Freelancer Hillary Rosner traveled to a Colorado River reservoir to meet scientists bent on rescuing an unassuming fish, the razorback sucker. The resulting story, which won the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in the Small Newspaper category, raised tough questions about the rationale for saving endangered species. [One Tough Sucker appeared in High Country News on June 7, 2010.]
Here, Rosner tells TON guest contributor Roberta Kwok the story behind the story:
How did the story idea come about?
One of the researchers contacted Michelle Nijhuis, my editor. This was something she had been mulling for High Country News but wasn’t going to have time to do, so they got in touch with me. And it just sounded really cool. They sent me an overview of the topic put together by this researcher, Abe Karam. He said this continued decline of the razorback sucker and its struggle for survival would make a great story. He had done a terrific job of laying out all the things you would want to know: the conflicts involving this fish, the problem of the sport fishing community versus conservation people, these competing demands on the river. I want to have him pitch all my stories.
One of the things he mentioned was this meeting of several dozen people who research this fish, called the Razorback Roundup. I mean, just the name of that—I was like, “Oh my God, I have to go.”
Was the direction of the story clear from the beginning?
The thing that wasn’t clear was the bigger picture. How can we take this story and broaden it so it has more wide relevance? Why is someone in another state going to care about this endangered fish?
The timing was good because I had just read a paper about how so many endangered species are “conservation-reliant.” The paper was saying that even species that are being recovered can’t really survive without sustained human management. So the question was, are these species really on the road to recovery? What are we going to do with all these conservation-reliant species? I had that paper in my head, and I was already thinking I wanted to write something about it, but I didn’t know what. That was a perfect larger framing for the story.
How did the reporting progress?
I contacted Abe and Paul Marsh, Abe’s boss, and found out more about the Razorback Roundup. It’s on Lake Mohave, which is on the Arizona-Nevada border, not too far from Las Vegas. They told me there would be people from all these different government agencies, both state and federal. I inquired about camping with these guys, but they were very reluctant. They said, “Oh, we think it would be much better if you stayed at this motel across the lake.” So I booked a room at this motel. But once they spent a couple hours with me, they apologized for not having let me camp with them. I think they were worried; they didn’t want some annoying reporter hanging around their campsite at all hours.
Were you disappointed that you weren’t able to camp with them?
It was fine because I did spend a lot of time with them and at their camp. At a certain point, I have information overload and need to retreat to my space and debrief. So it was actually nice to go back to my hotel at the end of the day.
What did you bring with you to the field? Did you record everything, and did you go through your notes every evening?
It was pretty basic: a notebook, a pen, a really tiny Olympus digital recorder. We were out on a boat a lot of the day, so you don’t want to have anything that’s going to be messed up if it gets wet. I had my iPhone for a camera. And a lot of sunscreen.
I didn’t necessarily record everything. We’d be sitting around the campfire having a conversation and things would get interesting, so I would put the recorder on. At the end of the day, I would write down observations: how the lake looked, how the sky looked, what we had done, specific smells and sights and sounds I didn’t want to forget.
What was your reporting strategy when you were at the lake?
I had no idea what I was going to find. I knew there would be several dozen people who could all be potential sources. I was just thinking, I’m going to gather information and maybe go home and sift through it, and I’ll have to go back and interview people on the phone.
But the story just seemed to emerge quickly. I got there in the late afternoon; my motel was on the opposite side of the lake from Abe and Paul and their team. They came across in a boat and picked me up, and they filled me in on what would be happening and who might be useful to talk to. Paul Marsh was such a great character. He just exuded this calm sense—that sense that comes from working on this project for so long that the little blips don’t stress him out because he can see the larger continuum. You can see that he’s been in the trenches for so long.
The next day, one of the agency groups had a big meeting of all the participants. When I talked to different people, [Paul’s] name kept coming up, and it was clear he was a central figure. I had gone into it thinking I would let it all unfold and the characters would rise to the top, and that is kind of what happened. There was one guy, this Bureau of Reclamation biologist named Tom Burke. A couple people kept saying, “You should really interview this guy.” I was a little reluctant. He seemed like a bureaucrat, and I couldn’t really understand what would be gained. I was out with these researchers one night in a little pond, which was an offshoot of the lake, and they kept saying, “Oh, we should drop you off at this guy’s houseboat.” And I was like, “Why do they keep trying to force me on this guy?” I had sort of reached my information threshold for the day.
But I thought, “OK, fine, I should just go and talk to him.” So I met this guy, and we went upstairs to the roof of the houseboat and ended up having this hour-and-a-half-long conversation. He was so steeped in the Colorado River and had this great breadth of knowledge, and he talked about it very poetically. It turned out that he and Marsh had such a past together, almost coming of age together as young scientists. It was their partnership that spawned a lot of these projects. It seemed like if they hadn’t both been there, the fish would be extinct. I didn’t want to do the interview, but it turned out to almost make the story.
How long did you spend writing the first draft?
I worked on it for the better part of the week. I thought it was terrible, and I was like, “I can’t believe I’m turning this in to you.” And [editor Michelle Nijhuis] was so great because she saw immediately that everything is fine, but it’s these few little [issues]. It turned out there were a few small things that made all the difference in the world.
What were the specific things she thought you should work on?
She wanted more on Marsh and Burke, the main characters. She wanted to tease out their relationship—this idea that these guys have spent so many years showing up for what’s sort of a lost cause, almost. It was all stuff I had in my reporting, but I hadn’t played it up enough because I was so concerned about the science.
What was the hardest part of this assignment for you?
Part of the challenge is trying to convey all this complex information in a way that’s readable. There were so many different studies. But Michelle is a phenomenal editor, and whenever I got stuck I could call her and ask, “What do you think about this?”
One thing I did with this piece is I read it out loud to myself. I know a lot of writers do that, but for whatever reason, I had never done it before. I actually found that to be really useful in terms of trying to figure out if something was unbelievably boring.
Were you worried that it would be hard to make people care about this fish?
Yeah. Like, who cares? People are writing about polar bears and grizzly bears and all those charismatic megafauna. And this is a fish.
Part of it is asking questions like, “What is it we’re trying to save? Is it worth saving?” Somehow it’s much easier for us to grasp why we should care about saving a polar bear. A fish is almost a better way to raise those questions because it is harder to see what we need to save. Especially a fish where the ecosystem has kind of already collapsed, so if this fish goes away, nothing is going to change really. It’s this philosophical question of what we’re trying to save and why.
What did you do to address those questions in the story?
These are my favorite issues to grapple with. So I was drawing on background reporting I had already done, papers and articles I had been reading in the course of generally doing my job. I called a few conservation people on background to toss around these questions. That was almost the fun part, trying to think through the broader implications. It was definitely hard because it challenged deeply-held beliefs of mine about what we should be protecting. That question is something I’m still wrestling with. But these are questions we should be asking.
A glimpse behind the scenes:
Guest contributor Roberta Kwok is a freelance science journalist who has contributed to Nature, New Scientist, Salon.com, Conservation, Science News for Kids, California, and ScienceNOW. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow Roberta on Twitter @robertakwok.