent, friendly, unafraid and curious — not as a hard-boiled, cynical reporter (even if you are one).

Play like you know: Ask the official why he fired the whistle-blower rather than asking whether he did. The question presumes you already know, even if you don't have it confirmed. They'll start explaining rather than denying.

Slow motion: When people reach the important part of a story, slow them down so you can get it in Technicolor. Ask where they were standing, what they were doing, what they were wearing, what was the temperature and what were the noises around them.

Liars: If you know someone is lying, allow the liar to spin the yarn. Don't interrupt except to ask for more detail. Listen and take good notes. When the lie has been fully constructed, go back and logically de-construct it. Don't be impatient. The fabricator is now in a corner. Keep him there until he breaks.

Use your ears: We talk too much during interviews. Let the other person do the talking. Listen with an open mind.

Christy George, documentary producer, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and former print reporter and editor:
Before you do your first interview, create a "focus statement" that incorporates the point of your story, suggesting who the characters are, what we're going to see in the story, where the conflict is, the why behind the story and why it's important. This will probably change as you go forward, but it helps as you frame questions.

Ask open-ended, simple questions such as "Why?" Then wait. Just wait and listen.

Ask, "How did you feel?" It's a dreaded question, but I find myself asking it all the time in a nice, respectful, public-radio kind of way.

The best answers are always in the first question and the last question. The first question is when the subject spits out everything he or she has prerehearsed. The last question is important because I keep going until I get something that really pleases me.

Remember that even extremely nervous interviewees will get over their nervousness if you go on long enough.

When you walk out of an interview, make a mental checklist about the best answers, the ones you remember the best. This will provide a guide for you once you start logging the tape or going through notes.

Tom Meersman, environment reporter, Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Get extra names. Ask each interviewee for suggestions about who else is knowledgeable about the topic. Even if you don't have time to call all of them, the names may be useful in the future. On a recent update story about the lynx in northern Minnesota, I found that many sources from my original story three years earlier had moved on. No problem. I had lots of extra names of other sources. Some turned out to be excellent sources for the update.

Get paper. During an interview, always ask about letters, e-mails, reports, lawsuits or anything else in the paper trail. An interview may be incomplete, especially if the subject is nervous or intentionally wants to downplay something. Documents may provide more damning evidence or clearer statements of what's at stake.

Follow through. Some interviewees provide lots of facts and history, including the pros and cons of an issue. That's great for a reporter who's trying to get up to speed quickly. But don't let it end there. Ask questions such as: "Well what do you think about that?" or "How do you interpret that?"

Push yourself to get one more interview than you think you need, particularly on short-turnaround pieces. Make an extra call or two. It may turn out to be your best interview. It may change the story considerably.

Len Ackland, director, Center for Environmental Journalism, University of Colorado:
Interviewing, document research, and observation are the three legs of the reporting stool. Good interviewing involves both of the other legs.

Always conduct significant interviews in person. A subject's body language and work environment can't be gauged over the phone or via email. Nor can the subject slip you a revealing document during a phone call.

Do your homework. Research the person and topic. Prepare a list of questions before you call to set up an interview. Be prepared to do an on-the-spot phone interview in case your subject is about to leave for a long trip.

Tape-record your interviews. When you listen to the interview you will often be amazed, particularly with complex topics, at leads you missed.

Take notes. Not only is this a backup for technical failure, it also can help you avert a subject's filibustering. With pen and notebook in hand, you can rather politely interrupt and ask for an explanation. Once you've broken the flow you can redirect the conversation to the questions you want answered.

Jot down your questions and a possible order. This helps you choreograph the interview even though you won't stick to these questions as if they were a rigid script. Maintain flexibility when the interview goes in unexpected directions, but don't forget the core questions you want answered.

Be stingy in allowing subjects to go "off the record" or "on background." On the record should always be the default.

Robert McClure is environment reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer 2003, available here.

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Using spreadsheets
It's not that hard and the payoff is huge

First installment of two parts
Computers can seem mysterious, and at times they are, even to those who have spent years working with them. At the same time, though, it's entirely possible to accomplish useful work with a minimum of study by using some simple computer tools.

In this Bits & Bytes installment, we'll look at how one widely used program, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, can help you find trends in a mass of data. Specifically, we will do some simple exercises with California air pollution data. The data we will use can be downloaded on the SEJ website. The instructions that follow are for Windows users with Excel 2000; Excel is also available in other versions and for Macs, but some of the following details may vary.

