The Water Desk is an independent news initiative dedicated to increasing the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. The Water Desk is based at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and its Center for Environmental Journalism (CEJ), which is part of the College of Media, Communication and Information.
The Water Desk will work with journalists and media outlets to strengthen their water-related coverage and expand its reach. We will also produce our own content, help train the next generation of water journalists, engage with the community to inform water reporting and pursue innovative approaches to storytelling.
In short, The Water Desk will operate as a small news organization that also provides resources, training and other support to journalists, media outlets and students so that the public and policymakers are better informed about water issues.
The CEJ was established in 1992 by the Journalism and Mass Communication program at CU Boulder to enrich public understanding of environmental issues by elevating the quality, range and depth of coverage by journalists. The CEJ does this by helping seasoned and emerging journalists enhance their knowledge of the scientific, economic, political and social aspects of these issues.
The CEJ focuses on the professional development of working journalists, student education and research on media, environment and society. To that end, the Scripps Fellowships serve as a linchpin, bringing working journalists to campus for a full academic year. For students, the CEJ offers a master's degree with an emphasis in environmental journalism as well as a doctoral community for students interested in researching media and the environment, media and scientific communication, risk communication and corollary fields.
The Water Desk will strengthen water journalism in a variety of ways:
- Support for journalists: The Water Desk will provide funding, training and other resources to journalists and media outlets that cover Western water issues.
- Original content: Coverage of water issues produced by The Water Desk itself will emphasize data, multimedia, explanatory and solutions-oriented journalism.
- Education and community engagement: The Water Desk will work with students, the CU News Corps, as well others beyond the campus to advance learning and to engage the community on Western water issues.
The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from a two-year, $700,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation. As a journalistic effort, The Water Desk maintains a strict editorial firewall between its content and funders. Likewise, The Water Desk has editorial independence from CU Boulder.
Funders of The Water Desk cannot specify how The Water Desk and its partners cover a story, nor can they influence the outcome of that reporting. This editorial firewall erects a barrier between The Water Desk’s financial supporters and the initiative’s journalism. The Water Desk will be transparent about what entities are supporting the initiative and it will disclose any potential conflicts of interest. As discussed below, The Water Desk’s grantmaking program for journalists follows the same principles: funders have no right of review and no influence on stories or other journalistic content that is produced with the support of these grants.
The Water Desk is a journalism initiative that abides by the norms outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. SPJ’s code is based on the following principles:
- Seek truth and report it: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Minimize harm: Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
- Act independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
- Be accountable and transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one's work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
As a member of the CU Boulder community, The Water Desk also abides by the university’s rules, regulations, ethical standards and Code of Conduct. The following summary is excerpted from the university’s Ethics and Compliance Plan:
At the University of Colorado Boulder, our vision is to be a leader in addressing the humanitarian, social and technological challenges of the twenty-first century. Underpinning this vision is our commitment to the highest ethical standards in all that we do. Inspired by our students’ Colorado Creed, we commit to act with integrity, courage, and respect. These values are reinforced by our Inclusive Excellence Initiative and our identity is defined by respect for diversity and inclusivity. To that end, we restate our values as follows:
- Integrity/Accountability: we are all responsible for our conduct, relationships, and interactions with colleagues, students and the broader university community in creating a climate of inclusive excellence.
- Collaboration: foster partnerships across the campus community, value diverse perspectives, interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary work, work with all campus constituents to remove barriers and solve problems.
- Innovative Thinking and Continuous Improvement: adapting to change, continuous learning, critical thinking, promoting growth of the individual and the organization.
- Engage in Effective Communication: open dialogue, listening and communication, being respectful of each other's unique backgrounds and perspectives. Ensure that key and critical information is shared within the unit and provide timely information across the campus community.
Yes. The Water Desk is seeking additional support from philanthropy and other sources so that we can build and sustain the initiative. All funders of The Water Desk will be required to abide by the editorial firewall and support journalistic independence, as described above.
