Garret Ellison, a reporter for MLive and The Grand Rapids Press, today was named winner of PNRC’s 2018 Public Notice Journalism Award. Ellison won for a series of stories about an application submitted to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) by Nestle Waters North America to pump more groundwater from a local well. He is the first reporter in the history of the PNRC contest to be awarded for a story revealing the inadequacy of government website notice.
Ellison will receive a $500 award and a trip to Washington, D.C., where he will be honored at a special March 15 dinner at the National Press Club.
MDEQ asked the public for comments about Nestle’s application in a notice published on its own website in mid-September, 2016. The proposal would have allowed the multinational corporation to increase the amount of groundwater it pumps from a well in Osceola County by 167 percent. For the first 41 days it was posted on the MDEQ website, the notice attracted no public attention or comments — not even from an environmental organization that has for many years fought Nestle in court to reduce the amount of water the company can withdraw from Michigan wells.
When Ellison first discovered the notice, the comment window on Nestle’s application was scheduled to close soon. Within the first three days after his original story was published on Oct. 31, 2016, MDEQ had received 3,000 comments and the public outcry over the proposal forced it to extend the comment period and schedule a public hearing. By April of the following year, MDEQ Director Heidi Grether said she had personally received over 35,000 emails about the proposal.
“Was this advertised and noticed in a way it should have been? Probably not, it appears to me,” Grether said, responding to a question Ellison asked during a conference presentation about a month after his story first brought wide public attention to Nestle’s plan.
“If it wasn’t for Garret Ellison’s dogged, shoe-leather reporting, this story almost certainly would not have been brought to light,” said PNRC President Brad Thompson, president and CEO of Detroit Legal News Publishing. “The citizens of Michigan would have learned about it after Nestle’s application had been approved with no public input. How many other stories like this have been buried because a public notice was published on a page on a government website that nobody visits?”
In a strong year for entries in the contest, three other reporters were awarded honorable mentions. Cody Griesel of The Newkirk (Okla.) Herald Journal; Brian Hunhoff of the Yankton County (S.D.) Observer; and Jim Lockwood of The Scranton (Penn.) Times-Tribune, were all honored for superior public notice reporting.
Griesel wrote about the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) plan to conduct outdoor testing at an abandoned campus in Newkirk, Okla., that would have included a “low-level release of inert chemical and biological simulate materials.” His original story ran at the top of the front page of the Herald Journal in the first issue the paper published after DHS officials contacted it to submit a public notice about the testing. DHS ultimately canceled its plan after being confronted with the public outcry raised by Griesel’s reporting, which included several follow-up stories about the fallout over the announcement.
Hunhoff’s “In a Minutes Notice” series was explicitly designed to demonstrate the importance of the news and information shared in public notices. His articles about official salaries, budget priorities, property sales and other municipal matters were drawn from hundreds of government meeting minutes published as notices in the Observer and in newspapers in other small towns in South Dakota. With a dash of humor and colorful notes about the meetings, Hunhoff brought the otherwise dry notices to life.
Lockwood’s name is familiar to anyone who follows public notice reporting. In addition to winning PNRC’s Public Notice Journalism Award in 2015 and placing second in last year’s contest, Lockwood has won the public notice category in the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association’s annual journalism contest every year since it was first included in the competition in 2014. This year’s entry from Lockwood consisted of 11 articles fleshing out the significance of various municipal notices published in the Times-Tribune, including those reporting on an annual tax sale, a sewer authority permit renewal, and local government plans to spend millions of dollars in annual federal block grant money.
Serving as the judges in this year’s contest were Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association and a member of the PNRC Board of Directors; Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association; and Mike Scogin, publisher and editor of Georgetown (Ky.) Newspapers, Inc.
The Public Notice Journalism Award was established in 2013 by the Public Notice Resource Center, a consortium of newspaper organizations supporting public notice. The award is intended to encourage journalists to incorporate public notices into their reporting.