On-line Journalism Begins To Fill the Void After Newspaper World’s Decay

July 15, 2010

Inside Story

By BILL DAWSON

Marla Cone

Marla Cone had been a newspaper reporter for three decades when she resigned her job as the Los Angeles Times’ senior environmental writer two years ago to become editor-in-chief of Environmental Health News. Since joining EHN, Cone has overseen a number of major changes at the not-for-profit online publication, including the addition of original coverage to the site’s aggregation of others’ coverage.

Cone worked at the Times for 18 years, pioneering a beat dedicated to the sustained, in-depth coverage of the risks that environmental pollutants pose to public health, wildlife and ecosystems. Her experience and expertise were highly compatible, then, with EHN’s self-proclaimed goals: “The mission of Environmental Health News is to advance the public’s understanding of environmental health issues by publishing its own journalism and providing access to worldwide news about a variety of subjects related to the health of humans, wildlife and ecosystems.” (Pete Myers, EHN’s founder and publisher, is also publisher of a companion Web site, The Daily Climate. Myers was instrumental in SEJ’s founding.)

Cone served on SEJ’s board and has received many journalistic honors. They include the Scripps Howard Meeman Award for environmental reporting, which she won two times. She is the author of Silent Snow: The Poisoning of the Arctic, which was published in 2005 and was a finalist for the Communication Award of the National Academies. Her research for that book was supported by a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, normally awarded only to scientists. She was the first teaching fellow in environmental journalism at the University of California- Berkeley, where she taught for two semesters in the Graduate School of Journalism.

Q: Why did you decide to leave the Los Angeles Times, where you had established yourself as one of the environment beat's most widely known and respected reporters? Was it tough to leave newspaper work?

A: The Times was a great newspaper, and I never envisioned leaving it. I had great freedom to write the stories that I thought were important, and I pioneered the environmental health beat. But I saw things seriously eroding there. The staff was literally cut in half. A great newspaper was being destroyed by a greedy owner. We just couldn’t cover things the way we had before, or the way that our readers deserved. I really didn’t want to stick around and watch it erode even more.

So when I was offered the opportunity to start up this venture at Environmental Health News, to run my own show, and to be at the forefront of new media and foundation-funded journalism, I couldn’t turn it down. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel great sadness. I happened to be in Chicago right after I told the editor I wanted to take a buyout, and I wandered into the Chicago Tribune’s lobby. I looked up and read all those great quotations about the importance of a free press, and I panicked. I thought: I’ve been a newspaper reporter for 30 years. How could I abandon such a great institution? But I realized that most newspapers were in disarray, and unlike many of my colleagues who left, I was able to remain a journalist.

Q: Tell me about your job at Environmental Health News: What are your responsibilities as editor-in-chief? Do you also oversee The Daily Climate? Generally speaking, what do you want EHN to accomplish?

A: As editor-in-chief, I am in charge of our enterprise content, which we began with my hiring in the fall of 2008. My mission is to publish stories on topics that other journalists aren’t tackling. I write stories, I oversee our paid interns from Michigan State and New York University — we have four at the moment — and I assign and edit freelance stories. I work closely with Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate. We’re a great team. Our stories run not just on our own sites, but at Scientific American and at various newspapers. I also oversee our aggregation to make sure that our front page reflects the best journalism of the day and that our standards remain high for posting stories. We don’t simply aggregate; we hand-select the best environmental journalism for readers of Above the Fold, EHN’s daily email update, and environmentalhealthnews.org. I also help train our Science Fellows. This is a passion of mine, since most scientists need help communicating with the public and the press, especially now, with fewer journalists around.

Q: There's a lot of discussion about the role that nonprofit journalism organizations can play in filling some of the gaps created by cutbacks in the traditional media. Was this a motive behind adding original coverage to EHN?

