The Beat: SEEEJ? News Convergence — the Three Es of Environment, Energy and Economy

January 15, 2009

By BILL DAWSON

Should the Society of Environmental Journalists pitch an even bigger tent – perhaps with a new name, strategically chosen and skillfully marketed to seize this historical moment of economic distress? How about the Society of Environmental and Economic Journalists? How does the Society of Environment/Energy Journalists sound? Or the Society of Environment-Energy- Economy Journalists – SEEEJ, for short?

OK, I confess. Those are not serious suggestions. Still, along with the dramatic economic and political events of recent months, it seems that articles and blog posts blending environmental, economic and energy-related news coverage are turning up more and more often.

It's nothing new, of course, for mainstream and new media outlets alike to focus on the shifting nexus of environment, economy and energy. Economic and energy-related concerns have always been central to environmental issues.

Besides, journalistic attention to subjects like alternative energy and other green business ventures has been growing in the last few years as the climate issue gained new prominence. As noted in the Summer 2008 issue of "The Beat," The Wall Street Journal introduced its "Environmental Capital" blog in early 2007 to cover "the business of the environment."

It was by no means the first newspaper blog to proclaim such a focus. The St. Petersburg Times launched a blog on climate change and energy issues in 2006 called "The Fueling Station."

The St. Petersburg site proclaims the blog's mission: "Global warming, gas prices, 'green' living – how can you keep up with it all? The Fueling Station is your source for energy and environment news in Florida and beyond."

Other news outlets that have established blogs working similar territory include Fortune with "Green Wombat," Salon with "How the World Works" and The New Republic with "The Vine."

Meanwhile, Web publications like GreenBiz.com and the U.K.'s BusinessGreen.com have built content-rich sites entirely devoted to green business ventures, as their names leave no doubt about.

As 2008 unfolded, there was ample evidence that journalistic mixture of the three E's was accelerating, due to a variety of intersecting and cascading developments.

To name a few: High gasoline prices. Pro-drilling sloganeering. Plummeting gasoline prices. Sweeping energy proposals by Nobelist Al Gore and energy magnate T. Boone Pickens. A stunning economic meltdown. A huge and hard-fought bailout bill with incentives for alternative energy and energy efficiency. An historic presidential race dominated by the deepening economic crisis. A president-elect promising an economic stimulus package with a decidedly green cast. An official "recession" declaration from the federal government.

Visually, at least, the blending of environment, economy and energy in the U.S. news media was typified by the layout of a twopage guide to major issues in the presidential election that appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 26, paper edition of The New York Times. The left-hand page had three main sections, nestling against each other – "The Economy" on top, with "Climate" and "Energy," side by side, beneath it.

A month earlier on Sept. 23, The Times produced a special section entitled "Business of Green" and launched its new business blog "Green Inc. / Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line."

"Green Inc." editor Tom Zeller Jr. said the new Times blog would be "a daily churn of insights, observations and dispatches from that often contentious place where business, politics and the environment meet." Featured contributors include reporters Kate Galbraith, formerly with The Economist, and James Kanter, previously blogging on the same "contentious place" for the Times-owned International Herald Tribune.

A persistent coverage theme for many news organizations throughout the fall was the September economic meltdown's relationship to government and business initiatives to create a greener energy system.

This was a media refrain already being noted by Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard in an Oct. 7 blog post headlined "From Green to Greenbacks / More Journalists Investigate Clean Energy as a Solution to (or Victim of) the Economic Crisis." (In a subsequent item on his CJR blog, "The Observatory," Brainard referred explicitly to a blended beat: "The energy and environment beat, in particular, will likely continue to gain importance and relevance as the 21st century unfolds.")

"Will the Environment Lose Out to the Economy?" was the headline of a piece in Time by Bryan Walsh, datelined on the same day that Brainard's piece was posted.

Two days later, The Guardian's John Vidal and Juliette Jowit reported that "leaders of E.U. countries plan to use the global financial crisis as an excuse to renege on climate change commitments, according to sources close to energy negotiations in Brussels."

Just a few days after that, Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press addressed the same question in a climate policy-focused story headlined "Global Warming Getting Political Cold Shoulder in U.S. amid Economic Woes."

Her lead: "The global economic crisis has thrown a political chill over one of the main initiatives under consideration in the United States to combat global warming: the so-called cap-andtrade plan."

Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal had a blog post in early October that examined the impact of shrinking credit on alternative energy projects. The headline: "Green Meltdown: Credit Crunch Whacks Renewable Energy, Too."

Impacts of the recession on environmental initiatives – effects that are feared, predicted or already being observed – were still in reporters' sights in late November and early December, several weeks after the election of Barack Obama.