The data consists of two tables, "dlygas10.dbf" and "location10. dbf." The latter is a list of air pollution monitors in Fresno County, Calif., and the former is a file of daily air pollution readings from 1980 to 2000 for 22 different parameters. You can open both at the same time in Excel by clicking on "File," then "Open," then choosing "dBase files (*.dbf)" from the "Files of type:" drop-down list and, finally, navigating to the files, highlighting them and clicking "Open."

We won't be doing any serious analysis with the location10. dbf file, but let's look at it. First, if some columns are too narrow to show their contents, you can expand them by highlighting the entire sheet (Ctrl-A) then clicking on "Format," "Column" and "AutoFit Selection." (Here's another Excel hint: If you make a mistake, you can backtrack by clicking on "Edit," then "Undo" or just "Ctrl-Z.")

Once you've fixed the column width, you can see that each line of this sheet contains detailed information about an individual monitor, including its location by street address and latitude/longitude. The latter would be handy if we wanted to map this data, but that's a subject for another issue. For now, just note the first column, which contains a location code.

Make a special note of the third from the bottom, no. 3026, which is the World's Single Most Important Air Pollution Monitor, mainly because it is located about two miles from the modest but comfortable Clemings estate.

Now let's switch over to the dlygas10.dbf file (click on "Window," then on the file name, which should be at the bottom of the menu if you didn't accidentally close the file.) Format the columns in the same manner as the other table: Ctrl-A, then Format/Column/AutoFit Selection.

The second column contains the location codes that we just saw in the location10.dbf file. Let's extract just the data for location 3026. First, we will have to sort so that all of the data for that monitor is in one place. To do that, just click on "Data," followed by sort, and select "Loc_code" in the "Sort by" box. Then click OK.

Now, click on the letter "B" at the top of the second column, then click on "Edit" and "Find," type 3026 in the "Find what:" box and click on "Find next." The cursor should go to row 36607 in the spreadsheet.

Close the find box and click on the row number (36607) at until you have highlighted all of the rows for location 3026. This will take a while; there are almost 4,000 of them, but when you're done, your cursor should be on row 40373.

Now let's mark that data by clicking "Edit" and "Copy" or just "Ctrl-C." A flickering border will appear around the data. We can then copy the data to a new sheet by clicking on "Insert," followed by "Worksheet." Put the cursor on the first cell in the second row of the new sheet and click "Edit" and "Paste" or "Ctrl- V" and our data will appear on the new sheet.

There's just one problem — there are no column headings. But we can copy them from the other sheet. Just click on the tab labeled "dlygas10.dbf" at the bottom of the screen to go back to our original worksheet. Then hit "Ctrl-Home" to go to the top of the worksheet. Click on the number "1" at the left to highlight the row with the column headings, then hit "Ctrl-C," use the tabs to return to the new worksheet (called "Sheet1"), put the cursor at the top left, in cell A1, and hit "Ctrl-V."

Now look at the third through fifth columns of data, columns C through E. These contain a date for each reading, with the year, month and day in separate columns. For some of our analysis, we will need to have the date in a single column. We can create a new column that will contain the date, and in doing so, we can introduce a key Excel feature — formulas.

First, place the cursor anywhere in column F and click on Insert, then Columns. That will create a new blank column F, shifting all of the remaining columns to the right by one space. Give this new column a label by typing "DATE" in cell F1.

Then, type this string in cell F2 and hit the enter key: =DATE(C2,D2,E2)

(Explanation: The "equal" sign tells Excel that this is a formula. DATE() is an Excel function that calculates the data when it is given, in order, the year, month and day, which are in cells C2, D2 and E2 respectively.)

That was easy, but the result doesn't look right. It's a number — 33121 — instead of the date that we want. That's because Excel stores a date in the form of a number — specifically, the number of days since Jan. 1, 1900. So Sept. 5, 1990, is exactly 33,121 days after Jan. 1, 1900. (To signify a time as well as a date, Excel uses a decimal, so that noon on Sept. 5, 1990 would be represented as 33121.5.)

Fortunately, there's an easy way to convert that "serial date" into something more familiar. Just click on cell F2, then on "Format" and "Cells." A dialog box labeled "Format Cells" will appear; click on the tab labelled "Number," then on "Date" in the box labeled "Category." Now, you can select any date style you want from the box labeled "Type." Just click on the one you like best, and then click "OK" to close the dialog. The contents of cell F2 will automatically change to match your choice.

