Setting 'gold standard' in environmental reporting: Traverse City-based AP reporter leaves legacy

Sep. 17—TRAVERSE CITY — Standing in front of a faded Michigan road map, veteran journalist John Flesher reminisced.

This state has been "home" for almost 35 years, after Flesher moved from Washington, D.C., to Traverse City to work as a regional reporter covering the state of Michigan for The Associated Press.

"My initial thought was 'Michigan? — I don't know anything about Michigan, except they made cars, and that was about all I knew'," Flesher said. "But it was a way to get my foot in the door in Washington... I was hoping to do that for a few years and maybe get moved over to the national staff and get a beat of some kind."

But, like the saying goes, life is what happens while you're making other plans.

After a few years of covering the Wolverine state from D.C., Flesher and his wife Sharon "sort of switched gears and decided we didn't want to be career Washingtonians" and agreed to move somewhere else to start a family.

In the spring of 1992 they relocated to Traverse City, where Flesher established a home base within the Record-Eagle newsroom.

Here, he covered some of the biggest news stories in Michigan, throughout the country and beyond.

From tromping through deep snows to report on Michigan's wolf and moose populations, to the deep waters of Lake Superior to view the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Flesher's reporting and writing skills told of thousands of Michigan people, places and issues over his 43-year career, which concluded with his Aug. 30 retirement.

A Southerner comes north

Flesher, 65, was born in Hartsville, S.C., before his family moved to North Carolina, where he grew up in Goldsboro. He attended North Carolina State University where he graduated with honors and a degree in English, and remains an avid Wolfpack fan to this day. He was the editor at of the student newspaper there and joined his hometown paper, the Goldsboro News-Argus, in 1980 where he spent two years covering county, police and court news.

He joined AP in 1981 as a reporter/editor at its Raleigh office where he covered a wide range of topics including crime and courts, agriculture (including the tobacco industry), hurricanes, the state Legislature and sports.

He was promoted to work as the AP's Chief State House reporter in 1985 where he spent the next four years. In 1989, he married Sharon, who worked for a rival news service, United Press International.

Soon after, they moved to Washington when Flesher took on the Michigan regional reporter post, where his job revolved around covering legislative and regulatory actions that impacted Michigan's auto industry. He also was responsible for reporting on election campaigns and Michigan's congressional delegation.

His beat included covering the Great Lakes and environmental issues across the Upper Midwest — seeds that would sprout into the most impactful and highest profile reporting of his career.

Flesher's move to northern Michigan came with a job as an AP solo correspondent, replacing Paige St. John, to cover Michigan-based stories that generated national interest.

"I talked it over with my wife and basically concluded that if I was going to give up on Washington — which I thought would be my career — if I was going to do that, I wanted to do something pretty different," he said. "I didn't want to go back and cover a state House again. And in AP terms, this place was pretty sharply different ... Frankly, Traverse City sounded pretty exotic. It got pretty cold and there was a lot of snow. It seemed exciting, honestly."

His territory stretched from Ludington to north of Saginaw Bay, plus northern Michigan and the U.P. — basically half the state.

It didn't take long for Flesher to settle in. He enjoyed his early travels across the region, especially to the Upper Peninsula where he'd stay a week at a time to report on people and places, from the old copper mines to Cornish pasties to protecting Michigan's moose, wolf and bat populations.

"It was absolutely fascinating ... I really enjoyed it."

Call of the wild

Flesher's career took another turn in the late 1990s, when the AP encouraged its field reporters to develop specialized areas of expertise. He attended a weeklong environmental reporting workshop at Michigan State University in 1997 and said "a light bulb went off."

"I thought, 'I can do this — I can do the environment'," Flesher said. "That's what sort of made me think that I can make the environment my beat."

From there, Flesher found no shortage of topics, He recalled the drastic drop in Great Lakes water levels that impacted communities throughout the Midwest in the late '90s, hindering both recreational boating and commercial shipping. He reported on invasive species, including the zebra and quagga mussels infiltrating the Great Lakes and damaging its food chain.

He reported on some of the early efforts to divert water from the Great Lakes, which eventually led to the creation of the Great Lakes Compact signed by the eight border states that took effect in December 2008.

"I just jumped on that and started following it for years," he said. "And, somewhere along the line, I realized that AP had no reporter who was reporting on the Great Lakes in their entirety as one ecological system ... and I decided that was going to be my beat, my baby."

Longtime source Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water, said working with Flesher through the years has been a pleasure and an honor.

"I describe myself as a super fan," she said. "John sets the gold standard for environmental reporting."

Flesher is one of few reporters she's encountered who has an understanding of the science, legislation and nuances of some of the most important debates regarding the Great Lakes.

"John was tireless and so curious about every imaginable issue," Kirkwood said. "He would always do the most thorough job that you could wish for."

Flesher's reporting was groundbreaking on efforts to prevent the Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and, at that point, he realized that reporting on one of the world's largest sources of fresh water would shape the rest of his career.

"I felt sort of a sense of mission to help people understand what the Great Lakes were, why they're unique, and why they matter — because they really do," he said.

Part of the team

Flesher further bolstered his environmental reporting skills when he took a yearlong sabbatical from the AP in 2002 to accept a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

He returned to Traverse City in 2003 and, by 2005, was given the specialist byline Of "Ap Environmental Writer" In Recognition Of His Expertise In The Field.

In 2009, he was named to AP's national environmental reporting team to develop high-impact enterprise stories on the environment with other AP reporters across the country.

AP editor Tim Reiterman, who has worked with Flesher since 2009, said, "John had already established himself as a really first-grade environmental reporter at the AP over a period of years. He was extremely experienced and I was just thrilled to have him join us."

A year later, Flesher and members of his team went to the Gulf of Mexico to cover BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and spill, one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. The team earned the prestigious AP Managing Editors Award for its work on the catastrophe.

Reiterman said Flesher proved himself as not just an incredible reporter, but also an amazing photographer during that project.

"He really showed what he could do during the Gulf spill," he said. "Everybody wanted to work with John because he brought these finely honed journalistic skills and encyclopedic knowledge of environmental issues and the natural world."

Those are skills that permeated Flesher's entire career with the AP environmental beat staff, Reiterman said, noting that he will truly be missed in his retirement.

Looking ahead, Flesher said he has many writing projects in mind, including possibly a fiction piece. He plans to keep calling the Great Lakes region home, and exploring Michigan's natural world with family and friends.

"To write well is incredibly hard, but I love it and can't imagine doing anything else," he said. "And I'm extremely grateful to be able to earn my living and have a career as a journalist, and I'm very grateful to the AP for giving me the chance to do that."