Story by Aaron Weintraub
Photos courtesy of Katie Campbell and Michael Werner
Imagine the hundreds of thousands who enroll as journalism students in colleges around the country every year. Now imagine the thousands who go on to pursue their master’s degrees in journalism. Estimate how many of those graduate students meet and marry each other. Then consider the 117 journalists whose work is recognized with the prestigious — and highly competitive — Edward R. Murrow Award each year. Finally, consider the remarkably low odds that a married couple who met as journalism graduate students would win two separate Edward R. Murrow Awards in the same year.
Spoiler alert: There’s only one couple, and they graduated from the UO School of Journalism and Communication — Michael Werner, MA ’08, and Katie Campbell, MA ’08.
SOJC alumni Campbell and Werner both received Edward R. Murrow Awards this year for Excellence in Innovation, and Best Documentary of 2017, respectively. Murrow Awards, presented annually by the Radio Television Digital News Association for excellence in storytelling and reporting, are among the field’s highest honors.
Campbell’s award was a Regional Edward R. Murrow for her work as a lead producer on “Battle Ready: The Military’s Environmental Legacy in the Northwest,” an expansive and interactive online piece about the United States military’s environmental impact on the area. Werner won the National Murrow award for his work as a writer for the documentary “Searching for the Mystery Sharks of Seattle,” on the Sixgill sharks of Puget Sound. Both projects were produced by Seattle’s PBS station KCTS9 and Earthfix, an environmentally focused online news affiliate of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“Battle Ready” is a series of seven mini-documentaries organized like chapters, each focusing on a different element of military production in Oregon and Washington. The stories cover a range of related topics, such as the history of the B-17 and toxic waste from nuclear cleanup sites in the Northwest.
Campbell, who is a founding reporter and producer for Earthfix, discussed her team’s focus on the digital element of the project. “[Battle Ready was] a project that was actually in the works for more than a year” she said. “We had given ourselves this challenge and we wanted to build a digital documentary. So trying to find a way to have long form video storytelling content on a website that worked at a television station and part of what we do is try to figure out different ways to do more multimedia and web based journalism. We wanted to give ourselves this challenge of making a web based digital documentary.”
Each video is equipped with place-markers and links for extensive reading on any one topic. In addition to the regional Murrow Award for innovative reporting and publishing, “Battle Ready” received an Excellence in Journalism Award from the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Campbell was also recently recognized for her work on “The Circuit,” an Earthfix investigative piece on electronic waste management in the United States that exposes irresponsible waste treatment practices that distributed e-waste coming out of Seattle to dumping yards as far as Hong Kong. “I really didn't think when I got started with that story that we would ever end up going that far with it,” she said, “nor did I think that my station bosses would ever let us travel that far for a story.”
Werner first learned about the Sixgill sharks when he and Campbell moved out to Seattle. “When I heard about [the Sixgill], I was like, ‘What the heck!’ I had to check it out,” he said. “When you look at Puget Sound from Seattle, to me it feels like a big lake. You know you just don't even think about that it's connected to the larger ocean. The fact that there were these 15-foot sharks, 1,500 pounds.... So the first thing was just the ‘wow’ factor.... Not only is it a crazy story, but the way the story plays out is so cinematic.”
Werner said there were plenty of challenges and nuances in developing a continuous, fluid narrative about sharks. He made sure his writing catered to both the journalistic and cinematographic elements inherent in any environmental documentary.
“If you're writing for TV or for documentary, there's only so much detail you can get into it,” he said. “You just can't go as deep and get as detail as you can with a written story for newspapers or for magazines.... You have to be really particular about which facts you're going to choose to highlight and what you know you're going to let go of. You have to be really discriminatory in that sense.... I can write whatever I want for a documentary, but if I don't have the visuals to tell that story, it's never going to hold up.”
Werner and Campbell frequently work together on projects, and Campbell served as a supervising producer for “Mystery Sharks.”
While Campbell hasn’t moved on to her next major project yet, she always has stories in development at Earthfix. “We got a lot of things in the works right now,” she said. “We are doing a story about sea level rise and how it's wiping out this endangered butterfly. We're doing a story about oysters that are being found with micro plastic beads and fibers inside of them. So basically every time people eat oysters, they're also eating plastic.”
Werner’s current project is under wraps. Since it’s in the early stages, he can’t discuss it much, except to say that it’s “a long-form conservation documentary project, and I think it approaches the issue of conservation in a totally different way that audiences haven't heard at this point.”
Campbell has this advice to offer SOJC students: The most important elements to focus on are developing original ideas for topics and not being scared of acting alone. “I remember people feeling like the professional world is so much farther ahead, and we're just trying to catch up, because there's so many people who have figured it out,” she said. “And what I would say is that out here doing this work, we're doing a lot of experimenting too.”
Werner added that people who are gatekeepers recognize quickly when someone is invested in a project.
But in the end, he said, if you want to pull off a successful project, you simply have to love what you’re reporting on. “You know, at the end of the day you need to trust yourself,” he said. “And I always feel like I would much rather fail doing something my own way, doing something I believe in, than succeed at something I don’t believe in.”
Aaron Weintraub graduated from the UO with degrees in journalism and Arabic. He now lives in Amman, Jordan, where he works for the Al-Hayat Center for Civil Society Development, a political/journalism NGO, reporting on election participation and producing media for its RASED journal. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, where he also worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. During his time in the SOJC, Aaron worked as a Communications Office intern and served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.