That takes care of cell F2. But we want to copy the same formula to all the cells in that column. To do so by repeating the above steps would take roughly forever, but luckily that is not necessary. Instead, just click on F2, then position the cursor over the lower right corner of the cell, where a little box appears. When you do this, the cursor will change from a big white plus sign to a skinny black one. When that happens, hold down the left mouse button and drag it down the column a little bit. Then let go.

Excel will fill in the cells below F2 with the same formula, automatically adjusting the row number as it goes, so that cell F3 is filled with =DATE(C3,D3,E3) and so on. (If you ever want to override this feature, just put dollar signs in front of the cell addresses, like this: =DATE(C$2,D$2,E$2) to lock the formula on a row, =DATE($C2,$D2,$E2) to lock it on a column, or =DATE($C$2,$D$2,$E$2) to lock it on both.)

You can also copy a formula to a range of cells by using the old reliable copy-and-paste functions. This can make it easier to do when you have a large sheet, like this one. Just put the cursor on cell F2, hit Ctrl-C or Edit/Copy, then hold down the shift key and use "Page Down" to scroll through the entire page selecting the cells in column F. Hit Ctrl-V or Edit/Paste to copy the formula to the selected cells.

That's almost the end of this lesson. But first, let's perform some analysis on the data using the simple but powerful "pivot table" feature.

Start by clicking on "Data" and "PivotTable Report." When the "PivotTable Wizard" appears, click "Next," then go down to the bottom of the screen and click on the tab labeled "Sheet1," which is the worksheet we just used, and click "Next" again.

Now you can drag and drop fields to summarize the data. First, drag the field named "Month" into the box labeled "Row." Then pick up the field labeled "COMAX1HR," which represents the maximum one-hour-average carbon monoxide level for a given day, and drag it into the box labeled "Data." It will change to read "Count of COMAX1HR."

Double-click on it to open a dialog box labeled "PivotTable Field" and click on "Average" in the box labeled "Summarize by," then click "OK," followed by "Next." Select "New worksheet." Click "Finish." On a new worksheet, Excel will display two columns of data — the month ("1" being January and so on) and the average 1-hour CO value for that month.

At a glance, you can see that the winter months — November through February — have the highest CO levels.

Save your work by clicking on "File" and Save," then selecting "Microsoft Excel Workbook (*.xls)" from the "Save as type:" drop-down box, then clicking on "Save." Remember where you're saving this file. Next time we will use the same data in Excel to create graphs and other things that can help pick out trends from masses of data.

Russell Clemings did a more elaborate version of this analysis for the Fresno Bee's "Last Gasp" project, which can be viewed here.

**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer 2003, available here.

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Using spreadsheets
Graphs reveal otherwise hidden truths

Final installment of two parts
In the first part of this exercise, we imported air pollution data into Excel 2000, isolated readings for one monitor, manipulated dates, then used the Pivot Table Wizard to show that carbon monoxide readings are highest in winter.

This time, we will show how using Excel to create graphs can help us spot long-term trends that are not readily apparent from the raw data.

Start by opening the Excel file that we saved at the end of the last lesson and click on the "Sheet1" tab at the bottom of the screen. This file has daily readings for 23 different air pollution parameters from 1990 to 2000 for an air pollution monitor in Clovis, Calif., about two miles from the modest but comfortable Clemings estate.

This time, instead of carbon monoxide, we will examine trends for the region's most serious pollutant — ozone. Two columns in this file (columns "S" and "T") contain ozone readings. The first, labeled OZMAX1HR, has the highest ozone reading for any one-hour period in each day. The second, OZMAX8HR, has the same data averaged over eight hours rather than one hour. Both are important because they measure, respectively, short-term and long-term exposures to this troublesome pollutant.

One question that might be asked about this data is whether ozone levels by either measure are rising, falling or remaining steady. But it's almost impossible to answer that question just by scanning the data. It's just a jumble of numbers. Even if you examined the entire file from top to bottom, it would be impossible to figure out the trend.

You can use the Excel Chart Wizard to create a line graph for the date and one-hour ozone levels. To create the chart, first make a copy of the sheet by going to the Menu Bar and clicking on "Edit," "Move or Copy Sheet," "Create a Copy" and "OK."

Now, let's delete some columns. We'll need the dates, which are in column "F," and the one-hour ozone data, which is in columns "S," but we can delete everything in between. Click on the letter "G" at the top of column "G," then hold down the "Shift" key and use the right arrow to select all of the columns from "G" to "R." Click on "Edit" and "Delete" to get rid of those columns.