A sampling of the stories being produced over just a few days:

• Nov. 20: The Economist published "Cooling Off/The Economic Slowdown is Having One Good Effect," which examined the potential in California for a slowing economy to suppress greenhouse emissions.

• Nov. 22: The Wall Street Journal reported on reduced spending by several major utilities, including FPL Group's decision to "cut planned investment on wind turbines (in 2009) by close to $1 billion."

• Nov. 24: Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times had a story headlined "Slump May Limit Moves on Clean Energy." Her lead: "Just as the world seemed poised to combat global warming more aggressively, the economic slump and plunging prices of coal and oil are upending plans to wean businesses and consumers from fossil fuel."

• Nov. 25: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren broadcast and Webposted a story titled "Bad Economy Threatens Obama's Climate Fix." She reported: "No one seems to doubt his commitment, but experts caution that keeping this pledge would be very challenging in good times and that the country's economic troubles make it much harder."

• Nov. 26: Alister Doyle of Reuters, in an Oslo-datelined story, took an advance look at the U.N.'s then-upcoming climate talks in Poland. The headline, echoing The Guardian's piece mentioned above: "Economy Offers Excuse to Avoid Climate Fight."

• Dec. 1: Reporting from the site of the Poland conference, the AP's Arthur Max reported that Yvo de Boer, top climate official for the U.N., had said some green energy projects were already being postponed by economic woes, "stoking fears that a shortage of investment money will lead to cheap and dirty decisions on new power plants."

Another common coverage theme, partly reflecting Obama's campaign pledge and post-election reiteration that he would fund cleaner energy projects, involved the question of whether a "Green New Deal" may be in the offing, which would simultaneously seek to improve the recessionary economy and mitigate climate change.

On Nov. 1, three days before the election, Newsweek writers Christopher Dickey and Tracy McNicoll argued in favor of just such a bold plan in a lengthy piece labeled "essay" and headlined "Why It's Time for a 'Green New Deal'."

They concluded that while no governments will spend "trillions of dollars" on the basis of computer models' climatechange projections, they may "spend huge sums soon to kick-start their economies and create millions of jobs" with clean energy measures.

In its December issue, published before the election, Mother Jones presented a multiple-article package titled "The New Economy" (the E and C in the logo were green, and the O was a picture of the earth), with the subtitle "Global Warming. Foreign Oil. Bank Meltdowns. Here's How to Solve Them All at Once." It included articles by Gore, Bill McKibben, Julia Whitty, David Roberts, Chris Mooney and others.

The Nation published an article in its Nov. 24 issue by University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, likewise arguing for a Green New Deal, under the headline "How to End the Recession," and illustrated by a hardhat emblazoned with a green leaf and an American flag.

In its Nov. 8-14 issue, The Economist argued in an editorial that "a verdant New Deal would be a bad deal" – not because a vigorous fight against climate change and government spending to stimulate the economy are not needed, but because "combining the two by subsidizing renewable energy is, like many easy answers, the wrong solution."

A prominent media advocate of a green stimulus, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, received considerable attention from other news outlets after his new bestseller, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America," was published in September.

Such reports included a profile of Friedman by Ian Parker in The New Yorker and interviews by Bruce Gellerman of NPR's "Living on Earth" ("Green New Deal") and Kate Sheppard of Grist ("Hot, Flat, Crowded, and ... Clean?").

In the most recent of those pieces, the Grist interview, Friedman said he thought Obama's enthusiasm for addressing economic and climate concerns at the same time has grown since his election:

"I think honestly he's gotten more passionate about it. I hear the President-elect talking about green issues, climate change, green stimulus, green investment, with not only more passion, but with more regularity."

That list of items cited by Friedman could almost serve as a checklist of some of the related opportunities that lie ahead for covering industries of special interest to local and regional audiences.

Some examples of this kind of reporting during the fall: • "Business Blowing In/Port of Freeport Has Plenty of Work Unloading Turbines as the Use of Wind Energy Grows" in the Houston Chronicle.

• "Global Warming Will Bring Changes for Kansas Farmers," an article from the Harris News Service with this lead: "For Kansas farmers and ranchers, global climate change represents both a threat to their livelihoods and a financial opportunity."

• "Cow Tax? EPA Looking into Regulating Greenhouse Gases" in The Palestine (Texas) Herald.

• "Coal Industry 'Pensive' about Obama" by the AP.

• "Strange Brew: French Fries and Farmers" in Wyoming's Planet Jackson Hole.

• "Manufacturer Bemoans Demise of Incandescent Light Bulb" in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

• "Obama Expected to Tighten Coal Regulations" in The Charleston Gazette.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

 

Bill Dawson