Episode 6: Tom Henry | The Psychology of Water
Tom Henry, reporter for The Toledo Blade, shares his influences, inspirations, and insights from over 40 years of environmental journalism. His human-centered storytelling underlines our connection to water – and to one another – while holding our leaders accountable for the promise of a sustainable Great Lakes ecosystem. Tom also explores the implications of ideology on our relationship with the planet.
[00:00:00] Tom: I don’t understand some of the pollute now and catch me if you can type mentality. If different businesses and different industries can do what they promise to do and do things sustainably not to injure the environment, God bless them. It’s just that often too many people in life aren’t keeping the promises they are making. And I think that’s a lot of what we do in journalism is trying to hold people accountable for the promises.
[00:00:33] Amy: From the Great Lakes Protection Fund, you’re listening to Great Lakes, Great Stories, a six-part daily series celebrating the journalistic leaders of the Great Lakes region. I’m Amy Elledge.
[00:00:44] Steve: And I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insights, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes. Stories that earned each of them as Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award for communications excellence.
[00:01:01] Amy: And we’ll hear about the challenges they see on the horizon for the Great Lakes region. Today on the show, we have Tom Henry, who handles the environment and energy beat for the Toledo Blade newspaper. His coverage of the Great Lakes spans four decades and has taken him around the Great Lakes and around the globe in search of the human side of environmental stories. His features help people understand their connections to nature while holding policymakers accountable for keeping water clean and accessible to everyone. We are pleased to have him with us today to talk about how he tells stories about the Great Lakes. Hi, Tom. Thanks for joining us.
[00:01:36] Tom: Thanks. Glad to be here.
[00:01:37] Steve: Tom, congratulations on the 2020 Leadership Award. Can you tell us a bit more about your work for the Blade?
[00:01:43] Tom: As Amy was saying, I do environmental energy coverage. I’ve really defined it as I created the beat in 1993. And, what’s always been fascinating to me, the outdoors, nature, water quality – it’s pretty wide open. And we have nuclear power in this area that got me involved in some energy issues. I was involved with climate change coverage from the ground level here, even before the papers started running climate change stories. And I was trying to figure out how best to approach my bosses and how to start getting some of that in the paper. I’ve always been fascinated with the Great Lakes. In addition to the invasive species and climate change and all the issues out there, I’ve been fascinated by the psychology of water and what makes the Great Lakes part of our human psyche. What makes any ecosystem, whether you live near the Everglades, or the Gulf of Mexico, or the Rocky Mountains, or wherever, what is it that you really identify with? Here in Toledo, we live about the same distance from Tennessee as we do from Toronto. I’ll bet if you ask most people here in Toledo, “which do you identify with more?” they would say Toronto. It’s nothing against Tennessee, but it’s just, there’s something about water that brings people together. It’s a symbiotic relationship and brotherhood that we have with each other in the Great Lakes region, even though they are two different countries and many different cultures. We all seem to have the shared value and concern about the Great Lakes and about water that ironically binds us and brings us together.
[00:03:27] Steve: If you look across the roughly 20 years that you’ve been doing this, you said that you started this beat in 1993 I think you said.
[00:03:33] Tom: At the Toledo Blade, yeah.
[00:03:39] Steve: At the Blade, right. Were you reporting on environmental issues before you joined the Blade?
[00:03:41] Tom: A little bit. At my first newspaper, The Bay City Times, I did some on when the first kind of modern era of threats of Great Lakes water diversion started. Shortly after Ronald Reagan took office and a lot of the money, whether it was well-placed or not, there was a lot of concern that the Great Lakes may somehow be diverted to the Southwest. I did some coverage of that. I also did some with Lake Huron/Northern Michigan forestry issues affecting water quality and so forth. I took six years hiatus away from the region when I was hired by the Tampa Tribune from 1985 to 1991, and by the Kiplinger, a fellowship and public affairs reporting at Ohio State. Then I ended up at the Blade after. And I did some environmental stories in Florida when I worked at the Tampa Tribune regarding manatees and some of the developmental pressures that are put on the Florida landscape and so forth.
