Covering the Region's Environmental Beat

By Carolyn Shea

As the first environmental reporter for The Olympian, he chronicled three decades of changes and challenges in the region and has survived in a profession “on the ropes.”

John Dodge

John Dodge ’76 has covered environmental issues in our region for nearly four decades and, through his column, built an appreciation among his readers for the people, places, and history of the South Sound.

Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

John Dodge ’76 rises from his chair and scans The Olympian’s newsroom. “There are two others here right now,” he said, taking a break from working on his upcoming Soundings column about a forgotten place in Lacey’s past.

His tally is revealing. During the paper’s heydays in the 1980s and ‘90s, when circulation peaked at more than 40,000 subscribers, the newsroom was abuzz with the cacophony of chattering, clicking keyboards, ringing phones, and people dashing to cover events, conduct interviews, and meet deadlines. Now, he said, “It’s more like a library than a newsroom. It’s not unusual on any given day to see three or five people here.”

Dodge, who joined the newspaper 30 years ago as its first full-time environmental reporter, has outlasted most of his former colleagues. “I think I’m the longest surviving writer,” he said. Now a senior columnist and editorial board member, he’s weathered three changes in the ownership of the capital city’s only daily: by Gannett, then Knight Ridder, and now McClatchy.

He’s also had an extraordinary run in a profession that’s been buffeted by a maelstrom of factors including the ascendancy of new media and declining print circulation and ad revenue. At The Olympian, for instance, digital traffic continues to climb, while print subscriptions have dropped below 19,000.

Dodge got his start as a cub reporter in 1976, while taking a yearlong Evergreen program called Broadsides and Broadcasts. He’d already earned an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, but found his interests gravitating towards journalism. He was drawn to Evergreen because he said the college had a “great reputation” for enabling students to pursue internships. “I enrolled with the hope that I’d land one that would lead to doors opening and a career.”

Ultimately, “it was a plan that worked,” he said. After getting his feet wet at the Cooper Point Journal, where he worked first as a news reporter and ended up as features editor, he interned at the Pierce County Herald, a weekly in Puyallup. During his final quarter, the paper shifted to publishing twice a week, which led to a job opening. “I started a couple of days after graduating,” he said.

With his second baccalaureate in hand, he worked as a Herald reporter for the next two-and-a-half years. In 1978, he joined the Aberdeen Daily World, where he said, “I wound up covering natural resources and environmental stories.” The biggest was the controversy over the Washington Public Power Supply System’s Satsop nuclear power plants. It was a public works project plagued by delays, cost overruns, opposition, and “a perfect storm” of other events such as the 1979 release of the movie, The China Syndrome, about the nightmare scenario of a nuclear meltdown, and days later, the partial meltdown of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor. Eventually mothballed, the WPPSS project came to be mockingly known by its acronym, pronounced as “whoops.”

John Dodge’s Olympian badge

Dodge entered environmental journalism at an opportune time. “Environmental reporting was coming into its own in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and newspapers were starting to dedicate reporters to the beat.” When The Olympian hired him, it was the region’s smallest paper to bring on a dedicated reporter. “They realized the community was interested in and concerned about environmental issues,” he said.

Over his career, he’s written thousands of articles about issues impacting the area, from hazardous waste removal, logging, and water quality to population growth and development, the decline of regional indicator species like salmon, orcas, and northern spotted owls, and efforts to clean up and protect Puget Sound. He’s also documented regional catastrophes. “I’ve covered most all of the natural disasters of the last 40 years: earthquakes, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, floods, windstorms,” he said.

He’s had not only a front-row seat to the ongoing drama of breaking news, events, trends, issues, controversies, and people in the arena, but he’s also learned that concerns are never static. “When I started, no one was talking about climate change and sea level rise,” he said. “Issues come and go. Priorities change. The environmental beat ebbs and flows,” depending on different forces like the state of the economy and the latest incidents.

Dodge describes his career as both interesting and rewarding and said he’s gratified to have “helped educate people and along the way, probably helped in the decision-making process.” He said he’s “always learning” on the job and that he’s always done his best to craft articles that are “fair-minded and accurate.”

As a fourth-generation South Sounder, Dodge is firmly rooted in the community. Born in Shelton, he moved to Lacey after his father built the Lacey Animal Clinic in 1959. His son and daughter, now adults, grew up in Olympia. “I decided to raise my family here and quit wanting to work for a big metro paper.”

His abiding connection to his home deeply informs his work, which currently focuses mainly on writing the thrice-weekly Soundings column. In these pieces, he said, “I try to portray what makes this an interesting place: the history, people and events.” When he was interviewed for this story, he was producing one about the Lacey Children’s Farm Home, a Depression-era orphanage that cared for hundreds of poor and orphaned children until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. Depending on the subject, he may still bring his environmental understanding into a piece. In April, for instance, he wrote about the prospect of a localized version of the recent Oso, Wash., mudslide in light of current climate-change models.

He considers being a columnist “a great culmination of a career” and said it’s also a “great irony that I’m having more fun in my career than ever before. I have more freedom to write about what I want to write about. Meanwhile, I look around and see a profession on the ropes”— one that’s been downsized and confronted with requirements to master new methods of gathering and delivering news and information.

Outside of the job, Dodge is at work on his first book, about the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, a windstorm that ravaged the Pacific Northwest with hurricane-force winds and killed 46 people in Oregon and Washington. In whatever role he’s engaged— journalist, columnist, editor, or author—he’s “grateful for the fact that Evergreen provided a pathway for me into my profession.”