2015 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner
Douglas Fox received the 2015 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes “a journalist for a feature story or series in any medium except books that makes information about the Earth and space sciences accessible and interesting to the general public.”
Douglas Fox spent the first 8 years of his journalism career writing about biology before turning to Earth science in 2007, during a 7–week reporting trip to West Antarctica. He hadn’t been formally exposed to the Earth sciences, but that trip reawakened his old interests, nurtured as a youngster roaming the naked landscapes of Arizona, Colorado, and the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico.
Doug strives to spend time immersed with researchers in the field—whether on a ship at sea, in a tent on a polar ice sheet, or traversing the Basin and Range in the American West—gathering hundreds of pages of notes on the tiny, telling details that can bring a story to life: the cream cheese texture of deep–sea mud, the rotten–egg stench of petroleum in stone, or the way that a rock hammer serves as the sensory proboscis of a geologist. Doug often writes about things that seem mundane—dust or ice or precariously balanced rocks—but hidden in these minutiae, he somehow finds expansive stories that change how we see the world around us.
The feature for which Doug won the Walter Sullivan Award, “The Dust Detectives” (High Country News, 22 December 2014), grew out of an interest that germinated over a period of years. Doug first spent time with dust researchers in 2011, exploring the unseen biosphere of airborne microbes and their possible role in rainfall. He published a pair of stories with Discover and Science News for Students in 2012 but felt that there remained something larger to be explored: the connection between the microcosm of a single dust speck and the great, global commerce of these invisible particles that shapes our world.
With his painstakingly precise and thorough reporting and artist’s eye for detail, Doug performed a sort of journalistic alchemy. In his hands, dust is no longer the idle bits drifting in beams of light, but a powerful, almost magic–seeming force that shapes ecosystems in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. Conveying the importance of microscopic and macroscopic worlds beyond our senses is no easy task, and yet Doug manages to bring it all into solid, intricate focus, enticing readers with a story that ranges from Kurt Vonnegut to the Silk Road and with vivid portraits of the far–off places that shape our own, including mountain ranges that themselves seem almost alive in their animation through geologic time.
—Jodi Peterson, High Country News, Paonia, Colo.
I’m honored to receive the Walter Sullivan award, and happy, for many reasons, to see this particular story garner that recognition (“The Dust Detectives,” High Country News, 22 December 2014).
I had envisioned writing this story for 2 years—and had a sense that there was something large to be said. But that alone does not guarantee that a story will turn out well. The distance from an idea to words printed on the page is long, and making that journey requires that you depend on others.
I’m grateful for the generosity of those people whom I interviewed and visited while working on this story between 2011 and 2014. You were probably surprised by the number of conversations this entailed, and the sheer number of hours spent talking. It might have felt excessive and exhausting. But those long hours almost always make a story better. In the case of this story, I recall one tired conversation that happened at 8:00 p.m. in a hotel bar, after a long day in the lab. That conversation transpired in November 2011—and spawned what would become an entire section in the story published in December 2014, tracing an important thread of history from Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut in the 1940s through to the present day.
I want to thank High Country News not just for giving me the chance to write this story but simply for being the magazine, the organization, and the people that you are. I enjoy working with you. And I deeply respect your commitment to storytelling, and to providing the resources, the patient thought, and the space on a page that this requires.
And I want to thank Sarah Gilman, who edited me from beginning to end. Some stories come out well–crystallized the first time around, and the editing is straightforward. This was not one of those stories. The idea was there but required plenty of chiseling, honing, and generous use of the delete key to bring it out. It was Sarah who took a patient interest in the story and worked with me for 6 months, through countless rounds of suggestions and questions. That process can be exhausting, grating, and painful. But in this rare case it was painless—a partnership with someone whom I’d never met face to face but came to trust and respect. Thank you, Sarah! I enjoyed working with you.
—Douglas Fox, Freelance Writer, Alameda, Calif.