By DAVID HELVARG
Arriving in the green sprawl of Stanford University, the Virginia Tech of the West, I was greeted by Frisbee-tossing SEJers high on the beat's new relevance amidst growing public concern over rapid climate change and fear about the kind of world Anna Nichole Smith's baby will grow up in.
Also SEJ had its second Pulitzer. And while Mark Schleifstein's prize had always seemed a little fishy to me, I've seen Ken Weiss get polluted and know his is worth a sea of ink. As usual the conference offered a range of inspiring panels including a discussion of parasite and pathogens. I was certainly impressed that 18 top editors and publishers would come to Stanford for a daylong seminar on climate.
Given that climate has become a major part of the beat, it was suggested the SEJ board not accept contributions from anyone directly benefiting from photosynthesis. Once again a name change was also suggested from SEJ to SFEJ, Self-Flagellating Environmental Journalists. Can't people just relax and enjoy the benefits of ecosystem-wide collapse? By which of course I mean the newspaper industry
The first night's energy plenary was unprecedented in that it left moderator Amy Goodman with little to say. One of the panelists was Stanford's own Paul Ehrlich who once lost a famous bet when he claimed that in 25 years we'd see a decline of key natural resources like arrogance.
Thursday's field trips included visits to an organic strawberry farm, an eco-winery, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a kayak trip through an enchanted lagoon full of frisky otters for reporters who've given up even trying to justify it to their editors. This year's hospitality suites lacked some of the past drama of live wolves and free vodka, though it's good to know that China can at least make toxic-free tote bags and that there are still people dedicated to saving the wild salmon for appetizers.
Friday's breakout/break-up breakfast asked if the relationship between Scientists (Obsessive Compulsives) and Journalists (ADD) can be saved. Time to move on.
The conference's theme tracks included the climate, the ocean, environmental health and beauty tips, the latter provided by a sub-species once thought extinct, broadcast environmental reporters, who with warming temperatures, have flocked back to the beat. They can be distinguished from the grey-hued inkstained generally wider-bodies print species by their feathery manes, natural preening and coppery glow. Ironically the same scientists who once claimed TV environmental reporting was dead are now saying that loss of habitat could soon doom print reporters (Journos Norespectus Underpais).
Still the big plenary on "the New Journalism," assured us that if we each just tape and record our stories while researching and blogging them we can remain as relevant to the demanding new news consumer as any skateboarding bulldog. The executive editor of the News Journal surprised many when he asserted that, "major news breaks in Delaware."
One bit of exciting news was that Cliff Bars bought enough credits to make the conference carbon neutral which appealed to the crunchy-granola-with-chocolate-drops-and-almonds crowd. Also Stanford University has set saving the planet as one of its top four or five initiatives using innovative approaches like feeding Cardinals to large Golden Bears.
Unlike drying paint, the annual SEJ membership meeting gave off no volatile organic compounds. SEJ reported tremendous membership growth among freelancers, also known as outof- work reporters. This year's conference attendance was reported to be 888 though SEJ critic Joe Farah insists it was 666. Other news from the conference sessions included the fact that 97 percent of Appalachia's mountains still have tops, your odds of not getting cut up by coral or attacked by large fish when you go into the ocean are improving, sea lions now have herpes (which may track back to exposure to disco in the 1970s), alien species no longer are (since you can find them everywhere) and the Ambassador from Bangladesh is shocked that people would think of moving back to New Orleans.
Among the kinds of cutting-edge research often heard at SEJ, UC Davis professor Pat Conrad reported 70 percent of the 105 tons of cat feces deposited outdoors around Moro Bay is from domestic cats. This is important information if you're tracking pathogens to sea otters or planning to buy in the area. Princeton Professor Andy Dobson reported that parasites can take up heavy metals in the body. The Bush administration is now considering tapeworms as a low-cost voluntary approach to toxic remediation and the national epidemic of obesity.
Among the beat dinners and mini-tours freelancers discussed how to spend their careers searching for a restaurant in San Francisco while others visited the Hayward Fault which runs directly through the UC Bears stadium. (As part of its commitment to the planet Stanford is working on seismic triggering technology). There was also a bus tour to Google headquarters to view the company's efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Wouldn't just googling it have helped?
The conference's last night was given over to a special screening of Leonardo DeCaprio's movie "The 11th Repetition." After four days of panels, I for one was happy to skip the traditional Saturday night dance in order to hear his take on the failure of the media to cover the environment. I look forward to next year when, rumor has it, Sheryl Crow will give her take on cap and trade versus a carbon tax.
Most unusual this year was the SEJ board's decision to have two conferences in a row at popular travel destinations like Burlington, Vt., and Northern California. Luckily this will be corrected before the IRS begins looking into our business travel deductions. With planning for next year well under way I'd like to propose a conference travel fellowship to the first member who can identify what state Roanoke is in.
David Helvarg is an author and associate member of SEJ who has written "50 Ways to Save the Ocean." To remain impartial he is now working on "50 Ways to Destroy the Ocean."
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.