Sandra Svoboda | The Broader Impact of Cross-Cultural Climate Reporting
Sandra Svoboda, program director for Great Lakes Now, spotlights the outlet’s coverage of regional issues – such as pipelines and PFAS drinking water contamination – and their global relevance. By covering big issues from multiple angles, the acclaimed monthly TV program creates a shared sense of stewardship, culture, and identity across Great Lakes communities in the U.S. and Canada.
[00:00:00] Sandra: To stand on the Detroit riverfront, or the Chicago riverfront, or Green Bay, and to know that by boat you can literally get to the rest of the world. If we stop for a moment and think about it, we understand a global connection that is inherently there. Our big goal is to create the shared sense of stewardship, a shared Great Lakes culture and identity. So, one of the ways we can do that is around solutions in certain places to problems in all places.
[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: I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insight, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes—stories that earned each of them a 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 Sandra Svoboda from Great Lakes Now. For our listeners who may not be familiar with it, Great Lakes Now is an initiative of Detroit Public Television. They produce a monthly magazine-style television program and offer up world-class coverage of the Great Lakes on their award-winning greatlakesnow.org website.
It’s safe to say that Great Lakes Now is the first broadcast channel of and for the Great Lakes. Their bi-national coverage features news, issues and events affecting the lakes and the communities that depend on them while capturing the character and culture of the region. Sandra is the program director and is joining us today to tell us a little more about how they tell stories about the Great Lakes.
Sandra, thanks for joining us.
[00:01:50] Sandra: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:01:52] Steve: Sandra, we were really pleased to recognize Great Lakes Now for communications excellence.
[00:01:56] Sandra: It is an honor. If this was visual, you could see that the trophy is right on the shelf next to me in the home office. So, I look at it every day and hope that we live up to it for the next few years.
[00:02:06] Steve: I’m sure you will. Can you tell us about your role at Great Lakes Now?
[00:02:10] Sandra: I am the program director. I’ve been in the role just over two and a half years. Before I came to Detroit Public Television, where the Great Lakes Now initiative is housed, the station had done work around the Great Lakes. There had been a documentary several years ago. There was some live streaming of different conferences. There were documentaries that were done, but there was an influx of funding in 2018 – and thank you to all of our supporters who made that happen – that really allowed us to go to the monthly program in April of 2019 that is now carried on over 20-25 channels around the Great Lakes regularly in six states and on over 800 Canadian cable systems that carry Detroit Public Television or Buffalo PBS as the provider.
I mean, we have a supervising producer for the show, so I don’t want to make it sound like I’m producing the show. I keep an eye on it and suggest things. Once in a while I write a little piece. We also have several collaborations with media outlets around the region. Then we carry The Associated Press wire service for breaking news, bigger stories, things we don’t have the capacity to do.
We also do a fair bit of engagement, that of course changed during the pandemic with restrictions, going to virtual events. Largely Facebook live and some other conferences that were streaming. And then also an education component, where we create lesson plans and learning activities out of our digital and show content.
[00:03:38] Steve: That’s fantastic and I know a lot of us rely on Great Lakes Now to keep up to date on many of the things that are happening around the basin so, we really appreciate the work that you’re doing.
[00:03:46] Sandra: Oh, thank you. We work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun. And what we do is all about telling stories of the lakes and sharing those with even more people, so that our lakes are appreciated and taken care of.
[00:04:00] Amy: So Sandra, just like me, I know that you are a Midwestern girl. We’d like to know a little bit more about your origin story. How did you get into journalism and writing about the Great Lakes?
[00:04:11] Sandra: So, I got into journalism in college. I had worked on my high school paper for a couple of years, went to journalism camp at Ball State. And I can date myself by telling you that one of the assignments in our feature writing classes was to do a movie review of ET.
You can all do the math on what roughly year that was for high school. But anyway, moving on. I was a journalism major at Indiana University. I actually concentrated in magazine writing, worked at the campus paper, and then I interned in Muskegon, Michigan for six months. I grew up in suburban Chicago. My full-time job was with the Daily Herald, which was a newspaper there. I was on the cops beat.
And then from there, I moved to Detroit for a nine-month job with The Associated Press. And that was 31 years ago this summer. I’ve always worked in the Great Lakes region. I worked at the newspaper in Toledo for six years, I worked at an alternative weekly in Detroit, where I started writing more about environmental justice issues.
