News collaborative aims to raise awareness of critical water issues in the Great Lakes region

A drone (aerial) image of Arcadia Dunes / Mt. Baldy shows the area where the land meets Lake Michigan showing a vast expanse of beautiful shoreline.
The Great Lakes are massive, majestic and damaged. The photo above shows the Lake Michigan coastline in northwest Lower Michigan. Photo: Mike Naddeo

In an era of shrinking newsrooms, four Michigan-based media outlets have joined forces to enhance coverage of the Great Lakes and issues that affect access to safe, affordable drinking water.

The nonprofit outlets — Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now program, Bridge Michigan, Michigan Radio and Circle of Blue — have come together to create the Great Lakes News Collaborative. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided funding for the collaborative, but the news outlets will operate independently. Mott has no editorial influence and won’t be involved in any discussions about how the collaborative functions.

Members of the collaborative said they aim to elevate discussion of water issues, amplify the voice of Michigan residents and inform efforts to protect the region’s waters for future generations.

Access to safe, affordable drinking water is a problem in the Great Lakes region, despite an abundance of freshwater.
Photo: Güd Marketing

“Michigan and the Great Lakes basin are ground zero for some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time,” said John Bebow, president and CEO of the Center for Michigan, which publishes Bridge Michigan. “There’s an urgent need to deepen and broaden coverage of water issues to meet the growing threat facing the Great Lakes, rivers and groundwater as a result of climate change, industrial pollutants and the rollback in federal clean water protections.”

Mott is a longtime supporter of efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes, having provided over $130 million for that work since the 1980s. Supporting the Great Lakes News Collaborative marks a new emphasis on using strategic communications to help advance the goals of its environmental grantmaking.

Tim Eder, an Environment program officer at Mott, said the public and policymakers need to know more about threats to the Great Lakes and the issues that came to light during Flint’s water crisis, such as water equity.

“The Great Lakes are a globally significant resource, yet many people and policymakers don’t understand their importance or the threats they face,” Eder said. “High quality journalism can raise awareness of the lakes and focus attention on the issues that prevent access to safe, affordable tap water.”

The five Great Lakes collectively hold 21% of all surface freshwater on the planet, support the world’s third largest regional economy, and provide drinking water for 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada, according to government agencies and an independent economic analysis by BMO Capital Markets.

Water quality in the lakes has improved dramatically over the past 50 years, but chemical pollutants and invasive species remain serious problems. Experts say climate change is compounding those issues and causing new problems that threaten drinking water supplies, recreational activities and nearly every aspect of the region’s economy.

A USGC fishing and wildlife professional holds up to the camera a large Asian carp fish while standing on the edge of a lake.
Invasive Asian carp are bearing down on the Great Lakes. If they invade the lakes, experts predict they will disrupt fisheries and cause other problems.
Photo: Jon Amberg, U.S. Geological Survey

Mott isn’t the only foundation supporting media outlets that cover Great Lakes and water issues. The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, for instance, provided funding to help launch Great Lakes Now in 2019.

The Great Lakes News Collaborative marks the first time the four participating media outlets have joined forces to boost coverage of water issues in the region. Its news coverage will amplify the expertise and experiences of Michigan residents and leaders, which could help the state drive national conversations about water safety and affordability, water infrastructure upgrades and climate change preparedness, said Rich Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television, which produces Great Lakes Now.

“This collaborative creates a unique synergy, which is resulting in new kinds of content sharing that can bring news and information about the Great Lakes and drinking water issues to audiences in Michigan and beyond,” Homberg said.

Eder said each of the media outlets in the collaborative has unique qualities, all of which will be magnified by sharing content across their respective platforms. Among their strengths:

  • Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now program airs in seven of the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario, and it has the potential to reach 20 million viewers. It’s the largest broadcast news operation in the region dedicated to covering the Great Lakes and water issues.
  • Bridge Michigan is the only statewide, nonprofit news service in Michigan. The online newspaper has been named the state’s best news publication four out of the past five years, and it has a large following among policymakers.
  • Michigan Radio is the state’s largest public radio station, and it has produced in-depth coverage of water issues since 1995. Its programming airs on public radio stations across most of Michigan, and National Public Radio often airs its stories about environmental issues.
  • Circle of Blue, based in Traverse City, is an online news publication that covers water issues globally. It will use traditional news reporting, data collection and convenings to raise awareness of water-related issues in the Great Lakes region.

“With increasing pressures from climate change, pollution and population, the Great Lakes deserve tenacious, trusted journalism to put the issues in context and inform what are some of the most important decisions of our era,” said J. Carl Ganter, executive director of Circle of Blue. “It’s a story that’s too big to go it alone.”

Recent high water levels have caused widespread flooding and shoreline erosion.
Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The rise of the internet over the past two decades and the availability of free news online has decimated the newspaper industry, which once led the way on coverage of environmental issues. About 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004, and many more are losing money and laying off employees, according to data compiled by Penny Abernathy, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Despite those trends, a national poll commissioned by the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage found that 80% of Americans want more in-depth coverage of environmental issues, said Vincent Duffy, news director at Michigan Radio.

“We know from local and national audience surveys that there is a real hunger among the public for access to quality news coverage about the environment, especially as we begin experiencing the effects of climate change in our own backyards,” Duffy said.