That’s kind of what got my appetite going. But you really need to up your game for a specialty beat like environmental writing and know who to trust . . . who’s pushing an agenda . . . what motivation people have when they come to you . . . and really background yourself on issues and spend a lot of time educating yourself outside of your normal work hours and just become fascinated with what you’re doing. Don’t just report the basics. To me, I see it as an enormous responsibility in terms of ethics, to not wanting to either needlessly inflame people or not wanting to put them to sleep by failing to report something that really deserves more weight with coverage.
[00:05:20] Amy: Tom, I’d like to talk a little bit more about your origin story. We’ve heard a bit about how your beat has evolved, but how did you come to journalism in the first place?
[00:05:32] Tom: It’s funny because I learned from an early age, probably in second or third grade, that I wanted to be a writer. A lot of people say, you know, I don’t know. I knew very young that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really know what kind of writer, but I got kind of spoiled by some English teachers who always used to pick my story out in class. Don’t get me wrong. I love playing baseball and playing other sports. If I dropped a fly ball, it wouldn’t upset me as much as if my story didn’t get read in class, which sounds pretty nerdy. Finally, when I was a sophomore in high school, a guy who was a senior would occasionally give me rides and say, “What are you going to do with your life?”
I said, “I’m going to be a writer.”
He goes, “Well, I hate to tell you this, but you’re probably not going to be the great American novelist when you graduate from high school.” He said, “You’ve got to do something to use the language every day.”
That hadn’t really dawned on me. I said, “Well, you’re probably right.” So, I went into journalism, mostly thinking it was just something that Hemingway did, and some other great writers did. I was thinking it was just going to be a temporary thing. And now professionally, 40 years later, I’m still doing it.
I was like James Earl Jones. I stuttered when I was young and then became a public speaker later on, after I was able to get over that. But, the idea to me, initially, of being an obnoxious reporter was pretty terrifying. When I was a freshman at Central Michigan, there were three upperclassmen. They used to mock me for stuttering and trying to interview somebody. I actually went into phone booths and started doing some interviews from telephone booths. I didn’t let that continue too long. I got up the nerve to go into the college newspaper office, not knowing if all these upperclassmen were going to be listening to my interviewing techniques, too. And low and behold, they didn’t. They were very accepting of me, very supportive, and took me under their wing.
One editor, her name was Bernie Chazweak. I turned in my first story. She said, “You’re a really good writer, but let me show you something.”
She showed me my first inverted pyramid. She said, this is how you do it for newspapers. You put the most important here, the second most important, third most important. . .
And from then on, there was a comfort level that I had and I continued on through college and then into my professional career. What I was getting at, was that I always felt very confident and very determined with my writing. It was the reporting side and having the poise to interview people that took a little more practice.
[00:08:09] Amy: Those support systems are important. And that makes me want to ask you, where do you think that next generation of Great Lakes storytellers will come from and how can we continue that support system for them?
[00:08:23] Tom: I’m concerned about, as everybody is, the decimation of the American newsroom, which I’ve told people is the greatest threat to democracy in our lifetime, if not our country’s history. I’m seeing newsrooms and all the institutional knowledge going away and it breaks my heart. I know there’s so many talented colleagues and friends who should be gainfully employed these days who aren’t. I’ve told people that my longevity in this career, I don’t think it’s so much talent as it is just dumb luck.
The way things turned out, I would have never thought years ago, if they said, “We’ve got an offer for you, Tom. You can do what you want to do, that kind of writing you want to do, and you’ll be one of the last men standing, working at a real newspaper, but you’re going to have to do it in Toledo, Ohio.” And I’m like, “Really? In the city that at one time had one out of every eight people living below the poverty line?”
Somehow, it’s happened. Toledo grows on you. It’s a great city. You find treasures in different places.
