President’s Report: SEJ Reaches Out and Expands in Old and New Ways

January 15, 2010

By CHRISTY GEORGE

Hazardous waste, water pollution, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and difficulties in dealing with the EPA all made it onto page one of Volume 1, Number 1 of the SEJournal.

Looking back at the SEJournal's first edition, it's clear the issues haven't changed all that much in 20 years, even if the Journal itself has been transformed from a blue, black and white newsletter to a gorgeous, glossy, full-color magazine worthy of gracing anyone's coffee table.

As SEJ enters its 20th anniversary year, it's worth remembering why we exist, what principles we started out with in 1990 and still retain, what has changed, and what should change.

Let's start there — with what needs to change between now and 2030.

I joined SEJ in 1997, and the board of directors ten years ago. If there has been one constant during my entire time in SEJ, it is the endless fight to clarify that just because we cover the environment, that does not make us environmentalists. I'm not sure the fight will ever be won, but it would be great if we could move on from there by 2030.

However, while SEJ is not green, we ARE white. That's white, in terms of the racial and ethnic makeup of our membership.

We need to become more colorful.

SEJ has long made diversity-building a priority, with mixed results. We've helped create a Latin American environmental journalists' group, we've done outreach events at minority journalism groups' conferences and at the every-four-years Unity conference, we've won grants to help bring environmental journalists of color to conferences, and at the Austin conference we even had simultaneous English-to-Spanish translations during all of the cross-border panels.

And still we are so white that inevitably someone asks what we're doing about it at the annual membership meeting. It happened again in Madison, but this time was different. SEJ member Adrianne Appel stepped up to volunteer to do something about achieving greater diversity within SEJ's membership. The effort may be new, but the spirit behind it is typical of SEJ's 20-year history of running on volunteer power.

Another member, Sara Peach, came to the conference in Madison and left volunteering to help SEJ identify and serve multimedia journalists: the next generation of environment reporters, whose skills defy the old platform distinctions.

Something else new is our push to identify more things SEJ can do to support freelance journalists — our fastest growing membership category. Sharon Oosthoek, one of four new board members and a freelancer herself, has taken that charge as her own.

The Fund for Environmental Journalism, just starting up, is a new venture meant to assist those struggling to keep doing their jobs with far less funding, and those seeking to start up something new.

Over the past year, SEJers have been rewriting our strategic plan. This is no pro forma job, but rather a deep look at who we are and where we're going. We've rewritten our new vision and mission, tailored to reflect the changes within the news business and how SEJ can reposition itself to help those left behind. The new strategic plan will place a greater emphasis on SEJ speaking out about what constitutes journalistic excellence, in part to ensure that new journalists in old and new media still carry the torch of the old enduring values.

Former SEJ president Tim Wheeler came up with an idea to match up editors and freelancers covering the Copenhagen climate treaty summit. Less than a week later, the "Copenhagen Connection" was featured on page one of sej.org, and publicized throughout the media universe.

What 2030 goals has SEJ even started doing yet?

I like to think that in the next 20 years, SEJ will reach out internationally. Yes, we brag now that our members come from 30 countries, but our membership base remains predominantly North American — U.S., Canadian and Mexican. There are environmental journalists working the beat throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia and Oceania.

Getting to where SEJ can start doing international outreach will require a much bigger operating budget. We have a vast network of potential supporters but organizationally we need to get better at both friend-raising and fund-raising.

SEJ also needs to do better at reaching out to what I call "cross-beat journalists" — people who don't think of themselves as environment reporters, but who nonetheless cover the environment on a regular basis. These are reporters and editors who cover energy, business, health and medicine, politics and government policy, farm and food, land use and real estate, travel and lifestyle, and issues that affect children and seniors, life in rural places and in the inner city. They are our natural constituents, and being part of SEJ will help them do their work better.

Our future, like our past, rests on the willingness of volunteers to make SEJ even stronger.

Why do people give so much of their time and energy to SEJ? I believe it's SEJ's 20-year history of service and institutional integrity.

These days, the journalism profession may be in financial distress, but SEJ's purpose and principles are still rock-solid. We remain an educational organization, dedicated to making the environment beat more comprehensible to journalists who cover the beat, and we're still committed to our founding principles of independence and journalistic objectivity.

There's a great read posted on SEJ's website, in the "About SEJ" section, under "History." It's a 1998 paper, by John Palen of Central Michigan University, entitled, "SEJ's Creation, OBJECTIVITY AS INDEPENDENCE."

Palen wrote that SEJ "exploded from a handful of journalists in 1989 to a sophisticated national organization with more than 1,100 members eight years later" — a meteoric rise he attributed in large measure to SEJ's principles of independence, played out in our membership and financial policies.

Since 1990, SEJ's membership policies have relaxed to accept more members working the beat, but SEJ has retained the absolute ban on allowing anyone who does PR or lobbying on environmental issues to become a member. It's a policy that has sometimes caused heartbreak, both to otherwise great people who had to be excluded because of their work, as well as to the board members who had to enforce the membership rules.

Twenty years later, we still hold fast our commitment to transparent finances and rely on neither corporations nor environmental groups for our operating funding. Our policies have evolved, though. In 2004, the board created an endowment fund that allows no-strings contributions from any individual who supports SEJ's mission, even if that individual is a corporate CEO, or the president of an environmental group. In fact, we hope to raise money from both, in roughly equal amounts, to safeguard SEJ's future.

This coming year will be one of celebration, but also, I hope, of re-dedication.

Twenty years from now, SEJ will be a collection of different faces. We've had the same core staff for almost the entire 20 years. This continuity has served us incredibly well — our seasoned brain trust in Jenkintown, Pa., keeps SEJ on track and humming. But inevitably, SEJ's staff and volunteer leadership will change, and it will be up to SEJ members to ensure that our new leaders understand and carry on the tremendous legacy left by our founders.

Christy George, SEJ board president, is special projects reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

** From SEJ'S quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2009-10 issue