I love and respect my father-in-law. Even after being married to his daughter for 27 years, I crave his approval.
When I puffed out my chest and addressed him two years ago, I had just been assigned to lead this company's six-newspaper cooperative project. "I've been put in charge of a big thing at work. It's about global warming ..."
"Bunk!" he replied.
Coming from a retired dairy farmer, who served several decades as a cooperative extension agent for Washington State University, the four-letter-word carried a cachet of authority. This man has spent his life studying the weather and acting on it.
And he is a global-warming skeptic.
Two years later, our series has been published, with installments published in March, September and December 2006 in the East Oregonian and our other five newspapers. It has been honored by the North American Agricultural Journalists Association, and quoted in other media. Farm organizations have used it to brief Oregon legislators.
On June 9, I sat in Ecotrust's "green" headquarters in Portland's Pearl District at a national conference for journalists on how to cover global warming. Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, has made it front-page news.
Bud Ward of Virginia, a leader in the national Society of Environmental Journalists, told an assembly of 84 journalists to copy the East Oregonian Publishing Company. "This is an example of what can be done," he said. "Don't ever say your newspaper company is too small to handle it."
On behalf of the 22 writers, seven editors, seven photographers, six page designers, logo creator Janelle Tate from the East Oregonian and numerous others who worked on the series - and the EOPC's chief executive, Steve Forrester, who dreamed it up - I smiled. Actually, I beamed.
The comments, and a panel discussion involving the Capital Press, The Oregonian, National Public Radio and Oregon Public Broadcasting, vindicated several steps we took. As we planned the series in 2005, and executed it in 2006, our approach seemed edgy; now it is mainstream.
1) The world's climate is changing, including here in the Northwest. Whether it is global warming, or just a weather cycle, there is sufficient scientific evidence that big changes are taking place. There is no need to waste time, space or ink replaying the debate. That approach, suggested our company's corporate chief operating officer, John Perry, at a planning meeting in August 2005, smacked of journalistic arrogance. Our strategy was to focus on what is happening, try to address "why," and report what people, businesses and governments are doing about it.
2) The United States is way behind in taking climate change seriously.
3) The debate has shifted to how much climate change is human caused, and whether enough is being done to prevent or mitigate it. Greenhouse gases and carbon emissions from gas-guzzling vehicles and coal-fired power plants are among the villains here. Whatever the answer to the "how much?" question, the overriding issue is: What are we doing about it?
? ? ?
It was pleasing to realize that when we started looking at climate change, we were ahead of the pack in the U.S. The European press publishes a global warming story every day; the rest of the U.S. media is following that trend, weekly, if not daily. We insert our climate logo when we reprint these stories from wire services.
I confess, I was a global warming skeptic. I led the project because it was a wonderful professional growth opportunity. But the issue was not atop my radar screen. Even after the first part was published, I was not a zealot.
That changed last summer when I bought a paperback with a polar bear on the cover. I was enthralled by On Thin Ice by Jamie Bastedo, a story about a Canadian girl who is visited by native shamans and the spirits of bears - whose Arctic habitat is melting.
Reading that teen fiction was step 1. Logging on to its educational Web site was step 2. Check out www.onthinice.ca and you will see why: Nations like Canada are years ahead of us in addressing climate change. Other readers will have different "a-ha!" moments, but this was my tipping point; I coordinated the remaining installments of our series with the passion of a convert.
For the record, my father-in-law is still somewhat skeptical, but he read every word of the series in our sister paper, the Capital Press, and, like many, was impressed with our enterprise.
Patrick Webb is managing editor of The Daily Astorian. He coordinated the year-long look at climate change for the East Oregonian Publishing Company.
Read the East Oregonian Publishing Company's climate change series on the Web at the following web link, and click on the Climate Change tab on the left side of the page. For more details about "On Thin Ice" by Jamie Bastedo, 2006, Red Deer Press, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and its companion teachers' guide, "Polar Bears in a Climate of Change," online at the following web link.