Pulitzer Finalist on an Estuary’s Tale, and Stories Hiding in Plain Sight

August 25, 2021

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Tony Bartelme, foreground, with fellow reporter Glenn Smith, reporting from within the threatened Santee Delta. Photo: Lauren Petracca/The Post and Courier. Click to enlarge.

Inside Story: Pulitzer Finalist on an Estuary’s Tale, and Stories Hiding in Plain Sight

Tony Bartelme, Glenn Smith and Lauren Petracca of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier won first place for outstanding feature story (large circulation or newsroom) in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 annual awards for reporting on the environment for their coverage of South Carolina’s beautiful and threatened Santee Delta.

Judges said of the project: “Lyrical physical description along with significant research … show how climate change and rising sea levels threaten a landscape of historical and economic significance to all South Carolinians. The Santee River Delta is so wild that even a botanist who has studied it for 40 years can get lost in it, yet it is also rich with artifacts from the slaves who cultivated the rice known as ‘Carolina Gold.’ This entry, gorgeously executed in the best tradition of storytelling about the environment, left a lasting impression.”

Bartelme — a four-time Pulitzer finalist — also has won many other top journalism prizes and fellowships. This track record long ago might have propelled Bartelme to a staff job at one of the nation’s largest and best-known news organizations. Yet, since 1990, he has chosen to remain on the staff of The Post and Courier.

Bartelme’s latest Pulitzer recognition came this year, as part of The Post and Courier staff responsible for the Rising Waters series on climate change, which was a finalist in the Pulitzer’s local reporting category. Bartelme’s earlier Pulitzer finalist recognitions came in 2011, in feature writing, for a story about a South Carolina neurosurgeon trying to teach brain surgery in Tanzania; in 2013, in the explanatory writing category, for a series about  high insurance rates, and in 2016, in the breaking news category, as part of a team covering a fatal shooting.

Bartelme has authored or co-authored four books, plus the screenplay for an award-winning documentary film about solo around-the-world sailing. His work has been recognized by the Oakes Award for Environmental Journalism, the National Press Foundation and numerous times by SEJ’s own awards judges. In 2019, Bartelme and Post and Courier colleague David Wren won honorable mention in SEJ’s investigative journalism (small market category) for their series about piles of mosquito-infested tires. In 2018, Bartelme won first place in SEJ’s outstanding beat reporting (small market category) for a package of stories about South Carolina’s low country, including a series on harmful algal blooms. In 2017, Bartelme won third place in the outstanding explanatory reporting category for a climate-related package titled Every Other Breath.

SEJournal Online recently caught up with Bartelme to discuss the Santee Delta series, and touch briefly on his long record of award-winning reporting. Here is the conversation.

Editor’s Note: An essay by Bartelme on reporting innovations used in his work to help cover climate change and collaborate locally also appears in the Aug. 25, 2021 issue of SEJournal here.

SEJournal: Why do you stay at The Post and Courier after winning so many prizes, which clearly could have opened doors for you at bigger, better-known news organizations?

Tony Bartelme: I like Charleston! It’s a complex and multi-layered place with lots of problems and interesting issues. Plus the food is awesome. But seriously, I like digging into things in a place I know pretty well. Great journalism is about going beyond the obvious. I’ve had chances to go to larger places, but I was never convinced I could do better and deeper work at them. I also like what we’ve built here at the paper, though I also realize that a newsroom is a fragile place that takes time to build and can quickly be torn down.

SEJournal: How do you manage to find so many compelling story ideas, leading to so many prizes?

Bartelme:  I mentioned going beyond the obvious, and I think that’s the key to taking your stories to a higher level. And going beyond the obvious takes time and effort and digging and constant self-questioning: What’s the real story?

One little tool is to ask yourself, “What’s the story about in one or two words?” Usually when I do that, I come up with something superficial: plankton, sand mines, the Santee Delta. So I ask myself again, “What’s the real story?” And I keep doing that until I reach something universal, a theme that everyone can relate to, no matter what you’re writing about — things like love, betrayal, greed, beauty, mystery. Doing this helps shape my reporting and eventually my story. People won’t read 5,000 words on plankton, but they’ll read books about love or mysteries. Also, I get bored really fast — and I think this helps me find stories that might be a little different! And another thing — it’s really useful to read scientific journals like Science and Nature. They can be pretty dense, but that’s where the cutting-edge stuff is. They just need general audience journalists to capture the stakes and tell their stories more simply.