And then from there, I went to public radio in Detroit, WDET, where I covered the bankruptcy starting in 2014. The case was filed in 2013, but in 2014 the Detroit Journalism Cooperative was launched, which was five nonprofit media outlets. We all worked together over that five-year period to cover not only the bankruptcy, but the recovery from it and revitalization efforts.
One of those partners was Detroit Public Television. And when the job of program director came up, I just sort of picked up my things and moved a few blocks up to the DPTV office. Moving over to the Great Lakes full-time was a great blend of all of the media work I’d done both as a reporter, moving into digital and broadcast, and then just background and interests.
Amy: Early in your career did you have a mentor that was guiding you or somebody who really sparked your interest?
[00:06:04] Sandra: Every job that I’ve had, there were definitely editors and even teachers and professors that just made a little bit of difference. One of my high school English teachers, in learning compositions, the dreaded high school research paper. Yeah. You guys are cringing. I wish the audience could see this, but we’re on a podcast. But I remember my senior year high school teacher, Ms. Gatsis. She told our class that when you’re writing, you should vary your sentence structure. Sometimes it’s subject, verb, phrase. And sometimes it’s phrase, subject, verb. And I always remember that because I tend to write in the same kind of sentence and speak. So I remember to have some short sentences.
When I worked at The Associated Press, there was a day shift editor named Margaret Malott. She was hardcore. She rode us and no mistake went unnoticed. Learning to write correctly, in style, a complete story on deadline. I mean now I’m really glad for those hard years at the AP. That was hard work, but also covering some big stories and knowing how to get all the pieces together as quickly as you can.
[00:07:05] Amy: It’s important, I think, for all of us in the Great Lakes community to be supporting that next generation, either in the media or people doing on-the-ground work.
[00:07:16] Sandra: I do think it’s important and I think we do all have a role. Especially in media. I mean, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says The World Needs Journalists. And we’re not going to have journalists if we don’t all, we in the media, don’t all take a role in bringing them up.
My staff talks to a lot of classes, journalism, broadcasting, even environmental science. You never spare the gory details of sometimes what the work is like, but we also share how rewarding it is and how important it is. Especially around environmental issues, to have really well reported, thorough, accurate stories.
So I’m glad you asked that question about mentoring. Earlier this week, we were on a shoot and it was a class. It was a field school, an archeology field school, and it was so fun to watch. There was one older faculty member from University of Michigan, and then a younger professor, he was actually her advisor on her dissertation. And then she brought a class from University of Texas up to Alpena to learn about shipwreck archaeology in the Great Lakes.
A lot of what we interviewed them about was, what are you teaching the students that they take to other parts of their lives? They will not all be shipwreck archeologists. But they both said, certainly an appreciation for the Great Lakes. But also, just skills that were in their very specific field. Skills and technologies that apply in other industries and disciplines. I thought that was really interesting to see, especially around shipwrecks. How that translates back for a group in Texas, that will now have a four-week field school in the Great Lakes, in wherever their careers take them, maybe in their home state.
[00:08:42] Amy: So, did you share with them your favorite place on the Great Lakes? Did you share some stories?
[00:08:47] Sandra: Well, since I was in Alpina, that day my favorite place was Alpena. If we get up to the UP, it’ll be the UP. It’s amazing how my favorite place in the Great Lakes changes.
Amy: Wherever you are.
[00:08:56] Sandra: Kind of. No, honestly, that’s a great point about the lakes. If you’re into cities, the culture of cities, the world-class museums of Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland. That really cosmopolitan urban vibe exists in cities on the Great Lakes. And then there’s just some really cool stuff going on in the Duluths, and the Marquettes, and Toledo’s revitalization. Buffalo’s doing some work with green infrastructure that making cityscapes there really interesting.
And then, in between of course, we have national parks, state parks, provincial parks, and national forests and wilderness areas, the smaller towns, industry is still going on. I mean whatever your choice of landscape is, even for a day, you can find it on the Great Lakes. You know, the variety of cultures and food and music and traditions and history. It’s really a diverse landscape.
[00:09:49] Amy: Yeah, that’s a good point. Sometimes I think that lacks a little bit in everybody’s thought process about the Great Lakes, how diverse it is.
