Amid the Fear and Fretting, An Idea for Journalism's Future

July 15, 2009

Each week, I am party and witness to the loss of cumulative decades of environmental journalism experience shown the door as the pink-slipping of newspaper newsrooms continues seemingly without end.

Stop there. There is no reason. No one gains, to overstate the situation. It's the slow, incessant drip-drip death-by-a-thousand cuts that is sidelining countless years of environmental journalism experience and expertise.

The painful point is that amidst the widespread newsroom carnage, years of well-established reporting expertise is in danger of going unused or, at best, under-utilized. It's the case from Seattle to Gainesville and in-between. At household-name media organizations and at the specialized feeder news outlets often earliest on the story, the losses continue.

Try calling a daily newspaper reporter you know well but haven't spoken to in a few months. Open with the casual throwaway "How are you doing?" or "How have you been?" greeting.

The silence can be telling. The question has new meaning, however unintended, in today's mainstream newsrooms under unrelenting threat of "down-sizing," "out-sourcing."

Amidst the cacophony of journalism chaos and reporters fretting, and rightly so, about their personal futures, things like "10 Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist" – clearly aimed at nonjournalism employers – become staples on journalism listserves. The latest bloodletting of reporters and editors becomes the stuff of web site and listserv navel-gazing.

Worthy and important ideas surface and resurface, ad infinitum. Calls for a journalism summit — what can we do about this journalism mess we find ourselves in — raise hope. But not until scores more jobs, and perhaps entire news outlets, bite the dust, and more decades of reporting expertise head elsewhere.

So, what to do when hand-wringing alone is not sufficient? What to do — not in 2010 or 2011, but now — about the undone stories we'll never know we've missed, the snipping of frail threads supporting an informed citizenry?

More talk, more navel-gazing, more planning for a summit…they're all needed. But alone, and even in combination, they're just not enough. Along with the fretting and commiserating, we need action. Acting now to salvage some of what we'll otherwise lose from recent pink slips and whatever else lurks around the next corner.

Take climate change, as an example. The issue, of course, is a personal hobby horse of mine over the past few years. The foremost environmental/economic development/national security issue of the century, we're told and have often told ourselves. And with the Obama administration and leading congressional politicians moving forward on an action plan in advance of a (we're told) seminal December 2009 Copenhagen conference, the time is now for intense journalistic attention.

So picture this, as just one potential future journalistic model, one I hope that can attract credible independent foundation funding, for SEJ or a collaboration of journalism partners…anyone who can make it happen:

We establish a climate change news syndicate, consisting initially of, let's say, a dozen outstanding, but recently laid-off, experienced environmental journalists, all with some impressive level of competency in reporting on climate science and policy. Through a grant, we would commission those 12 individuals to write a set number – let's say eight, to start – of regionally and locally based climate impact stories. One every six or seven weeks perhaps. These would be original reporting pieces, reflecting incisive sourcing built from each individual's own years of experience on the story.

Each reporter who is part of this de facto climate news syndicate would be fairly, but handsomely, compensated for the effort. What's a fair rate of an 800-word news story? $1,000? $1,200 maybe?

Once reported, written, and edited, the author of each of these reports is next charged with helping the syndicator — SEJ? My own Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media?Acombination of these and/or others would place the piece in a prominent local news outlet. Perhaps the pink-slipped reporter's own prior employer, given the continuing goodwill presumed to exist in at least some of these instances.

There's more. The reporter then is charged with going the local talk-show route in her or his circulation area, talking up the original report just played so prominently in the local media. Here too, there's compensation: Reporters succeeding in conducting such on-air interviews are further rewarded, beyond the original price for their work.

Okay. It addresses "only" climate change. And it doesn't make up for the lost job security, or the health care coverage, for the retirement plans and paid vacation leave. It's not meant to.

Instead, it's meant to help those displaced but outstanding reporters buy time. It's meant to help them continue doing what only they can do well in their communities: provide honest, factbased independent journalism on a pressing local, regional, national and international story needing badly to be told.

And it's meant to continue providing the public what it most needs at a time when it most needs it, pink-slipping notwithstanding.

A good idea? Some merits? None? Have at it. Make it better. Pan it entirely. But let's not do nothing; hand-wringing alone simply is not enough.

Let's not let the next announcement of more newsroom layoffs – and those inevitably still to come after that next one – generate only more hand-wringing and soul-searching. Let's greet such bad news, instead, with a resolve to act, to do something and not merely fret about what a shame.

Party. And witness. As the latter, I cannot be excused for long before becoming complicit – before becoming, in effect, party to the newsroom bloodbaths. I can only be witness for so long before I must accept the blame and guilt of having become party…and therefore complicit. And you?

Bud Ward is an independent journalist, educator and founder/ former editor of Environment Writer. He is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue.


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