Now place the cursor in cell F1, hold down the "Shift" key and use the right arrow and "Page Down" keys to define a block from F1 to G3768. This is the data we will be using in the graph. Go to the very top of the screen and click on the "Chart Wizard" icon, which looks like a 3-D chart with columns of blue, yellow and red. If the icon is not visible, go to the menu bar and click on "View," "Toolbars" and "Standard," and it should pop right up.

After you click the "Chart Wizard" icon, click on "Line" under "Chart Type," then click "Next" three times. Then, in step 4 of the Chart Wizard, click "As new sheet," followed by "Finish." Your chart will appear on a new worksheet.

If you eyeball this graph, it looks as if the summertime peaks are edging upward. But it's hard to say for sure. Besides, it's not just the peaks that we're worried about. There are a whole lot of values in the middle of this chart that are high enough to cause problems for the most sensitive people, and it's not at all clear which way those values are going.

What we need is a way to boil down these peaks and valleys to a long-term trend.

Here's one way to do that: A 365-day (or annual) moving average. It's not too hard to explain — for each day, it's just the average of the past year's daily values. That's why it's called a "moving" average. If today is June 5, 2003, then the 365-day moving average for today is the average of all daily values from June 6, 2002, through today. Tomorrow's 365-day moving average, in turn, would be the average of daily values from June 7, 2002, through June 6, 2003.

Here's how you write a formula to get that from Excel. First, go back to your data sheet — it's probably called "Sheet1 (2)" — and insert a new column by placing your cursor on cell H1 and clicking "Insert" and "Columns." Then give the new column a name in cell H1, such as "OZAVG."

We can't compute the 365-day average until we have 365 days of data, so scroll down to the 365th day (which is in row 366; since row 1 has the column names) and type this formula: =AVERAGE(G2:G366). Hit return. Then select that cell (Ctrl-C or "Edit/Copy") and, while holding down the "Shift" key, use "Page Down" to select the rest of the column, followed by Ctrl-V or "Edit/Paste" to copy the formula down to the bottom.

Now, let's go back to the chart (Chart1) and update it. First, right-click anywhere in a blank area of the chart and click "Source Data," then click on the "Series" tab. Go to the box labeled "Name" and replace what's there with a label for our new line, such as "Ozone average." Then, in the box labeled "Values," carefully edit the cell addresses so that they refer to $H$366:$H$3768 instead of $G$2:$G$3768. Click OK.

The resulting chart does a good job of smoothing out the data to show a long-term trend. With this graph, and an explanation of what a 365-day moving average is, we can say with some confidence that the 1990s saw one-hour daily ozone peaks edge upward in Clovis.

At this point in our reporting, we are ready for quality control. When we did this in real life for The Fresno Bee project "Last Gasp," we showed our graphs to various experts at the state and local air pollution control agencies. We also explained how we did the analysis and asked for their comments on it.

All agreed that the 365-day moving average was a valid way to show the long-term trend. But one expert at the Air Resources Board went a step further. He encouraged us to throw out the winter values and look only at the summer data.

His reasoning: Although no one knows for sure, it's likely that very low levels of ozone are not a health threat. The state's one-hour ozone standard of 0.09 parts per million is exceeded regularly in the summer. But in winter, typical levels are far less. And an increase from 0.02 to 0.03 is clearly not as important as an increase from 0.12 to 0.13. Yet our 365-day moving average would regard them both as important.

The ARB expert suggested a number of alternative approaches. We chose one that was doubly elegant, being both easy to calculate and easy to explain. For each year, we calculated and plotted just one value — the average daily peak for the summer smog season, May 1 through October 31.

Here's how to do that: Go back to the data sheet — Sheet1 (2) — and put the cursor on A1, then add two new columns (click Insert/Columns twice). Put the label "Year" in A1 and "Average" in B1. Then, type the years 1991 through 2000 in cells A2 through A11.

Now use the AVERAGE() function to summarize the values from May 1 to October 31 in each year. The simplest way to do this is to look up the appropriate cell references and type them by hand. So in B2, we need to type =AVERAGE(I238:I421), in B3 we type =AVERAGE( I604:I787) and so on. After that's all done, select cells B1 through B11 and click the "Chart Wizard" icon again. Click "Line chart" and "Next," then click on the "Series" tab.