The Water Desk focuses on Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin, the water source for some 40 million people and the lifeblood of a $1.4 trillion economy. Because water from the Colorado River is exported beyond the basin’s hydrologic boundaries, we are interested in stories and issues that lie outside of the watershed.
Our grantmaking program, which is detailed below, offers support to journalists who cover water issues involving the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as the borderlands of Northwest Mexico.
Budgetary constraints have forced us to narrow our focus to one part of the nation and the world, but The Water Desk is interested in broad trends related to both water and journalism that extend far beyond our host region. With additional support, The Water Desk may consider expanding its geographic focus.
For more on The Water Desk's geographic scope, see this post from Director Mitch Tobin.
Because water is intertwined with so many issues, The Water Desk is interested in journalism covering a broad spectrum of topics: climate change, biodiversity, public health, environmental justice, food, agriculture, drinking water, economics, business, recreation and more.
As described on our grants page, The Water Desk runs two grantmaking programs:
1) Micro-grants cannot exceed $1,000 and are meant to pay for discrete expenses that are necessary to produce content or advance a journalist’s professional development. Applications for micro-grants will be reviewed on a rolling basis until December 1, 2019, or until our funding for this year’s program is exhausted. We plan to make decisions on applications within one month of their submission.
2) Standard grants cannot exceed $10,000 and are meant to support significant reporting efforts that lead to the publication of content connected to Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin, as defined above. Applications for the 2019 standard grants will be accepted until July 15, 2019. We anticipate announcing recipients of the standard grants in September.
Before applying for either a micro-grant or standard grant, please ensure that you are eligible to receive funding from The Water Desk:
- Only journalists (either individuals or media outlets) may apply for funding.
- Individuals and media outlets may only submit one application per calendar year for the micro-grants and one application per calendar year for the standard grants.
- Journalists and media outlets are welcome to collaborate and submit a joint proposal. Regardless of how many journalists/outlets are part of the application, the cap on standard grants is $10,000.
- Recipients of either micro-grants or standard grants should complete the work they outline in their proposals within six months of receiving funding.
The Water Desk will support journalism that focuses on water issues involving the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as the borderlands of Northwest Mexico.
Applications for micro-grants will be reviewed on a rolling basis until December 1, 2019, or until our funding for this year’s program is exhausted. We plan to make decisions on applications within one month of their submission.
Applications for the 2019 standard grants were accepted until July 15, 2019. We will be running a similar program in 2020. To receive updates, please subscribe to our email newsletter.
It’s OK for the same journalist or outlet to receive both a micro-grant and a standard grant within a single calendar year so long as they are for different projects.
Other than providing the funding for the grants, our supporters do not have any say over the decisions related to the grants or The Water Desk’s editorial content. Funders of The Water Desk have no right of review and no influence on stories or other journalistic content that is produced with the support of these grants.
The Water Desk’s website, waterdesk.org, will host and distribute our content under a Creative Commons license, meaning that it will be free for others to use in their work.
The Water Desk is now seeking to build a collaborative network of media outlets that cross-publish content related to Western water issues. Members will be encouraged to share content, collaborate on projects, and promote one another’s work. Although The Water Desk will manage the project, facilitate sharing of content, and publish material from network members on our website.
If your media outlet is interested in joining this new network, please contact Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-330-9487.
The Water Desk partners with Lighthawk, a nonprofit that can provide free flights and allow journalists to integrate aerial reporting/footage into their work. Another partner is This American Land, a conservation news magazine that produces video segments for television stations.
If you’re interested in using either program to enhance your coverage of Western water issues, please contact Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin at email@example.com or 303-330-9487.
The Water Desk works with undergraduate and graduate students at CU Boulder. In the spring 2019 semester, we worked with Tom Yulsman’s Reporting on the Environment Class, and we began work in the summer 2019 with the CU News Corps program for explanatory and multimedia journalism. Content produced by students will appear on waterdesk.org and will be distributed to partner publications. The Water Desk is also currently working with student interns.