SEJ Builds Anew with EPA, Starts Fund for Environmental Journalism

October 15, 2009

By CHRISTY GEORGE

As this issue goes to press, we are into the ninth month of 2009, but it's already a remarkably "meta" year for SEJ.

After spending months thinking about the crisis in journalism, the SEJ Board of Directors on August 1st voted to create a new Fund for Environmental Journalism. More on that in a minute.

We have also been working hard to start off on the right foot with the new Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency.

And SEJ is on the verge of electing two or more new board members. Don't forget to vote!

From the start of 2009, board members have been engaged in meta-thinking: what's happening to the news business? How does that affect environmental journalists as a whole, and our members in particular? How will the losses and the new startups affect the environmental coverage the public craves? And how should SEJ respond on behalf of all our members, and the public?

January saw the beginning of rewriting and rethinking SEJ's Strategic Plan, and the beginning of what's sure to be a long-term quest for funding — not just to invest in SEJ's work, but also to help environmental journalism in general.

All this SEJ meta-thinking came as a new US president — one who appeared to understand the complexity and urgency of environmental challenges like climate change, renewable energy creation and how those issues link to a strong economy — took office and began staffing up federal environmental agencies.

While SEJ has a keen interest in making sure all the new relationships go smoothly for everyone, especially given past difficulties with previous administrations, there is arguably no single U. S. agency as important as the EPA. Over the years, SEJ has held numerous "Meet your EPA PIO" events at past annual conferences, and invited the new EPA chief to be part of a plenary session at the SEJ conference. We hope to do both this fall in Madison.

In early July, SEJ and top officials of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's staff had a conference call at their initiative. And, at their urging, we detailed frequent causes of friction between EPA and SEJ members.

Here's a short timeline of how we got there:

• In the wake of last December's devastating coal ash spill in Tennessee, SEJ wrote the outgoing Bush EPA outlining the difficulty the public, and our members, were having getting access to information about the spill, especially environmental monitor- ing data. We also asked EPA to post data on the EPA website the minute it's available, citing the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996.

• In February, a month later, we got an answer from the interim Region 4 administrator, explaining the trouble they'd had initially, detailing the work they'd done since in publicizing test results and promising to do better.

• Also in February, SEJ wrote Lisa Jackson, congratulating her on her appointment and asking her to "roll back fully the information blackout that was imposed on the Toxics Release Inventory in recent years."

• In June, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) held an oversight hearing on EPA press restrictions.

• Also in June, SEJ's WatchDog TipSheet Editor Joe Davis attended an EPA meet and greet.

• And in June, SEJ extended an invitation to speak at SEJ's October conference in Madison to Administrator Jackson, as well as Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

• At the end of June, we heard from Jackson's public affairs staff that they wanted to "meet your leadership for a getting to know you meet and greet/call."

• That on-the-record conference call happened in early July. On the line from SEJ were Executive Director Beth Parke, Joe Davis and me. From EPA, Seth Oster, associate administrator for public affairs, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, deputy associate administrator for public affairs, Adora Andy, press secretary, speech writer Michael Moats and our first contact, Shakeba Carter-Jenkins, special assistant to the deputy associate adminis- trator for public affairs.

We spent a friendly and productive hour on the line, and although we were braced for inconsequential pleasantries, the EPA folks asked right away what our gripes were.

We briefly outlined the most persistent issues: failure to call people back promptly, "minders" when reporters interview staff scientists, a disconnect between how reporters inside and outside the Beltway are treated, the Bush-era legacy of FOIA denials and the lack of notification of upcoming press conferences. (If anyone is still having trouble with that, sign up for both your EPA region and for headquarters emails here.)

Their takeaway message for us was "we're not the Bush administration." They understand there's a lot of "baggage journalists are still carrying around from the last eight years." They said "those weren't the best practices," and added, "those days are left behind." They asked us to ask you to "give us the benefit of the doubt."

Our takeaway message for them was "transparency and access," or as Joe Davis put it, "access, access, access, access."

To use the hackneyed cop-out, only time will tell if this promising beginning will stick, but I am cautiously optimistic. Perhaps the best sign of all was the early release of raw data from the TRI on August 18th, though as we go to press, we have yet to see the analysis.

At the risk of burying the lead, let me finish with SEJ's newest initiative: the Fund for Environmental Journalism.

The first germ of an idea surfaced at our January meeting: Should SEJ become a publisher, producer or commissioner of environmental journalism? If not, where does SEJ fit? How can we help members stay working, and get more and better environ- mental journalism assignments?

At our April meeting in New Orleans, the board — with input from several members involved in new media enterprises — decided not to do anything that could be interpreted as competing with our own members.

Board members and staff were still trying to decide how to help in late July when we met in Washington state to brainstorm and strategize with a small group of environmental foundation folks who really "get" SEJ.

The funders who attended were savvy and engaged people who know SEJ, and they seemed impatient with small gestures. They wanted to find that elusive new revenue model that will save all of journalism and they eagerly suggested bold moves — government funding for journalism through an annual taxpayer checkoff, or a new funding device — a new Kindle or the next Craigslist — to which journalism could hitch its star. But they also offered sound advice: consider sustainable business models, and remember that philanthropists look for an exit strategy before investing in a new area, like journalism.

What emerged at our board meeting the next day was the notion of a fund for environmental journalism that is not a venture capital fund, but rather an incubator for new ideas, projects and training. For instance, the fund might cover travel costs for a story, pay someone's way to a workshop on entrepre- neurial skills or help someone finish a major project.

Before you call or email about how to apply, please understand that the fund doesn't have a dime to its name. We're just starting to fundraise. If we see success before the year is out, 2009 will be a remarkable year indeed.

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

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.

CHRISTY GEORGE