One example is a story I’m working on that we’ll probably call “The Greenland Connection.” I just got back a day ago from Greenland and one of the focuses of the story will be about how Greenland’s massive loss of ice actually affects gravity — that as Greenland loses mass, its pull on the ocean also decreases, and this has a surprising impact in South Carolina. Greenland has so much ice that it pulls the oceans toward it like a tug on a blanket. But as this ice and gravity decreases, seas slosh back far away, raising our sea levels farther than other places. I’ll get into it more deeply and it’s a little counterintuitive, but it’s something that has a real impact and hasn’t really been discussed outside academia, where it’s fairly well known. Another tip for reporters — this was expensive and the only way I could do it was with grants from the Pulitzer Center for Investigative Reporting and Fund for Investigative Journalism.

SEJournal: You’ve said in the past that you feel a higher sense of mission when you're working on environmental stories. Why?

Bartelme: Yeah, I think that what’s happening to the environment is an incredibly rich area to explore with stakes that are increasing by the year.

SEJournal: Turning now to your SEJ-award winning stories about the Santee Delta, how did you get those story ideas?

Bartelme: For the past few years, we've been actively pursuing projects with the loose theme of "stories hiding in plain sight." A landowner in the Santee Delta suggested we do a deep dive on the Santee Delta. It's one of the largest estuaries on the East Coast and just an hour north of Charleston, South Carolina, but it has largely been overshadowed by other natural areas. We thought we'd dig in deeper and see what we might have missed.


We used the Santee River itself as a guide. …

We wanted the story to flow, and meander a little,

but move consistently through some deeper themes.


SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the Santee Delta pieces and how did you solve that challenge?

Bartelme: There were several challenges, some physical, others literary. First the physical. We'd planned to take a bunch of trips into the delta during early spring, when the bugs aren't bad. But as will happen, we moved our timeline until summer. The bugs were epic! I've got photographs of mosquitoes covering Lauren Petracca's head. We nearly stepped on some poisonous snakes, and alligators were a few steps away at some points. But, really, the biggest challenge was crafting a story about such a potentially amorphous subject, the challenges of an estuary. We solved that in several ways. First, we found a couple of characters, especially one named Richard Porcher, and used their experiences as narrative vehicles. We also used the Santee River itself as a guide in how to organize it. We wanted the story to flow, and meander a little, but move consistently through some deeper themes. We also decided that this story was about social justice — exploring the long-neglected history of how enslaved people built wealth for others.

SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting in the Santee Delta?

Bartelme: The sheer beauty of the place. We all had driven through the area many times. But we had never explored it, mainly because some spots are very difficult without boats or special access. Some areas resembled the Amazon rainforest, while others looked as if they'd been cut and pasted from Kenya.

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?

Bartelme: See above! But I'll also mention here that the introduction of the story was inspired in part by a piece by James Agee on the Tennessee Valley Authority back in the 1930s. He starts the story by describing the river and the land, giving readers a sense of place before he delves into the issues. That's a helpful lesson when writing about things people don't really know about, whether it's a place or a subject like plankton or what's happening with the Gulf Stream.

SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?

Bartelme: We all joked that we should have done this in the winter, but doing it in the summer actually was incredibly important. It helped us understand the horrors and challenges of slavery.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story or project?

Bartelme: Bug spray is completely useless against Santee Delta mosquitoes.

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Bartelme: Cut all of your sentences in two. They're probably too long!


Don't be afraid to do stories

that are fun and different and

challenge your assumptions.


SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?

Bartelme: Don't be afraid to do stories that are fun and different and challenge your assumptions — stories that get you out of the office, or lately, home. In fact, sometimes I look for stories about things that I don't particularly like or know much about. (I recently did a project about a rare bird. I'm not a birder.) It's OK to use your job as a form of continuing education, because readers will sense that passion and energy and sense of discovery.

Tony Bartelme, a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a special projects reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. His investigative reporting has exposed government corruption and explored diverse issues ranging from changes in ocean plankton to the global shortage of doctors. His work has received the highest honors in journalism, including recent awards from the American Geophysical Union, Scripps Foundation and American Society of News Editors. He is the author or co-author of several books, including “A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa.” Published in 2017 by Beacon Press, The Washington Post calls it a “harrowing and important book.” He was awarded a Harvard Nieman Fellowship in 2010 and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Charleston with his partner, Annie, and has one son, Luke.

Editor’s Note: For more, see our recent feature about covering watersheds as a regional beat, and our special report on Covering Your Climate: The South.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 30. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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