after deadline with brian todd logo

If you count the number of words in the average Post Bulletin story, my guess is you'd find they are generally about 400 words. Some are bigger. Some smaller. 

This weekend, you'll be treated (it's already up online) to 2,994 words about agriculture, environmental regulations and the battlefront between the two. 

Well, it's not always a battle. 

Anyway, around the newsroom it's what we call the Weekend Focus. 

My Turn, My Turn!

We all take turns writing them. Some folks (I think) dread their turn. Not that they don't love the finished product, but the process can be daunting.

Think up a topic. Come up with three story ideas for that topic. Think about art, charts, graphs, graphics, photos, data tables. Do all this while also writing your regularly scheduled news stories (those 400-word pieces). 

Truth be told, I love writing the Weekend Focus. 

You get to dig into a topic, really learn something, really tell a story and share it with the readers. What's not to love about that? Part of me wishes that's all I did, find big topics and tell stories about them. 

I'm Back With More Cows

This weekend's focus started a couple of months ago when I was speaking to Ben Daley and Shelly DePestel, owners and operators at Daley Farms in Lewiston. The MPCA had just decided to inventory potential greenhouse gas emissions from their proposed expansion project. This is something new in Minnesota feedlot regulations. 

One of them, I forget which, suggested I talk to a guy named Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science and environment at the University of California-Davis. 

Emerald Springs farm

The cows were welcoming at Emerald Spring Dairy in far northern Winona County on Feb. 7. (Brian Todd / btodd@postbulletin.com)

"Who?" I asked. I'd never heard of him. Plus, off the tops of their heads, Ben and Shelly couldn't pronounce or spell his last name. 

"He has a blog called the 'Greenhouse Gas Guru,'" one of them said. 

Well, sometime in December I tracked down Mitloehner, spent about an hour interviewing him and then looked at what I had and thought, "What am I going to do with this?" 

Truth be told, as fascinating a conversation as it was, it didn't fit into any sort of daily coverage I might do, and it wasn't a match for anything on my immediate radar. What it was, I realized, is a piece of the puzzle for how environmental regulations impact agriculture and how agriculture feels about some of these regulations. 

Too Much Information

That interview with Mitloehner was just the tip of the iceberg. And what an iceberg it was. I had about 900 words of notes from that conversation. Another 800 from a talk about greenhouse gases with a environmental researcher from the MPCA. I spent a few hours out at a dairy farm east of Plainview talking to a dairy family. 

There were studies to read and data collected by the state. I had a long talk with two ladies who worked on a report about nitrates and cancer — and how large swaths of Minnesota, in their opinions, were at risk. That was 900 words. I called county soil and water conservation district directors in three local counties. The past president of Minnesota Milk and I talked about methane.

If I wrote about 2,994 words, I easily collected twice that, probably more, from interviews alone. And, I'm certain, there's probably a piece of the story — one of those three stories, plus the 500-word sidebar — that's missing. 

This is quality journalism, folks

Still, it's a lot of work. So why do we do it? 

Well, it's part of the job. The Grand Poobah Editor (and the ones who came before him) all think this is the type of thing that will get people to hunker down on a Saturday morning with a fat newspaper and a cup of coffee. And they're right, of course. 

Weekend Focuses generally produce some of the better-read articles we publish each week. We collect data from online readership and one of the big winners is still Pat Ruff's Weekend Focus about Caledonia football.

My own list of top stories according to the internet stats is littered with Weekend Focus pieces. A couple from my look at rural grocery stores: the story about property taxes and Pasquale's Neighborhood Pizzeria. I'm guessing a discussion of dairies, greenhouse gases and climate change will draw some attention as well. 

And if you find this all interesting, then, yep, it's totally worth the effort.

Regional Reporter Brian Todd covers Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties along with some cities in Olmsted County. In the After Deadline column every Thursday, he shares behind-the-scenes tales from the newsroom.

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