I hope there’s a core of young people out there who listen to this, or through their own trial and error, as a lot of environmental writers ended up on the beat, who just find that this is the kind of thing they want to do. And think, “I believe strongly in the Great Lakes and protecting the Great Lakes, so this is my life calling.” I know they’re out there. It’s just trying to get them to identify with that and take the next step.
[00:09:56] Steve: It strikes me in reading some of your work, that it is more than just reporting the news. You seem to come with a point of view, to most of what you write. Can you talk a little bit about what inspires you to cover the stories you covered?
[00:10:08] Tom: I think the most important thing comes down to, is it a subject? Is it a story that fascinates you? Because if it doesn’t fascinate you, it’s not going to fascinate your readers. I like covering anything from the political machinations and things like that to just the quirky and offbeat real characters of life who are out there.
I’ve always tried my best to be fair to both sides, but also very protective and putting the resource first. I don’t understand some of the, “pollute now and catch me if you can” type mentality. If different businesses, different industries can do what they promise to do and do things sustainably and not injure the environment, God bless them. It’s just that often too many people in life aren’t keeping the promises they are making. I think that’s a lot of what we do in journalism is try to hold people accountable for the promises. I was at a conference one time or a meeting. And, they asked people to say who they are and particularly why they are at this conference. People would say, “I’m from this organization, I was sent here because of this.”
And I just said, “I’m Tom Henry from The Blade. I’m just here to see who’s going to keep their promises and who isn’t.”
[00:11:23] Steve: That’s the core of journalism in a way, isn’t it?
[00:11:25] Tom: I think in this business, you have to have a core ethic of trying to do the right thing. Your definition of the right thing may not always be in sync with somebody else’s, but at least trying to be fair, honest, accurate.
One of the things I’ve learned in journalism about human behavior, is that you can ask some pretty hard questions of people. Just be fair about it.
[00:11:49] Steve: You’ve completed I think something like 40 years as a journalist at this point. So, congratulations on a remarkable career. I heard you quoted as saying that you were planning on hitting 50 years before you hung it up. I think that was on a video that you recorded for us last year. So what keeps it fresh? What’s your motivation and what keeps it fresh for you?
[00:12:07] Tom: The Society of Environmental Journalists, for one thing. You go to a national conference, like the ones that they put on, and it’s both reaffirming and also humbling at the same time. You can network with other scientists and sources that you may not have thought you ever would. But then you also are humbled when you find out that there are people covering the same things that you are and that you don’t know everything. I don’t like reporting in predictable cycles. Doing people’s stories or profiles of people – those fascinate me. I like learning about people: what ticks people, what gets them going, and trying to put myself into their life.
To keep it fresh, I look for fresh angles and try not to just get caught up in the journalism cycle of doing the same thing every spring, fall, and winter, and so forth. Trying to mix it up a little bit.
[00:13:00] Steve: What’s coming up next? Do you have plans on the horizon for anything special?
[00:13:07] Tom: I think how our country and our landscape is being shaped is interesting, and some of the winners and losers on how cities and communities are adapting to climate change. I was out with a group of farmers recently, and I didn’t expect this, because they love talking about weather trends, but they don’t like it being called climate change to a large degree. And that’s one of the things – buzzwords – that have certain connotations to people, being liberal or conservative. They were saying that the next big thing for them, they think could be carbon offsets there on the farm, which a lot of people haven’t written much about. We’ve written about cap and trade for coal-fired power plants or things like that. But, how would a carbon offset change the way things are done on farms?
I like big stuff, even if I don’t necessarily agree. I’m interested in not only climate change, but how religion speaks to people through climate change. A lot of people get their news or their direction in life from their church. It’s not just the Pope, but others are promoting climate change as something for saving the earth. It’s pretty fascinating.
[00:14:15] Amy: I would like to switch gears just a little and talk about your personal experiences with the Great Lakes. What does it mean for you to have spent so much time around the Great Lakes?
