Writing about plankton would not seem to be the most glamorous assignment or the easiest ticket onto the front page of South Carolina’s largest newspaper. After all, you are trying to convince readers of the importance of a life-form most people have barely heard of and one that’s often invisible to the naked eye.
But that’s exactly the sort of material that Post and Courier special projects reporter Tony Bartelme gravitates toward: compelling stories that lie on the margins of our knowledge, offering clues to life’s great mysteries. A three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa, Bartelme has demonstrated time and again why he is one of the most masterful explanatory journalists of our time.
In “Every Other Breath,” Bartelme explored climate change issues “hiding in plain sight.”
He accompanied scientists through the verdant marshes of South Carolina’s Lowcountry to the turquoise waters of Bermuda to detail the mysterious world of plankton, the creatures that produce half of the world’s oxygen. He dove in the waters off the Florida Keys to chronicle coral bleaching, trudged through knee-deep tides to explain sea rise on the Charleston peninsula, and used a rare thermal imaging camera to show readers what emissions of carbon dioxide look like from buses, planes, and other everyday sources.
The Post and Courier is said to be the first newspaper or magazine to use such a device for a news story.
Endlessly curious and with a storyteller’s gift for rich, colorful prose, Bartelme produced a stunning narrative series that blended cutting-edge science, history, and vivid anecdotes to drive home to readers the importance of pressing climate issues that often go unnoticed even as they threaten to change the world around us.
—Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
I’m honored and humbled to receive this year’s Walter Sullivan Award. And I’m also excited because it gives me a chance to highlight what medium-sized papers can do with support from exceptional management and owners.
I work at what some might think is a dinosaur—a family-owned newspaper. But instead of a dinosaur, let’s call it an alligator—an animal that survived the mass extinction 65 million years ago and human threats more recently but has begun to rebound. The Post and Courier also has weathered difficult economic challenges but hasn’t lost sight of what’s important: creating in-depth stories about complex community issues and then doing them in a way that matters to readers.
“Every Other Breath” was an example. It began with a conversation. A scientist told me he’d seen a 40% drop in zooplankton in the marshes by his lab. On the basis of that conversation, I went to my boss with an unusual request: “Hey, I’d like to learn about…ahem…plankton for a few months.” Long pause. “And, oh, I have to go to Bermuda to do this.”
The boss said yes, and that led to a story about one of the most important science issues hardly anyone is talking about. Hardly anyone but scientists. My goal was to bridge the gap between readers and the incredible people who are digging deep into climate-related issues. This is an expensive process. It requires lots of time because these scientists have to educate me, often for hours, about what they do.
I owe a tremendous debt to the scientists who patiently walked me through their work. And I feel very fortunate for the passport the Post and Courier gave me to meet these dedicated people. I’d like to thank Glenn Smith, the newspaper’s exceptional project editor; Doug Pardue, a colleague and mentor who supported the project in its early stages; and Mitch Pugh, the paper’s far-seeing executive editor. Videographer Chris Hanclosky built amazing videos, and designer Chad Dunbar put all the pieces together in a compelling way. The newspaper has a number of owners, and I’d like to express my gratitude to them, as well as to John Barnwell, chief executive officer of the parent company, and the newspaper’s publisher, P. J. Browning.
Thanks, finally, to AGU and its members for their work, which, increasingly, carries the highest stakes.
—Tony Bartelme, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.