Dan Fagin talks Toms River, environmental reporting, cats

Dan Fagin discusses environmental journalism and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Toms River with MSU students in the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

Dan Fagin discusses environmental journalism and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Toms River with MSU students during a pizza lunch in the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Image: Anthony Cepak

By Marie Orttenburger

Dan Fagin describes epidemiology as “a very long word for a very simple thing.”

What it amounts to is connecting the dots, he said recently at a presentation about his Pulitzer prize-winning book at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Though the concept may be “simple,” the process is no small feat.

Fagin is an environmental journalist and director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. He visited MSU to discuss epidemiology and how he applied it in writing his best-selling book, “Toms River.”

Fagin's book, Toms River.

Fagin’s book, Toms River.

Fagin talked about his research and writing processes while telling the story of a New Jersey town that faced a cluster of child cancer after years of being a toxic waste dumping site.

The project is the product of a combination of frustration, fascination and obsession. Fagin wanted to achieve more depth than could be handled in news stories, and he was struck by the juxtaposition of an all-American town and the tragic health crisis inflicted upon it by industry.

“That, as a journalist, was a hard combination to resist,” Fagin said.

It sent him deep into Toms River’s history, starting him on a journey that would take seven years and 560 pages to communicate.

“My process was very chaotic,” Fagin said. He relied on list making to ensure he made tangible progress every day.

Fagin’s talk showcased his sense of humor and deft storytelling. Those qualities in his environmental writing are one of the reasons “Toms River” is so highly acclaimed.

For example, in describing the town of Toms River, he emphasized how fundamentally American the parade- and little league-loving town was.

“The people of Toms River decided ‘Washington Avenue’ wasn’t patriotic enough,” Fagin said. So they renamed their main street to “Avenue of Americanism.”

That key detail gives a light and true characterization of the town and helps set the context for the events that later occurred there—and it drew laughter.

Fagin shared more of his advice in a series of classroom visits and meetings with students. Here are excerpts of an interview where he discusses environmental journalism, his forays into book writing and his upcoming work.

How did you decide to become a journalist?

How did you start your professional journalism career?

What got you into environmental reporting?

How can one transition from writing short articles to writing longer, multiyear projects?

How do you balance factual, strong environmental reporting with entertaining storytelling?

How do you approach paying attention to your audience in environmental reporting?

What drew you to your next book topic, Monarch butterflies and biodiversity in the Anthropocene?

Your website bio claims you have a “surfeit” of cats. How much is a surfeit to you, and do they have any cool names?

Fagin’s book, “Toms River,” is available for purchase via Amazon.com.