[00:09:56] Sandra: It is, and we’re working on some stories and some data journalism that will help to tell that story as well. Whether we do that from an economic perspective, or a population perspective, or a habitat perspective. To stand on the Detroit riverfront, or the Chicago riverfront, or Green Bay and to know that, by boat, you can literally get to the rest of the world. Out the Welland Canal, St. Lawrence Seaway and River, and into the Atlantic Ocean. If we stop for a moment and think about it, we understand a global connection that is inherently there.
[00:10:30] Steve: Let’s talk about that a little bit more because as you say the Great Lakes ecosystem is extremely diverse. And then when we look at the types of stories that you’ve told, or even just recently told, you’re covering lake levels, PFAS, shipwrecks, the Soo Locks, Line 5. What’s the inspiration that takes you to what will tell this story next?
[00:10:50] Sandra: Well, there are big fights and arguments. No, I’m just kidding. The nice thing is there are a lot of stories to tell, and honestly, sometimes it’s just the practical. Where we have a videographer that’s free, to get it shot. But it’s also a blend.
You know, we did a whole show earlier this year in 2021, dedicated to the Line 5 controversies. And we know that show is going to be outdated quickly. To get to the most recent controversy, we have to bring people through the history of why that pipeline is there and how it became an issue, frankly. And so, it’s a blend of what is a really big issue. We want to make sure we’re hitting the biggest issues for the Great Lakes. Like you said, lake levels, Line 5, and pipelines.
Then we also find interesting stories too. Things that maybe are happening in one part of the Great Lakes that we think people in other parts of the Great Lakes would find particularly interesting. Or applicable, right? Because our big goal is to create a shared sense of stewardship, a shared Great Lakes culture and identity. One of the ways we can do that is around solutions in certain places to problems in all places.
The water levels issue is one that we’ve done that with. We did Chicago’s battered beaches as part of our From Rust to Resilience project. That was a project we did that was coordinated through the Institute for Nonprofit News. We just won an award for it, from the Society of Professional Journalists, with all of the INN partners that we had. We had a segment in that half-hour show of the Chicago lakefront and what that’s been like as the water levels have risen and the storms have become more severe. What that’s done to the waterfront as a place. For people, for habitat, for birds, animals that are there. But that issue of water levels is one that’s facing all of the Great Lakes.
[00:12:41] Steve: As I’ve tracked the work that you’ve been doing and watched many of your episodes, you do really seem to try to capture all the points of view around an issue. I have to assume that’s intentional. How do you go about that? Is there a strategy that you follow or is this just in the storytelling?
[00:12:54] Sandra: I’m complimented you said that we include all the perspectives. I would say we try to include as many as we can, and that are a representation of various sides if you will, of an issue. We have an independent producer that does work for us. His name is David Ruck. He is Great Lakes outreach media, and he’s been doing a lot of work on Lake Erie and the algal blooms. We had him produce a couple of segments for the show. A lot of it is about what is changing the water chemistry of Lake Erie. It’s the fertilizer manure from agriculture operations on the very fertile farmland in Ohio and elsewhere. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s just Ohio. We went to farmers, we went to the Ohio Farm Bureau. We included their perspective. What solutions mean to them. Number one, they can’t stop producing. All of us who consume dairy or meat or eggs, and sometimes produce. Our lives are responsible for a lot of these things we sometimes consider big problems. All of us are creating those. But we also wanted to show, okay, the solutions are not simple. It’s a heavy impact on industry and economies and people’s livelihoods as well. You can’t just stop doing a certain thing.
And it’s kind of like with PFAS, it’s out there. How do you clean it up? How do you stop putting more? And then how do you clean it up? There’s plenty of research represented that is leading to a greater understanding of the world. And we show you places to go in the lakes, and we show you the promise of classes and university work and communities rebuilding and becoming more resilient and sustainable. I think on balance we’re fairly positive and you definitely get an idea to appreciate the Great Lakes region.
[00:14:30] Steve: You’ve come so far. In what, three years, 2018 to today. What’s the next frontier? Which summit would you like to conquer next?
[00:14:40] Sandra: We’d really like to create more of a regional presence as a show working with the other PBS stations. That’s something that was really difficult in pandemic. We added some stations. Wisconsin PBS out of Madison with their numerous channels, picked us up. Milwaukee was already airing us. So we have full coverage in Wisconsin and all the PBS channels, like we do in Michigan. We’re missing a few of the key, Great Lake cities airing us.
