By CHRIS BOWMAN
The Society of Environmental Journalists broke major ground at this year's national conference in attracting 18 news executives to day-long dialogues with experts on global warming, one of the biggest and most difficult-to-tell stories of our time.
Never before have America's senior editors focused collectively on the environment, let alone climate change. "This is a dream come true," SEJ president Tim Wheeler said of the News Executives Roundtable, hosted by Stanford University at the Sept. 5 opening of the society's 17th annual conference.
The glass-office editors came from coast to coast. From California: Jeanne Carstensen, managing editor, Salon.com; Bob Cohn, executive editor, Wired; John Diaz, editorial page editor, San Francisco Chronicle; Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief, Science; Rick Rodriguez, executive editor, The Sacramento Bee; and Leo Wolinsky, associate editor, Los Angeles Times.
The Pacific Northwest: David Boardman, executive editor, The Seattle Times and Dave Zeeck, executive editor, The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash.
The Midwest: Caesar Andrews, executive editor, Detroit Free Press; Susan Goldberg, editor, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland; Martin Kaiser, editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; and Carolyn Washburn, editor, Des Moines Register, Iowa. The Southeast: Bennie Ivory, executive editor, The Courier- Journal in Louisville, Ky.
The Northeast: Leonard Downey, executive editor, The Washington Post; Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor, The New York Times; David Ledford, executive editor, The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.; Frank Scandale, editor, The Record of Bergen County, N.J.; and Anne Thompson, chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News in New York.
"I was startled by the turnout," said James Bettinger, director of Stanford's John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists, noting his own difficulty getting on top editors' busy schedules.
SEJ conference planners, too, have had spotty success drawing news industry leaders, who at times perceived environmental journalism as trendy or its practitioners as environmental advocates.
"Just getting them there was an achievement," said Wheeler, development writer for the Baltimore Sun.
Actually, most news executives enthusiastically accepted the invitation. They were willing to suspend their competitive juices – at least for the day – and brainstorm together on how to cover climate change.
The global warming story had advanced to Page One sooner than they had expected or felt equipped to manage, some acknowledged.
"I don't know that the expertise in the (news) industry matches the urgency of the issue," said Andrews, of the Detroit Free Press.
In just the past two years, discussion of planetary warming had broad-jumped from academia to mass culture – Wal-Mart, the Oscars, Leonardo DiCaprio, the 2008 presidential race. The icons have elevated from the obscure (think "hockey stick") to the familiar – Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hurricane Katrina, polar bears.
As columnist Thomas L. Friedman declared in an April 15 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, "Green has gone Main Street…because global warming has."
The "ice-albedo effect," however, doesn't roll off the tongues of most Americans, let alone news executives whose reporting credentials are typically limited to coverage of politics, business, sports and cops.
How might they become fluent on the ocean's "conveyor belt," "carbon cycling/sequestering," "cap-and-trade" and such? The same way they've always kept on top of the news: VIP access to the newsmakers.
Editors, of course, don't have a natural entrée to climatologists as they do with publicity-seeking politicians, police chiefs, CEOs and other power brokers.
So the SEJ conference planning team did a little matchmaking, tapping one of its co-founders, Bud Ward, as the chief matchmaker.
Ward had recently run a nationwide series of six climate scientist-reporter workshops funded by the National Science Foundation's Paleoclimate Program and administered by the nonprofit Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. I attended two of those workshops, at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005.
As co-chairman of the 2007 SEJ conference, I approached Ward with the idea of running a similar workshop at Stanford, only this time for top-tier editors who have the power to set newsroom priorities and even the national agenda.
Many SEJ members long had complained about their bosses underplaying and misunderstanding environmental stories. With "innovation and solutions" as a conference theme, it was time to answer their call.
"The vision of having top-tier editors and world-class scientists and researchers focusing at such depth on the climate change issue for many had too long seemed a fantasy," Ward said in an article inaugurating the new online Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
Ward decided the editors' first date with climate experts should be dress-down casual – no pressure. This was, after all, a group blind date.
