Journalism's Struggle Offers Big Challenges For SEJ

February 15, 2005

 By PERRY BEEMAN

SEJ's truly marvelous family of committed journalists, educators and other friends came out of the Austin conference with the usual amazement about all the talent, helpfulness and great work that our members exude.

Far be it for an SEJ veteran and board leader to rain on that parade. I relish the strength of what goes on. In fact, I think the chemistry that has kept SEJ going into a second decade is a recognized international force. That chemistry and joint experience may be one of the few things assuring that environmental journalism won't fall from the pages in favor of all-Britney, all-thetime "journalism."

I am left wondering about the future of our careers, though.

Is there going to be room for serious environmental journalism in an O.J., Robert Blake, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson world in which television networks have resigned themselves to presenting as news not-so-hard-hitting interviews about a star's latest CD? Will chain journalism, in which top leaders are at locations far removed from some of a company's media outlets, leave room for the independent-thinking, probing pieces we offer? Can we expect column inches and air-time slots to expose the dangers of air pollution or the effects of the latest endangered-species battle when a certain element thinks the way to get readers to buy the paper is to tell them how to buy a prom dress, cook a Thanksgiving turkey, or carve a Jack o' Lantern?

I'll let people with bigger paychecks than mine define the fine line between connecting with readers' lives and insulting their intelligence. Some papers have done a fine job of reporting new angles on the holidays or life's events, or of finding compelling stories timed to the calendar and sure to grab attention.

But why do people make the commitment to watch a certain network, or buy a particular paper? They are committing to a relationship. In many areas, readers consider their favorite newspapers something they own, a utility of sorts, a place where readers write to say "good job" but also raise hell when they think they've been wronged in some way.

So there is a connection, but folks have to want to read or view your work for some good reason. I believe they make the commitment to that journalistic relationship based on the body of work they've seen. A coupon clipper may buy a single copy here and there. Subscribers and regular viewers check in because they know what to expect; they've been grabbed by good coverage in the past.

Perhaps they appreciated the clip-art, pre-fab Jack o' Lantern patterns you ran at Halloween. Maybe that's the answer to newspapers' circulation woes, though circulations continue to fall. It's hard to see strong gains, though some papers have lost less circulation than others.

I try to use my relatives and friends as indicators of how the general readership behaves. Many of them are casual newspaper readers. Their ages range from teens to 90s.

I see only one pattern in the articles that move them. They like good stories. They like a good investigative piece, like the one my paper ran recently detailing some questionable back-room dealings that let developers buy land from a charity on the cheap and grease a highway interchange project that would help them add to their riches. They like a tear-jerker. They like a story that gives them faith in humanity. They like a story that tells them what the next big project in town is. The problem is that their choices don't seem to fit the slogans or campaigns some newspapers favor now.

I have yet to hear any of them tell me that what they really need is a rerun of last year's picking-a-tux package. (One paper did have a lot of Web hits about how to carve a pumpkin, though.)

There is no doubt that some people enjoy the stories connected to the calendar, or to life's events. I just have never met anyone who considered that a main reason to buy the paper. It's part of the mix.

Where does that leave more serious journalism, such as environmental stories? Environmental reporting does have this advantage. One week, we can analyze records and describe the top polluters in our areas. We connect with readers by telling them why they should care, by objectively and with balance detailing the health risks, by laying out the political forces and the sometimes amazing back-room pressure that informs decisions. Another week, we can help people learn the latest about their recycling programs, compost operations and volunteer water-monitoring efforts in which they may participate. Few beats offer such a wide array of topics that connect with readers in so many ways.

Still, in many ways I think we face the toughest challenge of SEJ's history. There are symptoms. Where is Dan Fagin, the former SEJ president? His work on breast-cancer stories at Newsday was among the finest printed. Now he's writing books and teaching, a fine vocation that nevertheless will keep him mainly out of mainstream journalism. Natalie Pawelski was one of the few broadcast reporters with a regular environmental reporting gig when she was at CNN. Now she's some sort of diplomatic diva for the Brits. David Ropeik long ago gave up environmental broadcast and print reporting to mull risks at a center at Harvard University. All three were on the SEJ board in the recent past.

Perhaps Fagin and others could see the writing on the wall more clearly than the rest of us. Or perhaps they jumped too early. At least one of those departed from the ranks of daily journalism confided that they believed their days of long explanatory and investigative pieces appeared numbered, even at papers with national readerships.

Editors have fallen even farther into the "show me the bodies" mentality that SEJ stalwarts have bemoaned for years. Some don't think readers want stories that describe a remote risk, something that might take some thinking. Many apparently would like to save space for the story that says "14.5 people will die tomorrow if these emissions don't stop." Hold it to eight inches, too.

The big outlets are laying off reporters and struggling to figure out what readers and viewers want. Maybe they have lost touch with readers. I still have a hard time seeing CNN and "60 Minutes" puff pieces on celebrities and musicians during what appear to be regular news programs. Can you imagine The Washington Post using a cover to tell people how to treat crabgrass in the spring?

It's a strange time. On the one hand, SEJ is more visible and important than ever. Our freedom of information work has sent us skyrocketing to the top of the journalism-group network. Our endowment is growing, our awards honor very important work, and above all we train journalists in a focused way you just don't see many other places.

Yet we face this uncertainty about journalism's future. As we write on WI-FI laptops and surf the Web on our phones we forget how far technology, and journalism, have come in just a couple of decades. It's no surprise that media companies are struggling to figure out what readers and viewers want. Often, it's hard to tell, even with all our scientific surveys.

I think they want good stories. I don't think we'll ever find a single formula or approach that fits their diverse interests. I think they long to learn, to be told something new, to have their news served with a dollop of perspective and information that tells them why they should care.

Are we giving people enough credit? We face a tough decision. Do we pare our coverage because people are so in a hurry, and used to getting immediate information online? Or do we go in the other direction, offering in-depth coverage they don't get from reading tickers and news summaries? Wouldn't we be better off giving them more if they've bothered to take time to pick up a paper or watch expanded broadcast coverage? Don't they expect more?

Environmental news reports can offer the hit-at-home stories and the compelling explanatory pieces, investigations and breaking news. We should therefore be in a position to help mold the new media world and give our readers and viewers insightful coverage they will welcome

Perry Beeman reports for the Des Moines Register.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue

PERRY BEEMAN