We’d like to recruit those channels. And then we’d really like to take some of the things we’ve been doing more in Detroit, because that’s where we mainly are during pandemic, and do them in other places. But how can we really create more of a sense of Great Lakes Now being a regional initiative on both sides of the border as well. So that, you know, it’s thought of as not quite a National Geographic international program, but you know, a little smaller scale of that.
[00:15:34] Amy: We work really hard to speak human, especially around science. How do you guys tackle that? Because so much of the Great Lakes issues are complex detailed. What’s your strategy for speaking human?
[00:15:46] Sandra: We are really rude and we tell scientists to dumb it down. Honestly, we interrupt people during interviews all the time. We just tell them flat out, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude.
Amy: But I don’t know what you’re saying.
[00:16:00] Sandra: We know what they’re saying cause we’ve done some homework, but I want the person watching on TV who hasn’t done all that homework, to understand what it is. You just kind of have to be not afraid to interrupt them when they use jargon or big words or abbreviations or the acronyms that we all use in our professions. You can’t be afraid to look dumb yourself and ask somebody for further clarification. Always thinking of what the impact is on people, normal people. I’m making air quotes.
You know, not me as the program director of Great Lakes Now, or somebody who’s on the lake all the time. But for someone who’s seen the lake once or twice, or maybe never at all, how do we put things in proper context or add more context? So you see us use a lot of maps. We don’t assume that somebody knows where Grand Lake north of Alpena is. We’re going to show them a map of exactly where that is and how it relates to the Great Lakes.
[00:16:52] Amy: And you want them to get to those aha moments. And I’m wondering if there’s anything that you’ve encountered that has given you one of those aha moments in what you’ve covered.
[00:17:03] Sandra: The moment I always come back to, that I tell people about, is a friend of mine in her mid-sixties. A very smart lady. Probably has lived within two miles of the water her entire life. And she told me that she really enjoys the show because she always learns something she did not know about the lakes. If we’re teaching somebody like her, who I think knows everything, then we’re doing something right.
But I also think, you know, we keep in mind that people in Chicago don’t necessarily know the Lake Erie coastline or some of the issues or history there. And so we always keep that in mind as well. It’s really always that balance of trying to not lose people who know a lot by making it too simple. But also not making it too complicated so that we keep and broaden the ideas for people who already think they have them.
We try to take them to a place on the lakes they’ve never been or show them a place that they’re familiar with in a new way.
[00:17:57] Amy: Definitely. One final question. What is your favorite Great Lakes story? What’s the one that you always tell people.
[00:18:05] Sandra: My favorite Great Lakes story is always the last one that I just did. I took someone sailing just yesterday and her job is within programming on the island. She’s been to the island so many times and around it, but she’d never seen it from a boat. We ran around Belle Isle and she saw things on the island that she recognized, the lighthouse, the coast guard station, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the aquarium. You can just see, you know, it’s sort of like she turned into a little kid seeing something for the first time. Where, when you’ve just view it from a little bit different perspective, it becomes a new thing and you find new ways of appreciating it.
Amy: Yeah. Taking that time to just stop and breathe the lake air is always great.
Sandra: There’s something about water.
[00:18:47] Amy: Absolutely. Sandra, this was so fun to talk to you today. Thank you so much for joining us. And let me ask you to let people know one more time where they can find Great Lakes Now and how they can connect with you.
[00:18:59] Sandra: Sure. Our website is greatlakesnow.org. Newest news stories are on the homepage and there’s a menu bar with fun things like quizzes and our show, and then the lesson plans. Our show airs once a month, you can check your local listings. You can find everything on YouTube as well. If you search Great Lakes Now you find that. Then we’re on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and you can follow us and get alerts.
Also on our website, you can sign up for the weekly newsletter where we bring you the biggest stories and updates on our site and updates about events that we’re having. Hopefully some in-person ones around the Great Lakes as we come back out of pandemic.
[00:19:36] Steve: Sandra, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:19:38] Sandra: Thank you so much for having me and I’ll see you out on the lakes.
[00:19:44] 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 the #GreatLakesGreatStories.
[00:19:59] 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.
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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.
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