On the eve of the conference, SEJ veterans drove editors to dinner at Portola Valley's Alpine Inn (affectionately known as Zotts), which bears none of the bucolic charm the name might suggest.
"The burgers weren't as bad as I remembered them," quipped The New York Times' Kramon, a 1975 Stanford graduate. We're talking tank tops, old-school bikers, cheap beer, wooden picnic tables and grease-oozing, stove-top fried burgers on butter-saturated buns.
"Not the kind of place I would have chosen," said Stanford biological sciences professor Terry Root, a roundtable presenter. The venue for the following day's roundtable was decidely high-brow. Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment spared no expense in securing the slick, multimedia conference room where the university's board of trustees meets, at the Graduate School of Business.
The Woods Institute sponsored the roundtable along with The Energy Foundation, the Heinz Family Philanthropies and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Project on Climate Change.
SEJ and Metcalf staff and conference co-chairs organized the event with assistance from the Woods Institute staff and the university's Office of Public Affairs.
Ward moderated the events and did most of the heavy lifting, securing the funds and recruiting most of the nine speakers, including climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford, energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, a 2007 winner of the National Science Foundation's National Medal of Science.
The experts briefed the editors on the science, economics and public perception of global warming. None of the news executives questioned whether climate change is real and happening now. Rather, they focused on the challenges of telling the story with adequate resources and appropriate urgency, context and integrity.
Climate stories do not easily yield villains to drive a narrative; everyone is seemingly complicit, said the Tacoma paper's Zeeck.
Anecdotes to make the story real and personal are hard to nail down, said the Des Moines Register's Washburn. "We have to figure out how people will make the connection between the local and the global. " The urgency is not obvious. An average temperature change of two or three degrees does not seem like much of a threat, said Boardman of the Seattle Times.
"Most Americans have no idea what that means," Boardman said. "It symbolizes the gap between your world and the rest of Americans in terms of an effective message."
And the solution-oriented stories are scarce. Without them, people are bound to feel hopeless and tune out, said The Plain Dealer's Goldberg.
"We hear that the ball is rolling down hill to disaster," Goldberg said. "We need to give public a sense they can do something about it, otherwise they'll just throw up their hands."
Climatologist Schneider said scientists can help only so much. "When asked for solutions, we can be policy relevant, but we must never be policy prescriptive," Schneider said. "What we must do is talk about the relative distribution of pros and cons of proposed solutions. Who wins? Who loses?"
Roundtable organizers feared that editors, who as a lot are an impatient and easily distracted breed, would nod off or fiddle with their Blackberries after the third or fourth presentation by experts. That never happened.
The Sacramento Bee's Rodriguez said he was especially struck by Thompson's series of time-scale photographs showing accelerated loss of glaciers and sea ice.
Downie of The Washington Post trained his pen on specific, on-the-ground changes that told the larger story, such as the decline in the quality of wine grapes in the south of France or the narrowing range of butterflies.
Washburn pondered the political implications: "What kind of leadership can we call upon locally to make a difference, who will ask people to make sacrifices for changes they won't see, and maybe their children or grandchildren won't see?"
It could be that the editors stayed engaged throughout the 8- hour roundtable because we had two video cameras trained on them the whole time. (For a preview, please see home page for the Woods Institute at http://woods.stanford.edu. Click on SEJ video.)
But during a break I asked Washburn how it was going. Her response, I bet, could stand for many of her peers:
"This is the first conference I have been to in two years that hasn't been about news industry troubles. It's so refreshing to come here and spend a day not wringing our hands about the industry and not talking about ourselves, but really about what's important in the world."
Chris Bowman, a veteran environmental reporter for The Sacramento Bee, helped instigate the News Executive Roundtable on Climate Change as co-chairman of the 2007 SEJ national conference at Stanford University. He was elected to the SEJ Board of Directors in September. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.