A protest sign placed near the Sterigenics plant warns individuals of ethylene oxide pollution in Smyrna on August 2, 2019. Georgia Health News and WebMD broke the story about medical sterilization plants in Cobb and Newton counties releasing ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: How new media generation makes extra! extra! inroads

Crowds of angry residents gathered this week in Cobb and Newton counties, concerned that they and their children may have been poisoned by cancer-causing gases released by nearby industrial plants.

The plants, which sterilize medical equipment, release ethylene oxide. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added that substance to a list of known carcinogens. Last year, EPA found 100-plus census tracts across the nation — including three here — with elevated cancer risks, presumably caused by ethylene oxide.

The feds, however, decided not to issue a press release. Nor did the state.

Gov. Brian Kemp said he learned of all this in late July, adding, “The results are confusing, the news coverage is frightening, and the public has been left in the dark.”

The story was a bombshell. But news of this outrage, the light being shined here, did not originally emanate from newspapers or TV stations — the legacy media, if you will.

Instead, a couple of relative newbies broke this one — a team effort by Georgia Health News and WebMD.

WebMD is an online health news publisher and Georgia Health is basically a one-man band made up of Andy Miller, a reporter who left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 10 years ago as newspapers across the country took it on the chin and shed veterans in a search for solvency.

In the ensuing years, refugees from newspapers found themselves toiling for nonprofits and universities, peddling PR, and forming fledgling news services on a wing and a prayer.

And many of them find themselves filling in the gaps left when the bigger players try to do more with less.

Stop Sterigenics Georgia President Janet Rau explains why the group is hoping to get the Atlanta plant shutdown. Stop Sterigenics Georgia is an organization that is concerned about the Ethylene Oxide pollution that the Sterigenics plant is producing in the area. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Former AJC business columnist Maria Saporta came up with the Saporta Report, which has a stable of contributors for local news.

Miller, now in his mid-60s, tried freelancing after his buyout. But ultimately he decided to be his own boss and focus on health care stories that weren’t getting coverage, or weren’t getting enough.

He was no spring chicken, but with encouragement from his wife he absorbed some technical skills and founded the online news org Georgia Health. He partners with newspapers for stories but survives on sponsorships, foundation grants, and individual donations.

“We’re the NPR model. We’re not selling Crest toothpaste,” Miller told me. “There’s no road map for this. We’re always wondering what’ll happen six months to a year from now.”

So far, it has been nine years.

Andy Miller started Georgia Health News after a buyout from the AJC. (photo: Courtesy of Andy Miller)
Photo: Courtesy of Andy Miller

Dan Whisenhunt, 38, similarly runs a news service called Decaturish, a small-town newspaper that exists on the internet.

Six years ago, Whisenhunt, then a reporter for a small metro newspaper chain, started blogging about where he lived. “I noticed there wasn’t a lot of in-depth coverage of Decatur,” he said.

Whisenhunt then left his paying gig and bet on himself. It helped that his wife had a job with benefits. “I could roll the dice and take a shot. If I had to pay for health insurance, I don’t know if I could do this,” he said.

The Decatur area was primed for his small, lean news operation. The population is youngish, educated, has money and is interested in its community.

Asked about the city government, he chuckled. “It’s Club Decatur,” he said. “When I came here, all they had was Decatur Focus,” a publication put out by the city. “It was years of them saying how great they were.”

However, the city’s pols and bureaucrats have accepted Decaturish. “They have to deal with it,” he said. “They know people read it.”

Dan Whisenhunt started the Website Decaturish five years ago. (photo: Courtesy of Dan Whisenhunt)
Photo: Courtesy of Dan Whisenhunt

And Decaturish is not all Decatur. This week, Whisenhunt released a deeply reported, records-based story about Avondale’s city government and a feud with its former city manager. Currently, he’s wrestling with the government of the relatively new city of Tucker concerning what he must pay for some city emails under an open records request.

Remember, Decaturish doesn’t have deep pockets. But Whisenhunt is considering expanding his orbit to places such as Tucker because it would mean more stories, more readers, and possibly more advertising. And more work.

“When I’m doing a story, I ask: ‘Is this useful to people?’” said Whisenhunt, whose operation pulls in over six digits in revenue, netting him what a small-town reporter would make.

Anyway, he’s all in. “If this doesn’t work out,” he said, “I’ll go into teaching.”

Max Blau, another youngish journalist in Atlanta, has worked with Creative Loafing, Atlanta Magazine and STAT (a science and medicine site). And yet, he has seen his job disappear or has jumped to another job sensing that it would.

For his generation of journalists, that instability is expected, he said.

Max Blau. Photo by Dustin Chambers
Photo: Dustin Chambers

Blau, who now freelances, came up with the Pittsburgh Journalism Project. Pittsburgh is a historically black neighborhood just south of downtown that has been besieged by poverty, crime, mortgage fraud and general desperation for a couple of generations.

Blau reasoned that outsiders (including yours truly) can’t capture the on-the-ground feel of residents there. So he got a grant from the Center for Civic Innovation and had three local residents dig into their community. His innovative approach gives some Pittsburgh residents a crash-course in journalism, then turns them loose.

In July, the AJC gave Blau’s program some front-page love as the residents wrote about the aftermath of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, in which teachers and administrators corrected answers on students’ standardized tests to make it appear they were doing better than they were. Pittsburgh was ground zero in this mess.

Chandra Harper-Gallashaw, who resided in Pittsburgh for 10 years, lived across the street from the now-closed Parks Middle School. “Ten years later, people were still looking for answers, still looking at solutions,” she said.

For 10 years, Chandra Harper-Gallashaw lived across the street from the now-closed Parks Middle School in the Pittsburgh community. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

School officials and administrators “never looked back at us,” she said. “Never said they were sorry. Where are the kids now? We haven’t forgotten about them like the world has.”

Harper-Gallashaw laughed when I asked about the process of reporting. She was surprised by the diligence required, the fact-checking, the research — not to mention having a cop escort her from a school property when she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

“Getting people to talk with you is hard,” she said. “I was good at that, until I told them I was a reporter.”

Welcome to the club.

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