The Knight-Risser Prize
for Western Environmental Journalism
The Seattle Times
Photograph: Steve Ringman  

The Seattle Times wins 2014 Knight-Risser Prize

The reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman of the Seattle Times have been named winners of the 2014 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. Their series, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” examines and illuminates ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of global warming.

Special Recognition Citation

“Aquifer at Risk,” by Ian James and Jay Calderon of The Desert Sun, was honored by the judges with a Special Citation. Judges commended it as a well-researched and clearly written series that deepened our understanding and resulted in local discussion and action.

The Knight-Risser Prize recognizes the best environmental reporting on the North American West — from Canada through the United States to Mexico. The prize includes a cash award of $5,000, and the winner participates in the annual Knight-Risser Prize Symposium, which brings journalists, researchers, scholars and policy makers together with public audiences to explore new ways to ensure that sophisticated environmental reporting survives in the West. The symposium will be held on February 25, 2015 at Stanford University. More details and registration information will be available soon.

The prize is named for James Risser, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and director emeritus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford. It is co-sponsored by the Knight Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West, with an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Welch and Ringman spent a year on this local yet global story: Scientists are concerned that a faster-than-expected rise in ocean acidification could have a catastrophic impact on industries and coastal communities dependent on the sea ¬– and at some point the very sustainability of sea life and the planet’s food supplies.

Their reporting and imagery takes you to places where upwelling waters carry the atmospheric carbon dioxide that settles on the ocean floor more quickly into coastal ecosystems. To explain the process and show the damage, they traveled to the frigid Northwest, where oysters and some plankton species are changing, and to the tropical waters of Papua New Guinea, where volcanic gases are providing researchers an early view of the ocean’s future.

The two journalists learned to scuba dive for this project, allowing Welch a first-hand view of sea chemistry alterations and Ringman the ability to share that with readers through stunning photographs and video.

“‘Sea Change’ represents the complete package in my mind. Compelling storytelling, terrific visuals, valuable on-line content,” said John Daley, a Knight-Risser Prize judge and Colorado Public Radio reporter.

Daley, a former environmental reporter and a 2009 Western Enterprise Reporting Fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, called it the classic “hidden in plain view” story.

“Ocean acidification is a critical, yet much-overlooked, element of the unfolding climate crisis. It's the kind of development that merits thoughtful, well-researched, far-reaching journalism. That's what this series delivers.”

To capture what many scientists, academics and fishing communities see as one of the planet’s greatest environmental threats, Welch and Ringman toured hatcheries, research labs and fish-processing plants in four states. They went to the Washington tidelands and Hawaii, interviewing a longtime oyster-harvesting family forced to relocate half their production facilities to Hilo. They boarded a crab boat on Alaska’s Bering Sea, where scientists fear the state’s $100 million red king crab fishery could crash in mere decades.

They took their reporting global, including to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

The result is an issue uniquely brought to life with text, photography, video and graphics. The project is one of the biggest Welch – and the Seattle Times – have ever done, Welch said. And that’s not just because of its geographical scope.

The Seattle Times “has traveled internationally many times, but to do all the web work – 13 videos and some motion graphics – that was all new for us,” said Welch, a longtime environmental reporter. The project represented “by far the most thorough science reporting I’ve ever done. I must’ve read 200 to 300 peer-reviewed papers.”

He also interviewed about 150 people, some of them 20 times.

For Ringman –– who shared in the Seattle Times' 2009 Knight Risser Prize-winning project "Logging and Landslides: What Went Wrong?"–– taking pictures underwater wasn’t new. But this time the underwater housing for his camera was professional, not makeshift. What made his job difficult was keeping still enough to shoot video in crystal clear water while managing “this really large, blobby heavy underwater housing” and trying not to touch down on the coral. … “You have to be buoyant with just your breathing.”

Welch started paying attention to ocean acidification as early as 2009, when scientists first proposed a link between ocean acidification and an oyster die-off in the Northwest that had begun around 2005. Acidification was happening faster in areas where ocean movement was bringing carbon-heavy water closer to coastal ecosystems.

Some four years later, when kicking around project ideas on climate change with his boss, Welch expressed his frustration that the issue of ocean acidification wasn’t getting much traction.

“So we decided to see if there was a way to do something and really show the context – not just a story about oysters, but about everything,” he said.

Doing so involved some unusual moves for the reporters and the paper.

Deciding that visuals were essential to making the story come to life, Welch asked his sources where they could be found. They recommended the volcanic vents in Papa New Guinea. The costs were outside the paper’s budget, so Welch applied for a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – twice. The first, $12,000, covered the four flights – in 48 hours – it took to get them there and on board with researchers. The second, for $7,000, helped them go back to report on some of the people most impacted – a fishing village off the Sulawesi coast.

Welch and Ringman learned to dive in Puget Sound over their Christmas holiday and headed to Asia in the new year.

But that was just the beginning. Amazed by the images Ringman came back with, editors realized the project could have even more depth and breadth, Welch said. Data on the impact on Alaska’s king crab population had just come out, so they decided the project should encompass the full scope of acidification’s impacts, including such cold-water venues as Alaska.

“Part of the thinking was if we can do this now, maybe we can create a template for doing more cool stories on the web in the future,” he said. “We thought of it as an investment.”

In addition to Daley, the judging panel included: Thomas Hayden, lecturer, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University; Tom Knudsen, former Sacramento Bee environment reporter and 2013 Knight-Risser Prize winner; Ngoc Nguyen, environment editor, media monitor and writer at New America Media; and Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and former director of the Steinbeck Center.

The Knight-Risser Prize will be awarded at a symposium in early 2015. The event brings together journalists, researchers, policymakers, advocates, students, and the public to explore the environmental issues raised by the winning entry. The prize is co-sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism is a joint venture of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

The John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships is an ambitious catalyst for journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Fellows spend their year absorbing knowledge, honing skills and developing journalism prototypes. They leverage the resources of a great university and Silicon Valley while learning from rich interactions with journalists from around the world.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America. The Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.


 

 

“‘Sea Change’ represents the complete package in my mind. Compelling storytelling, terrific visuals, valuable on-line content,” said John Daley, a Knight-Risser Prize judge and Colorado Public Radio reporter.

 

Steve Ringman
Craig Welch

To capture what many scientists, academics and fishing communities see as one of the planet’s greatest environmental threats, Welch and Ringman toured hatcheries, research labs and fish-processing plants in four states. They went to the Washington tidelands and Hawaii, interviewing a longtime oyster-harvesting family forced to relocate half their production facilities to Hilo. They boarded a crab boat on Alaska’s Bering Sea, where scientists fear the state’s $100 million red king crab fishery could crash in mere decades.


WINNERS OF THE KNIGHT-RISSER PRIZE
2016
Pumped Dry
The Desert Sun and USA Today
2015
Big Oil, Bad Air
CPI, InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel
2014
Sea Change
The Seattle Times
2013
The Killing Agency
The Sacramento Bee
2012
Perilous Passages
High Country News
2011
Dry Times
5280 Magazine
2010
Chain Saw Scouting
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
2009
Logging and Landslides:
What Went Wrong?
The Seattle Times
2008
Climate Change Hits Home
San Antonio Express-News
2007
Blighted Homeland
The Los Angeles Times
2006
Squeezing Water from a Stone
High Country News