Members Helping Members: SEJ’s Mentor Program

January 15, 2013

SEJ News


Amidst the chaotic din of the first Occupy Portland protest in 2011, Bill Lascher focused on contributing coverage of the event to the Portland Mercury's live blog. Photo by Yasmeen Hanoosh

When Bill Lascher, a freelance writer and multimedia storyteller based in Portland, Ore, first struck out on his own in 2009, he was eager to find a mentor. “I'd seen how much friends and family in other professions benefited from mentorships, and I was hungry for the same sort of engagement, especially as I tried to steer my career without the support one gets from a team of professional colleagues,” Lascher recalled.

“After lots of what I now realize was inexplicable hesitation, I joined SEJ and reached out to the mentor program,” he said. “Almost immediately, they put me in touch with Valerie Brown.” A fellow science writer, Brown lives only an hour away from Lascher in Salem.

Lascher read some of Brown’s work and “was excited by the way she weaves clear explanations and compelling storylines together. Her work makes complex topics simultaneously informative and compelling. It was the kind of storytelling I'd gone to school for, but I wasn't doing much of it.”

Like most of SEJ’s one-on-one mentoring partnerships, this one began with phone conversations and email threads. “We rapidly progressed through the minimal set of exchanges requested by the SEJ mentorship coordinators, and had several highly collegial coffee meetups,” Brown said.

At their first coffee, Lascher appreciated that Brown treated him like a colleague: “We talked about successes, but also challenges, and that openness mattered to me. Since we're both freelancers, this opportunity to support each other's penchant for long-form narrative was welcome. We could both brainstorm how to weather a tough market.”

Discovering the rewards of mentoring

During their one-year partnership, Brown helped Lascher revise pitches and stay on task with complex projects while welcoming him into the SEJ fold. “She turned me on to the community and resources available through the SEJ mailing lists and has helped me make the most of the two conferences I've attended,” he said. “She remains as interested in my opinion on her work as I am eager for the feedback she provides on mine. Nothing compels Valerie to support me like this, except for her respect for me as a fellow narrative writer who values science and wants to tell the truth while spinning a good yarn.”

At the outset of the partnership, Brown says she felt she had little to offer people at the beginning of their environmental journalism careers. “My own career has been a late bloomer, but Bill seemed to get something out of my rambling on subjects such as how to evaluate a possible opportunity if one is getting that ‘uh-oh’ feeling.”

Oregon-based freelance science writer Valerie Brown is one of 85 mentors in SEJ’s Mentor Program, which matches experienced environmental journalists with newcomers to the beat. She became Bill Lascher’s mentor in 2010 after he launched his freelance career. Photo: courtesy Valerie Brown

Like many SEJ mentors, Brown found that the rewards of mentoring go beyond good karma. “I’ve found Bill to be full of energy and enthusiasm, willing to try all kinds of new approaches and driven by big ideas, but very interested in their small-scale convolutions. So it’s been fun on my end, and reassuring to see younger writers determined to plow through the financial and ethical morass that is the new journalistic landscape.”

Their partnership officially ended a year ago, and Lascher may soon be ready to take on a “mentee” of his own. SEJ’s mentor program currently has 85 mentors enrolled, including some of the nation’s most experienced environmental journalists. It has served 170 mentees since its inception in 2002.

The program’s volunteer coordinators, freelancers Jane Braxton Little and Dawn Stover, make matches based on types of work, special interests, geographic proximity and other factors. Volunteer mentors agree to be contacted by their mentees at least four times during the year-long partnership and may be asked to critique pitches or stories, offer professional advice or act as a sounding board for special projects.

In recent years, the mentor program has received a growing number of requests for mentoring from successful freelancers and experienced investigative reporters, and has been recruiting mentors with those skills. The program recently entered into a partnership with the Fund for Investigative Journalism, with SEJ providing mentors for FEJ grantees whose projects focus on environmental issues.

SEJ also recently received funding from the Gannett Foundation to enrich the mentor program for multicultural journalists who are new to environmental journalism. This funding will provide resources for welcoming newcomers and bringing them together with mentors at the 2013 annual conference.

SEJ’s mentor program is open to all members. Joining the program as a mentor or mentee is as simple as filling out a brief online application. To ensure a successful partnership, would-be mentees are urged to be as specific as possible about what they hope to learn from a mentor. To apply, click here.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2012-13. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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