After 10 months of work, a Concordia journalism class, led by the New York Times’ managing editor, published their piece
Seven students from an investigative data journalism class at Concordia University have published a 11-month-long investigative journalism project under the direction of New York Times managing editor in the news services division and Concordia journalist-in-residence, Patti Sonntag. The piece, titled “Attack of the Budworms”, was published on Nov. 15 by The Walrus, a Canadian magazine.
“[The topic] evolved very, very gradually, so I started with the question of how was climate change affecting the forestry industry,” said Sonntag. She said she started looking at forest fires and infestations at first.
“I gradually started to narrow in on the story of Baie-Comeau,” she said, referring to the rural area in Quebec. “I don’t think we really knew the story, [until] mid 2016 maybe.”
The team first began their research by investigating the topic of forestry in Quebec, said Michael Wrobel, a Concordia journalism student involved in the investigative project. “We narrowed it down over the course of time to this very specific topic, which is the budworm infestation in one particular region of Quebec and how it’s affecting the forestry industry there.”
Wrobel said he was approached by the Journalism Department to participate in the independent study class, JOUR 451, which focuses on investigative data journalism. “There were five of us who continued the project beyond the scope of the class,” said Wrobel. “Even after we had gotten the credit, we still felt compelled to participate because we felt some ownership over the project too––so we saw it through to completion.”
The other journalism students who continued working on the project over the summer were Gregory Todaro, Michelle Pucci, Casandra De Masi and Joseph Arciresi. The remainder of the team included Julian McKenzie, Shaun Michaud and Wrobel.
“This [project] was considered a chance to actually go out there and make an impact and gives us a chance to really interact with the world of journalism beyond the walls of the university,” said journalism student participant and managing editor at The Concordian Gregory Todaro.
Sonntag said she first thought of the topic in November 2015. “I had no idea where the story was going,” said Sonntag. “That’s the wonderful thing about working within the university––you have the time and breath to explore if you have the impetus.”
Wrobel said it was an incredible experience to speak with so many different people in the community of Baie-Comeau, who trusted Wrobel enough to discuss their concerns about the industry, the ecology and the impact the budworms are having on the forestry industry in the city of just over 22,000 people. He said people in Baie-Comeau were very welcoming—some even let Wrobel and his classmates conduct interviews inside their homes.
“We talked to more than 100 people,” said Sonntag. She said the people of Baie-Comeau and representatives of the forestry industry were very welcoming to Sonntag and the team of student-journalists. She said the project was not just completed solemnly through the efforts of her and the group of Concordia journalists. “We had so much help from so many people,” said Sonntag. “Hundreds of people took part in the project.”
Todaro said he and the team not only interviewed community members of Baie-Comeau and corporate or labour representatives of the forestry industry––but union representatives, Innu community members and scientists knowledgeable on carbon, budworms and climate change as well.
“I am pleased with the outcome. It’s a great piece and I see a little bit of all of our research and work reflected in it,” said Wrobel.
Sonntag received a Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education in June 2016 due to her proposal to spearhead this investigative data journalism class. Sonntag said she will be teaching a similar class at Concordia sometime in the next year. With regards to the topic, “I have some ideas but that’s about it,” she said.