[00:14:26] Tom: I think it’s important to everybody to have a sense of water and where water leads and how important the lakes are. If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that my view of the lakes may not be what somebody’s in Duluth is, or somebody from a tribal nation, or somebody out in Montreal. We have this big group of cultures and people who may have their different visions of life, but yet they can see how the lakes bring us together or bind us together.
I think it’s great to try to explain how a lot of the decisions we make in everyday life have some effect around the lakes. A lot of people think the Great Lakes hold the most fresh water in the world. And I’ve said, “No, that’s not true.” Russia’s Lake Baikal actually holds more water than all of the lakes combined, but most people don’t want to live in Siberia.
We’ve got these five lakes and all this amazing shoreline. We’ve got more divergent uses of shipping, recreation, tourism, fishing – you can use the lakes for anything from energy production to going out and trying to put your mind at ease with the beauty of nature and other things. I think they are something that a lot of us may take for granted, but yet, if you go out to a shoreline or a lake, you can fall in love with it.
[00:15:54] Amy: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite place on the Great Lakes?
[00:15:57] Tom: Many favorite places. I do like Grand Marais. I remember the first time we were up there. There’s a beach expert named Oren Pelkey from North Carolina who had written a book talking about how, unfortunately there isn’t as much access to beaches in the Great Lakes as you would like.
People sometimes get a little uptight about, where do you walk? First time we went to Grand Marais, I started walking along the beach. And I could tell that I’m getting a little bit beyond the little village area. And I saw one of the homeowners and I said, “Where can you walk on here?” I just wanted to think.
He just looked at me and said, “Sir, this is the beach. It’s open to everybody. You just walk wherever you want.”
You don’t hear that too much, but there are a lot of great places.
[00:16:42] Amy: Absolutely. All right. So I have one final question for you and that is, do you have a favorite Great Lakes story, either your own or something that you’ve covered over the years?
[00:16:56] Tom: One of the highlights of my career was being sent to Greenland in 2008 for 10 days. My publisher asked me if I wanted to go. He was in a men’s group that talked about the resiliency of Greenland. He just started thinking about all the things that are happening Greenland these days. When we talked about it, I said, “If you want me to go, I think what I need to do is a juxtaposition of Greenland versus the Great Lakes of what was happening in 2008 of obvious climate change impacts like the glaciers receding and so forth, and what are the more subtle things happening in the Great Lakes that are going to become bigger in the coming years.” Columbia Journalism Review and a couple of other publications cited that as one of the best climate change projects of the year because of that juxtaposition between Greenland and the Great Lakes.
I know you wanted me to pick one, but I would probably say Greenland and the Great Lakes and also the ongoing, continuing today, Great Lakes water diversion controversy.
[00:18:01] Amy: Tom, it was great to connect with you today. And, we’d like to give you the opportunity to let our listeners know where they can find your work and how they can connect with you.
[00:18:11] Tom: Sure. I’m at the Toledo Blade. My email is THenry@theblade.com. I’m on Twitter @ecowriterOhio and I’m on Facebook too, but email’s usually the easiest way to get ahold of me.
[00:18:32] Amy: Tom, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation.
[00:18:36] Tom: Thank you very much.
[00:18:37] Steve: Thanks for listening to Great Lakes, Great Stories. Tune in next time for another great conversation about Great Lakes storytelling. Please keep the conversation going with us. Our Twitter and Facebook handles are @GLPFund while using #GreatLakesGreatStories.
[00:18:55] Amy: If you enjoyed the episode, please spread the word and hit that subscribe button and be sure not to miss another conversation with an exceptional storyteller and Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award recipient.
Visit our website GLPF.org to receive updates on the 2021 Leadership Awards. Click the “get updates” link to stay connected with us. See you next time.
Great Lakes. Great Stories.
Great Lakes Great Stories celebrates the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s 2020 Leadership Award recipients. Visit our Leadership Awards page to learn more about the recipients.
Send us your comments and feedback on Twitter using #GreatLakesGreatStories.
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