Today's environmental journalists are exploring a range of pressing issues including some serious contenders for "story of the century" even before the century is into its teens.
Considering solely the climate change issue, they face the challenge of making sense of and making immediate – in clear, and concise language without hype or hopelessness – the science, economics, and enormous consequences even though most of their audience (and an even higher percentage of their editors?) has yet to appreciate the problem's existence. Other aspects of their beat present their own daunting challenges.
And they're working in a period of enormous change and upheaval in the very institutions that long have been their personal life rafts – providing little things like a regular paycheck, health benefits, and financial security for their families and themselves. Maybe even a bit of peace of mind or personal fulfillment.
Consider a few recent headlines hinting of the challenges facing journalism as many of us long have known it:
• "A Newspaper Chain Sees Its Future, and It's Online and Hyper-local" (Gannett);
• "Have Camera-Phone? Yahoo and Reuters Want You to Work for Their News Service"
• "In Tough Times a Redesigned Journal" (prompting the line "The Small Street Journal");
• "Billionaires and Broadsheets";
• "In Trying Times, Papers Retreat from Washington" (and, of course, foreign bureaus);
• "Scripps Might Split Off Its Newspaper Operations" (leading to a 3.8 percent climb in stock price that day);
• "Newspapers Set to Jointly Sell Ads on Web Sites" (Gannett, McClatchy, and Tribune);
• "Beyond News – Journalists worry about how the Web threatens the way they distribute their product. They are slower to see how it threatens the product itself";
• "Is Convergence the Next Media Disaster?"
The list goes on. And on and on. Let's delve into the insights below just one of those headlines, the "Beyond News" headline of N.Y.U. Journalism Professor Mitchell Stephens's provocative piece in the January/February 2007 Columbia Journalism Review.
"News now not only arrives astoundingly fast from an astounding number of directions, it arrives free of charge," Stephens writes. "Selling what is elsewhere available free is difficult, even if it isn't nineteen hours stale. Just ask an encyclopedia salesman, if you can find one."
Stephens's prescription: Journalists "could try to sell something besides news."
He writes that "the sun is setting" on the days of mass production and distribution of "news." He cautions: For those stubbornly clinging to the hope that their ability to "collect and organize facts will continue to make them indispensable…the dismal prophesy currently being proclaimed by their circulation and demographic charts may very well be fulfilled."
A ray of hope here? Mainstream media and reporters can provide added value by offering "thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events – insights, not just information…. to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom."
Foreseeing an era of "news analysis organizations" rather than merely "news organizations," Stephens sees a day, and soon, when "being fast with the analysis is as important as being fast with the news has been for the last hundred years….We will require many more journalists who, when occasion demands, are better than their sources, journalists who are impeccably informed." Does it sound a bit like a clarion call to environmental journalists? It should.
For SEJ members, it means serious reporters covering environmental issues in "mainstream" media must now study the profound changes going on all around them in the very nature of journalism in the 21st Century. They'll have to understand the changes in the business culture of journalism just as they do the very issues that make them "environmental journalists" in the first place. To the mounting responsibilities they newly are carrying in their news rooms, add this big one: Stay abreast of changes in the business of journalism and information exchange. No small task. All talk and no walk?
Don't tell that to the San Jose Mercury News' veteran reporter Paul Rogers, one of the nation's most intriguing, most widely respected and, perhaps, most unconventional journalists on the MSM print environmental beat.
Rogers now works four days a week as environmental reporter with the Mercury News and 20 hours a week as Managing Editor – that is, employee – of KQED's new "Quest" 30-minute prime-time weekly.
He sees his newspaper/public broadcasting experiment – a variation on what some call newsroom "convergence" – as one that can demonstrate that "science and environment on TV and radio can be exciting and adventuresome."
"We're trying to make it a discovery," he says of this new multimedia journalism partnership. "This is not about taking your cod liver oil."
Needless to say, there are big differences between covering the environmental and science beats for a daily newspaper and covering it for radio and particularly public TV broadcasts that won't air for three months. But it's some of the similarities that most impress Rogers so far. Admitting some initial trepidation in moving from the "serious" print media to the "light" broadcast media (yes, even public broadcasting), Rogers says his experience has taught him that "the people up there are real profession- als, really good journalists. All the things they were worried about, I worry about too."
Why did he make the change? He says his own interest in learning new communication skills, combined with the usual newsroom woes (buyouts, shrinking newsroom staffs, and "all sorts of talk"), prompted him to explore the notion of working with local broadcasting interests.
With a focus on nine different content areas – astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, environment, geology, health, physics and weather – KQED, one of the flagship PBS affiliates, says its new multimedia effort is "our most ambitious local endeavor to date, utilizing all of our media platforms, educational resources and extraordinary partnerships." The station is archiving and making available for free downloading all the Quest TV and radio broadcasts (www.kqed.org/quest ).
"I wanted to keep being a newspaper reporter," Rogers said in a phone interview. "But with all the different types of media converging together," he sees his KQED/Mercury News positions as "an extension of where all the media are going anyway." With public broadcasting outlets generally available across the U.S., he encourages other print reporters to also explore partnerships with local broadcasting interests.
The KQED "Quest" initiative bears close watching, both for what it says about the changing nature of the journalism business and also for what it says about how one leading environmental reporter is dealing with those changes.
Bud Ward is an SEJ cofounder and honorary member. This column marks his first in a regular column in the SEJournal, exploring the full range of environmental journalism issues with special attention to the twists and turns toward a new journalism future.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue