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Environmental journalists: endangered species?

For many years, I covered the environmental and natural resources beat for the Missoulian. It was the most demanding, most exhilarating job I’ll ever have.

So I was more than a bit interested recently when I saw Grist.org’s appeal for donations to save the latest endangered species: environmental reporters.

The campaign itself is wry and creative, but the issue it highlights is a significant one for journalism.

While the Missoulian has employed a full-time environmental reporter since the 1970s, when Dale Burk literally “invented” the profession during his coverage of the Bitterroot National Forest’s clearcut crisis, few other newspapers have such a longstanding commitment.

In fact, over the past decade many newspapers have eliminated the environmental beat or combined it with other beats.

I’m proud that we have maintained our commitment to that coverage. There remains no other beat more essential to who we are – and where we are – in western Montana.

But what about the rest of the nation? And doesn’t the ongoing and growing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico speak to the need for more – not less – strong, objective, professional reporting on the environment?

With the Society of Environmental Journalists bound for Missoula for its national convention this October, we’ll have a front-row seat I’m sure for more discussion of the beat’s future. In the meantime, here’s a Q&A with the SEJ’s president just published on Poynter.org.

SEJ President: Environment is a ‘Stealth’ Beat
By Mallary Jean Tenore, Poynter.org

While reporting on Grist’s “Save Our Journalists!” campaign, which was aimed at raising money for “endangered species” (aka environmental journalists), I found myself wanting to know more about the state of environmental journalism.

I e-mailed some related questions to Christy George, a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and president of the Society of Environmental Journalists to learn more. Her edited responses are below.

Mallary Tenore: The Grist campaign is aimed at saving environmental journalists, which the site refers to as an “endangered species.” How do you think the cutbacks in newsrooms have affected environmental journalism in print, radio and broadcast?

Christy George: Well, we’re not really an endangered species. We’re an under-employed species. What we’ve seen at SEJ is that when a news outlet eliminates the environment beat altogether, the person who used to be on the beat usually finds a stealth way to keep covering those stories.

And that’s easy, because the environment touches every other beat: business, health, politics, city hall, real estate and development, recreation and lifestyle, even sports. And when one of our members is laid off, she/he often goes freelance, staying on the environment beat as an independent journalist. But there’s a personal cost; doing that doesn’t always pay the bills.

It’s no secret that the news business needs an overhaul. People are not in the habit of paying for news. Newspapers, commercial radio and TV all make money from the ads that surround the journalism. Now the Internet culture of free information, which is great in many ways, has killed that revenue model. I’m optimistic, though. I work in public broadcasting. Our audience pays the lion’s share of our costs. You may find pledge drives annoying, but they work because our listeners and viewers get it. They understand news isn’t free.

From what you can tell, how has the oil spill heightened the need for more environmental journalism?

Christy George: The need has always been there for more environmental journalism. Most people get their news from local commercial television, and you can count on one hand how many TV stations in the United States have a reporter on the environment beat full-time. Even 10 years ago, when times were still good, most daily papers didn’t have anyone on the beat full-time.

If you can point to one good thing about this disaster, it’s that it reminds people how much they care about special places like New Orleans. Everyone who’s been to ‘the city that care forgot’ has fond memories. The fact that it’s a second hit on Louisiana in five years only makes it more heart-wrenching.

What role do you think sites like Grist and TreeHugger have in helping to fill this news hole?

George: Online sites are an important growth area for environmental journalism. The Web is where a lot of environmental journalists go after they take buyouts or are laid off. It’s a place where innovation thrives, and it’s where younger news consumers go. That means the Web is where news is heading for the future.

Grist was a very early adopter, starting up way back when the economy was booming. Treehugger came along during the online boom. Both have proven resilient. They’ve survived because they’re good. They’re not just aggregators; they offer original content and they both have their own distinctive voices and styles. So I would hope and expect that both continue to survive.

Let’s keep the conversation going, and keep environmental reporters on the beat. Now, more than ever.

Sherry Devlin

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