A: Definitely. We are trying to fill the voids left in traditional media. Obviously, those voids are huge — thousands of reporters have lost their jobs. But by wisely choosing which stories to cover, we can provide the public with high-quality journalism about environmental health and climate change issues that are no longer covered by the mainstream press. Some terrific environmental journalism has come from foundation-funded media — EHN, ProPublica and others. The San Francisco Chronicle has published two of our stories (by Jane Kay) on their front page. The irony is Jane left the Chronicle but because of EHN, San Francisco readers can still read some of her great stories. We have been able to hire many out-of-work journalists.

Q: You undoubtedly pay as much attention to news coverage of the subjects that EHN follows as anyone around. Please share some of your impressions about the current state of that coverage and any key trends that you see. Is my assumption correct that there's less coverage than there used to be? Any particularly telling examples of issues or subjects that aren't getting enough coverage?

A: I think both the quality and the quantity have declined. Many of the best and most experienced environmental journalists have left newspapers. And one of the areas that is the hardest hit is coverage of environmental health. It’s the most difficult part of the beat, and most of it is not covered at all and the coverage that remains is pretty superficial. California has been especially hit hard with the loss of many experienced environmental writers. Air pollution there is not well-covered anymore, and that is disturbing because it ranks among California’s most important issues because of the impact on health and the economy. Newspapers just don’t have the staff — or frankly, the interest — to cover these issues. They think it’s a luxury they can no longer afford to cover. But they’re wrong. They misjudge the public’s interest in the health effects of diesel exhaust in neighborhoods or chemicals in consumer products. We can’t leave readers to find out about these things from inaccurate, poorly reported websites, blogs or special interests. Most specialized journalism is hurting. I think science coverage has had the most severe declines.

Then again, there has been some great stuff. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s coverage of BPA. The New York Times wrote a long series on drinking water contaminants. ProPublica is doing terrific, ongoing coverage of natural gas drilling. Climate change coverage, in particular, is booming. New media outlets are starting to step in.

Q: Are there any recurring themes in the scientists' critiques of news coverage that appear in your Media Review department?

A: In most cases, it’s an issue of the reporter needing to dig a bit deeper. Often, someone will write about the roots of cancer or Parkinson’s, and not even mention potential environmental causes. Or they don’t bother to adequately explain the health effects of mercury or PCBs in fish. It’s not like this is some big, hidden secret. Most reporters seem afraid to be analytical. That’s what great environmental journalism is — the ability to explain technical issues in a way that is both consumer-friendly and true to the science. And you must incorporate into your coverage all the knowledge that scientists have learned over the past few decades. For example, when you write about flame retardants, you need to say that levels of PBDEs had been doubling in American women’s breast milk every five years, and that they are still hitchhiking to the Arctic and contaminating polar bears, and that they are similar to the old PCBs that left a huge, costly legacy. It’s this perspective and analysis that makes coverage of these issues so powerful — whether it’s old media or new media.

Q: Tell me a little about freelance opportunities at EHN. What kinds of people and stories are you looking for?

A: We're looking for experienced journalists who can write about environmental health and climate topics not covered well by “mainstream” press. Our freelance topics have included gray whale migration off the Pacific coast, balsamic vinegars tainted with lead, the dangers of mercury spills in school classrooms and the push for green pharmaceuticals in Europe.

Q: Looking ahead, are there any new features or further changes being planned at EHN? Any initiatives aimed at getting your original coverage before a wider audience? There's talk of non-profits linking up in different ways and there have been a number of recent cases of collaboration between some new non-profits and traditional, commercial outlets. Have you been thinking about or discussing such ventures with other news organizations?

A: Our goal is to reach out to a bigger audience with our stories. We already are collaborating with other traditional media. Our articles have run in the SF Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, Scientific American and the LA Times blog. And we have plans for much more. We are creating a wire service for our stories and developing plans to work with other foundation-funded media to distribute their stories, too. We have two new collaborative projects in the works — one with another foundation-funded journalism group and another with a traditional one — that I’m very excited about. Our biggest frustration has been breaking down the barriers of traditional media but we think we are at the tipping point for that.

Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue.