In our “Behind the Scenes” blog series, get to know our amazing team of dynamic journalists who make the Energy News Network possible. This month, we profile Andy Balaskovitz who reports out of Grand Rapids, Michigan and has been with the Energy News Network since 2014.
What made you decide to become a journalist?
I recall journalists Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe having an impact on me in high school, as well as an English teacher who had a journalism degree from Michigan State University. At the time, journalism seemed like a practical way to make a living as a writer (how naive!).
Tell me about your reporting background thus far?
My first full-time reporting job was the news editor at City Pulse—Lansing’s alt-weekly newspaper— where I reported mostly on city hall and local politics. Over the course of four years at the paper, I took on more editing duties and spent the last year as managing editor. In 2014, with a background in environmental and energy reporting from college, I made the move to freelance full-time, which is when I joined Midwest Energy News as a reporting fellow.
You mentioned graduating from Michigan State University. Are you from Michigan and is that where you got your initial start in the journalism industry?
I grew up in the western Lower Peninsula of Michigan, about 15 miles north of Muskegon, along Lake Michigan. In 2009, shortly after graduating I freelanced a few pieces for the local alt-weekly while working communications jobs on campus. My freelance work mostly covered the fledgling medical marijuana scene in Michigan and rallies at the Capitol. The news editor position at City Pulse opened abruptly, so I interviewed for the job and got it. I was quite green.
Describe a day in the life for you as a working journalist?
The first few hours are spent compiling the Midwest Energy News email digest, which involves combing RSS feeds and Google for energy stories in the region and elsewhere. It’s useful to our readers, but it’s also helpful as a reporter by staying on top of what’s happening on the beat.
The rest of the day involves travel, research and phone calls for stories I’m working on. At any given time, I’m working on stories for two or three publications.
How do you manage your work?
I’m able to deal with the workload in a much healthier way than I did previously working in a high-stress newsroom. It can be challenging as a reporter or editor when you have too much on your plate. Having a flexible schedule allows me to be more thoughtful in the way I approach stories.
What’s the most difficult situation you’ve encountered as a reporter and how did you overcome it?
Covering a story about sexual assault allegations against two prominent athletes at Michigan State. The issue was whether to name the athletes involved, since prosecutors had declined to take the case. After much deliberation in the newsroom, we erred on the side of caution and did not name them out of concern for the potential impact on their reputation. We faced backlash from some of our loyal readers. We didn’t know it at the time, but there has since been reports of widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases at the university, and the former prosecutor spent a year in jail for prostitution-related crimes.
What are your thoughts about the future of the news business?
I’m optimistic and concerned. There will be challenges, particularly locally, but I think the business model will continue to sort itself out and diversify. Good reporting will continue to be supported, and it’s encouraging to see funders—and the public—backing a variety of local and regional projects. As always though, there is more to be done.
What’s most concerning to me is the public’s shifting attitude toward the pivotal role news outlets play as a public service. This seems to be eroding, and I think it will have far-reaching implications for the industry.
How do you continue to do journalism in such a tough market?
To me, this is a question about priorities. Adequate and reliable income, playing a watchdog role, family commitments, public service and maintaining a work-life balance—these are all issues reporters must prioritize. It’s a personal decision, and I sympathize with those who struggle with it.
For me, taking risks on jobs and being willing to pursue unconventional reporting opportunities has paid off. And despite market uncertainty, nothing compares to the gratification of doing impact journalism.
Tell us about the most interesting story you have covered?
One of the most interesting stories I’ve covered is the ongoing debate over the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. It was an engineering marvel when it was built 65 years ago, yet it poses such an enormous risk to an area and ecosystem that Michigan residents take seriously—the Great Lakes. It’s been fascinating to see how residents, politicians and others approach Line 5’s risk. Politics continue to prevent any meaningful action, and it will be interesting to follow the next phase of Line 5: Shutting it down or tunneling it below ground.
What’s the newest approach you are bringing to the Energy News Network?
We’ve been experimenting with shorter-form stories recently as a way to engage readers. I think it’s an effective way to reach a wider audience and also an efficient approach to storytelling.
Anything else people should know about you?
I made my National Public Radio debut this year appearing on Science Friday. Being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air would be a sort of high-water mark for me. I’d probably retire after that.
Read Energy News Network stories by Andy Balaskovitz.
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