Click in the box labeled "Values" and hit Ctrl-C to copy its contents into the cut-and-paste buffer. Then click in the box labeled "Category (X) axis labels" and hit Ctrl-V to paste from the buffer. Use the mouse (not the arrow keys) to change the cells references $B$2:$B$11 to $A$2:$A$11. Then click "Next" twice, select "As new sheet" and click "Finish."

The resulting graph gives you a clear picture of the long term trend, which is static at best and may be rising. When we did a similar chart for "Last Gasp," we added two more years of data and were able to show a distinct upward trend that contrasted sharply with trends at monitoring stations in southern California.

The result of that analysis became a central point of our stories: During the 1990s, smog in the San Joaquin Valley had become worse than in Los Angeles. It was a point that we couldn't have made, at least not as convincingly, without the data analysis.

Russell Clemings did a more elaborate version of this analysis for the Fresno Bee's "Last Gasp" project, which can be viewed

**Excerpt from the new issue of SEJournal, Fall 2003, available here. For information on how to join SEJ, including the benefits of membership, click here.

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OK, so you can't write. That shouldn't stop you.

You've reported the basics of a great story. So you plop in front of a computer, ready to write something. And this question pops into your head: What now?

Sure, most reporters know how crucial it is to write well. But many seldom take the time necessary to study it. They don't think well enough about the writing task at hand, the type of story they are about to craft.

Too often, they fake it. They employ some florid language, an adverb, a scene, a special phrasing. They look for a descriptive anecdotal lede. But they've failed to take time to think about their story as they report. In the end, a lot of good reporting may be wasted.

So here's a few of my own tips, gathered over 20 years of writing, reporting and studying how successful journalists convey what they learn in their reporting.

RULE ONE: Be assured that you can't write.

Writing isn't innate. Great writers are not born. (Even if they are, there must be only one in a billion. So why bet on that?) Some may be given a little bit more to work with up front. But successful journalists learn to write. And that learning comes only with hours and hours of study and practice.

Much of that hard work involves what old-time editors would call "shoe leather" reporting. You can't describe a scene — making it vivid to a reader — unless you're there. You can't really get a subject in a story to trust you unless you look him or her in the eye. You can't earn that "fly-on-the-wall" view of a person's world until you spend hours with the person.

More hard work involves the craft of writing. Outlining, transcribing notes, studying successful stories or writers, reading as much as you can — including those how-to books. Some even find that typing a story you love, every word of it, can somehow bring rewards.

Don't be discouraged when writing doesn't come easily, especially in a first draft. Expect it. Count on it. Then deal with it.

Only journalistic "reports" — the daily story coming out of a defined event, such as a press conference or a meeting — should be expected to be very clear or readable on first draft. Everything else must be revised until you're sure it's perfect. Then revise it again. Just for fun: Experiment with dropping each word from a sentence to see if you really need it.

Think of learning to write as learning to be a finish carpenter. They aren't born, either. Over time, with enough practice and experience, some tasks come easily. But on the really fine jobs, the jobs that they'll be proud to claim later, time and careful, methodical work are still required. And often they'll have to throw out a chunk of work and do it all over.

RULE TWO: Determine what kind of story you are writing.

This is not to say you should have some pre-formed idea of what a story is. In reporting news that sort of preconception would obviously be a grave sin.

But think about the type of story you will probably write as the result of your reporting. And while you're reporting, think about whether the story form you first thought of still fits. If you're covering an EPA announcement about air quality in your community, know that this will be a report.

A report is the old reverse-pyramid style of story that you see by the dozens in the AP dailies. They begin with the important news at the top, an explanation of significance up high, how it occurred and other details, peppering it along the way with a few quotes.

Reports are not "stories" — pieces that today are more commonly referred to as "narratives." They delve deeply into an event or, more commonly, a person's struggle. The bulk of the story often hinges on a chronological structure.

Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer winner and author of the book "Writing for Story," describes most stories as fitting this form: A sympathetic character meets an obstacle and overcomes it.

Think Cinderella. Think Pinocchio. Think Bilbo Baggins.

For environment writers, think "A Civil Action."

Narratives, of course, like an investigative home-run, are a goal. They come rarely for most of us slight infielders. Most often we find the time and material only to write other forms of nonreports. I like to think of these as "news features."

Usually, they have some news hook — a person in the news, an event, a place. And we find some interesting way to tell those stories, using anecdote, quotes and painting scenes. Scenes are moments recreated that make the person, event or place stand out. I find they are often the moments we tell friends about later over beers or dinner. So take the reader to a moment or a place they haven't been, somewhere they wouldn't know to go. Strive for the interesting.

