Amid The Newsroom Wreckage, a Bit of E-Beat Hope

November 15, 2008

President's Report


I've never lived on the West Coast, but I think I know now what it feels like to survive a major earthquake. This past summer, my newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, slashed its newsroom staff, then redesigned the paper dramatically and shrank the amount of space for news.

Newspapers have been lopping off staff and dropping features for years now, but never had there been so much upheaval in such a short time. Suddenly, a lot of familiar faces were gone – at least one in five.Where we'd had three reporters covering environmental news, now there's one. One of my colleagues left on a leave of absence for a previously planned fellowship. But the other – dismayed by the cutbacks – left the paper to work for an environmental group.

It's a sadly familiar tale these days. This news earthquake is being felt from Los Angeles to Atlanta to New York, even to Toronto. Newspapers, once the mainstay of journalism, have been drastically reduced in size and reach as their readership and profits crumble. Radio and network TV news also have been losing audience. The number of people getting their news online is growing, of course, but has yet to make up for the drop in other media.

Amid such upheaval, it's hard to feel optimistic. But strangely, I do, at least about the future of environmental journalism. Rising energy prices, bisphenol-A, climate change, green marketing – these and other environmental topics are all over the news these days. They're not eclipsing celebrity fluff, sadly, or news of war and economic woes. But the frequency with which they crop up reflects people's enduring concern about their health and the health of the planet.

Even in their earthquake crouch, many newspaper editors seem to recognize the public's hunger for news and information about the environment. While 17 percent of newspaper editors surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they had cut back on staff and space devoted to covering the environment along with many other topics, 22 percent had actually increased resources. We can only hope the others see the light – and the need.

Much of my hope for the future, though, stems from the commitment and incredible energy I see in this organization devoted to promoting the quality and visibility of environmental journalism. For all the tremors throughout the news business, SEJ remains strong. Membership is on the rise, soaring well above 1,400 through the summer despite the continuing drumbeat of newspaper staffing cuts. Free-lancers have surpassed newspaper reporters and editors as our largest group. But our membership in all categories, including broadcast, magazines, student and academic, seems to be on the rise.

It's a credit, no doubt, to the growing recognition of SEJ as the source for reporting on the environment. But it's also due at least in part to the dedicated outreach efforts of our staff and volunteer board.

Our conferences, meanwhile, just get newsier and more exciting every year. Last year's, at Stanford University, drew more than 900 attendees, a record. Registration for Roanoke looks to be strong, as well it should be. Our volunteer conference co-chairs, Ken Ward Jr. and Bill Kovarik, have overseen a small army of volunteers in crafting a meaty program that tackles the big universal themes on our beat while also casting a spotlight on a neglected region, Appalachia. But SEJ isn't taking the future for granted as the news landscape shakes and tilts. Your board of directors has been working hard to ensure that the group remains relevant and vibrant.

You're reading a product of that effort. One of the most visible changes in the past year has been the stunning, color-rich redesign of SEJournal, our quarterly newsletter. Unlike some of the facelifts newspapers have been going through lately, this one enhances a truly substantive publication, with more useful features and information in it than ever.

It's taken a bit longer to revamp SEJ'sWeb site. But the groundwork has been largely completed, and an appealing, more user-friendly look is coming very soon. A team of volunteers has been hard at work "migrating" content from our current Web site to the new framework. Stay tuned, and please don't be shy if you have a yen to help out with this exciting project.

Our awards program, recognizing outstanding environmental journalism, has seen remarkable growth. Last year, we granted SEJ's first award for student work. This year, with the help of a generous benefactor, SEJ is honored to present another first: a $10,000 prize to the author of an outstanding nonfiction book about the environment.

Award-winning journalism doesn't just happen, however. SEJ has been working to help journalists cover the climate story in all its complexity and sweep. We've hosted or cosponsored workshops for reporters and editors across the country to provide background on the science, the health implications, the policy responses and the positions of the presidential candidates. We've staged environmental reporting workshops at other journalism conferences, including the Associated Press Managing Editors and Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

SEJ has been just as active this past year in its advocacy for journalists' ability to report on and gather information about the environment. We've stood up for the rights of journalists and the public to take pictures, video and audio recordings in national parks and on other federal lands. We've also argued for keeping information about farm animal health in the public domain.

Less visibly, but no less important, the board has reorganized SEJ's top staff in an effort to sustain the important activities I've described above, plus others. Chris Rigel, our longtime associate director, was promoted to director of programs and operations. She's taken on expanded responsibilities in planning, marketing, coordinating and executing all of SEJ's programs and services. Chris's promotion enables Beth Parke, our executive director, to focus her extensive experience and abilities on fund-raising and strategic direction for SEJ. Through this, and an ambitious fundraising effort, we hope to ensure that SEJ can continue to be the source for covering the environment, no matter what medium journalists use in the years to come.

I don't mean to make light of the challenges ahead, either for journalists or for SEJ. It's hard to see what the future holds just now, or how independent, enterprising reporting on the environment will continue and grow. But I do know that the need has never been greater. And I see a lot of other survivors out there, picking themselves up after the earthquake and heading out to get those stories, with SEJ there to help and support them. I plan to be among them.

This is my last column for SEJournal, as I conclude two years as SEJ's president. I'm honored that the board – and indirectly, you members – have entrusted this important position to me. It's been challenging at times, not least this summer, but rewarding far beyond the trials. There's no other journalism I'd rather be doing, and no other group I'd rather be doing it with, than you here at SEJ. Thank you for the privilege. See you in Roanoke, and beyond!

Tim Wheeler, SEJ board president, covers environment and growth at The Baltimore Sun.

*From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2008

Tim Wheeler
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