GUEST BLOG: Watershed Investigations - independent not-for-profit environmental journalism
Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea, founders of Watershed Investigations, write about the experience of establishing, running and funding their award-winning investigative journalism non-profit, and discuss their relationship with PINF as their fiscal sponsor.
READ ALSO: For more on fiscal sponsorship, read PINF Executive Director Jonathan Heawood's companion blogpost.
Rachel and Leana after winning the Royal Society Audio Award at the Association of British Science Writers' Awards.
Watershed Investigations is an investigative journalism non-profit, which publishes public interest, water-focused stories in the mainstream media. Watershed is the brainchild of environmental investigative journalists Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea. It was born out of our frustration at the lack of coverage of the water crisis, the issue of our time and the gutting of investigative journalism in the mainstream media.
Between us we have three decades of experience in journalism. Rachel is a leading environmental journalist with a decade covering the full spectrum of environmental issues. She was Deputy Editor at The Ends Report, where she hosted their podcast and also wrote for the Guardian. Rachel has broken a raft of exclusive stories, including the locations of England’s hazardous waste landfills, spikes in toxic chemicals in rivers, the crash in Environment Agency water quality monitoring (to the fury and dismay of agency whistleblowers), to name just a few. I’ve been a BBC journalist for 18 years in international news, which saw me covering the Egyptian revolution from day one in Tahrir Square, to tracking down rhino poachers in Mozambique, and reporting on the war in Ukraine.
But rumbling beneath many of these big news stories are environmental problems that deserve more attention. After securing a Knight Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan to study water issues and making my documentary feature, ‘Thirst For Justice’, I pivoted to focus on water. This is when I came across a great article Rachel had written and suggested we collaborate on a project. We soon realised that we shared the same vision and set up Watershed Investigations.
Water is at the nexus of climate change, public health, nature, and economic and social stability. The impacts of the climate crisis are principally felt through the absence or presence of water - drought, flood, wild weather, sea level rise - and widespread pollution is rampant as a result of unchecked poor land management.
Yet water issues are under-reported and mainstream media’s investigative departments have been severely downsized, compromising the challenging reporting necessary for a thriving democracy. Watershed Investigations steps into these breaches to provide rigorous and unflinching coverage across mainstream media, in all formats, of the causes and consequences of the linked water, climate and biodiversity crises. Watershed Investigations launched in January 2023 and our work has already made front pages, national broadcast news and has provoked policymakers into action where there has been inaction.
Investigative journalism takes time and money that increasingly big media outlets are downsizing on to save costs. But as a fully funded non-profit we can spend the necessary time trawling data, collecting samples for lab analysis, and looking for evidence to create high impact journalism. We do not have an agenda, unlike NGOs, and our track record means we’ve been able to work with top experts. So far our work has featured in most UK newspapers, Sky TV and ITV News, and our first radio documentary for BBC Radio 4, Britain’s Dark Waters, won an Association of British Science Writers Awards.
PINF’s role as our fiscal sponsor is essential to our work. Their support is needed to enable us to receive grant funding and they also provide that extra layer of oversight to hold us to account. PINF is an added assurance to our funders of our transparency and integrity. Their knowledge of the media industry means they understand journalism standards and the work that we do. We regularly report to PINF and they provide introductions and connections to their network of journalists and experts. PINF has been very mindful that we’re a small start up with a big task. So the admin demands are not onerous and the contract was straight forward. We pay a percentage of our funds raised to cover the costs of this oversight and support, which is in line with the regular charges of similar organisations in the USA.
PINF has enabled us to achieve what we set out to do. I’m particularly proud of our first investigation, where we uncovered the scale of ‘forever chemical’ pollution across Europe, in partnership with the Guardian and 18 European publications as part of the Forever Pollution Project. We had a frontpage three day series in the Guardian, featured in their podcast, and had numerous follow-up stories, including in the Daily Mail and Sky.
PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’ do not break down in the environment and many are known to be toxic. It is a big issue in the US, but until our investigation broke in February, there was very little coverage and almost no action by water companies and regulators to understand and tackle the contamination in the UK.
Our work has raised public awareness, with PFAS trending on twitter on day one and government agencies have made a number of statements on it. We were even the subject of the Defra blog Coverage of PFAS chemicals and our contacts tell us that our work has led to the creation of a raft of PFAS working groups and an immediate focus on tackling PFAS on the part of Defra and the Environment Agency. Our data is being reused in 10 research projects, including a major EU soil pollution project.
Shining a light on the critical water issues we all face and what can be done about them is what Rachel and I are passionate about and PINF has helped us to realise our goals.