A standard form for telling many stories — all types of features, including narratives — is to start in the middle of the subject's life: in media res, to use the Latin. Then soon after that scene, step back in time to introduce the characters more clearly. The story then often picks up naturally from its chronological beginning, following it over time back to the moment where the written story began. It's a good, easy form with which to start a first draft.

RULE THREE: Know home.

Wherever you write, know that place. As the great St. Petersburg Times feature writer Jeff Klinkenberg, author of "Dispatches from the Land of Flowers," explains: Too few people, and that includes us writers, don't know their homes. They don't even know the trees in their backyards.

It's crucial, especially for a nature writer or environment beat reporter, to learn his or her place.

What are the trees in your backyard? Which are native? What natural elements shape your place? In my home, it's the Missouri River. How was it formed? Who were its first discoverers? What were its early creatures?

"Ideas of place give us the rudiments of narration: a story, its teller, and a setting," writes William Howarth, editor of The John McPhee Reader. "Without some 'sense of place' we could not describe, relate, read or write."

Even in your own home, you can go on journeys. Take readers out with a person who knows your place, a creature who lives there or a problem that mars it from being better. When you go — again, it's most important to be there — soak it in.

For certain, read the writers of your area. Who best captures the people and place? For my home, it's Richard Rhodes, Calvin Trillin, Evan Connell, William Least Heat-Moon.

RULE FOUR: Find the telling details and show them.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that all things should be seen in the morning with the dew on them, with early-opened eyes. Try to look anew at your place. When you go out with experts, ask them simple questions — or even dumb questions — about the place or the subject of your story. It gets them explaining the basics, thinking anew about the subject.

Get the main character — the protagonist of your story — to explain her dreams, her motives, her fears, her problems. Klinkenberg suggests to ask them about their "sacred places."

Don't write pretty. Instead of characterizing a moment: "It was frightening." Describe what actually happened: "Fagin entered the room, eyes bugged wide. 'My God,' he screamed. And he ran."

What did you see? What did you hear? How did it smell?

Don't write that it was "stunningly hot." Write that "workers dripped sweat, lounged under shade trees and slurped water from a thin garden hose."

Here's the opening to a first draft I wrote of a series of stories on William Least Heat-Moon's attempt to cross America by boat.

ABOARD THE NIKAWA — Under a menacing sky, trees litter the rising Missouri River like bodies on a bombed-out battlefield. It's not a good day to be on the river.

But writer and adventurer William Least Heat-Moon plows ahead.

It's the 27th day of his journey across America by boat...

Here's how it ran after several revisions:
ABOARD THE NIKAWA — The sky is a mass of angry slate-gray clouds. Rain splatters against the windshield. Writer and adventurer William Least Heat-Moon squints to see the river as his boat, the Nikawa, motors west against the current and toward Kansas City.

The Missouri River is as mean as the sky. Its current is swift, rolling at 8 to 10 mph. The river rises and spreads, covering boat ramps, telephone booths and parking lots. It has ripped big trees from its banks — root balls, limbs and all. Once-tall cottonwoods cruise downstream like submarines on patrol, their limbs waving in the wind like periscopes. Wet-black branches the size of a man's leg hurtle past the Nikawa like torpedoes.

It's the 27th day of Heat-Moon's journey across America by boat. He has pushed 76 miles up the Missouri from the river's mouth, just north of St. Louis. His timing is lousy.

There's a lot more action in the revised story. Sentences are punchier, mostly because I'm describing exactly what I see, not characterizing it. And "his timing is lousy" has more effect because it comes at the end of a long sentence, not early, as it did in the first draft.

To help you find telling details and quotes, I suggest two practical things. When you're in the field reporting with a character, take a tape recorder. You can't take good notes while you're paddling in a canoe or hiking along a ridge. But it's at such moments that important conversations can occur.

Heat-Moon taught me another neat trick — even neater now in the world of digital cameras. He snapped pictures of important people and places as he reported. Later, he'd spread out the pictures of the scene that he was writing about. He told me that the feelings that he had experienced earlier would come back. Often he would remember more details, words spoken or even a smell.

It worked for me as well. I also realized that I often spotted in photos details I had never noted.

In feature stories, consider sharing an early draft with the subject. I've found that more telling details, stories and moments can come from the subject reading your first impressions.

That brings us to the final rule. And it deserves no explanation.

Have passion.

Michael Mansur is editor of the SEJournal and a writer for The Kansas City Star.

**Excerpt from SEJournal, Summer 2003, available here.

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