SEJ's Birth

January 15, 2010

 By JIM DETJEN

In the late 1980s, environmental issues were growing in importance. A hole in the ozone layer had been discovered over Antarctica in 1985. The Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine had melted dow, spreading radioactive contamination throughout Europe in 1986. A scientist named James Hansen was making increasingly provocative statements about global warming.

Despite the prominence of these environmental concerns, there was no national association to support journalists who wrote about these issues.

At several national conferences of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), I talked to Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, about the importance of creating such an association. We both agreed there was a need, and we laid out a sketchy vision for such a group, patterned at least partly on IRE's structure.

But when we returned home to our newspapers we became caught up again in our busy lives as reporters and we'd drop the discussion — until we met again the following year.

In 1988, David Stolberg, assistant general editorial manager of Scripps Howard Newspapers, also thought there was a need for such an organization. He floated the idea of creating such a group to the winners of the Edward J. Meeman national environmental writing award, which he administered.

"I asked if there was interest — and there was none," he recalled with a laugh. "The idea could have died aborning."

But by the spring of 1989 environmental stories were continuing to ratchet up in importance. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound off the Alaskan coast and spilled 11 million gallons of oil, contaminating more than 1,100 miles of Alaskan shoreline. Time Magazine described it as "an unprecedented ecological disaster. " 

Stolberg asked that year's Meeman winners — Dennis Anderson of the St. Pioneer Press Dispatch and Kate Long and Paul Nyden of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette — if they thought there was a need. They enthusiastically said yes.

Nyden and Anderson sent a letter to me and previous Meeman winners to see if we'd be willing to support such a group. I immediately called up Stolberg and resoundingly endorsed the idea. I felt the time had come to launch such a group.

I knew there was a professional need for such an association. But there were personal considerations as well. My Dad had died in 1988 and his death made me realize how finite life is. It convinced me of the importance of finally moving forward to achieve a vision that had not yet been realized.

On Sept. 1, 1989, I was one of 17 former winners of the Meeman and Thomas Stokes national journalism awards who signed a letter that was mailed out to journalists around the country. We wanted to see if there was interest for an organization of environmental writers. "This will not be a fluffy group. The threat to the environment in the early 1990s is enormous. Whether we write about air and water pollution, strip mining abuses, vanishing wildlife, or hazardous waste, we are writing pieces of the most important story of the decade. We need a forum where we can meet each other and see how those pieces fit together."

Among the signers were Marla Cone of the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.; Kevin Carmody of the Potomac News in Manassas, Va.; Bill Dietrich, Tom Long and Natalie Fobes of the Seattle Times; Jane Kay of the San Francisco Examiner; Deborah Frazier of the Rocky Mountain News; Shannon Tompkins of the Beaumont Enterprise in Texas; Bob Anderson and Michael Dunne of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate; Thomas Morton of the Colorado Springs Gazette; Richard Boyd of the Enterprise in Lexington Park, Md.; Steve Meissner of the Arizona Daily Star; Jonathan Harsch of Maumee, Ohio; as well as Anderson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Nyden of the Charleston Gazette.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. More than 100 journalists said there was a need for such a group. We held a conference call, followed by three organizational meetings on Dec. 5, 1989 and Feb. 5 and April 2, 1990. Stolberg prodded us along and convinced Scripps Howard newspapers to pay the $2,700 in legal fees that were needed to become a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization.

The early organizers discussed possible names, including the National Association of Environmental Journalists. Finally, we agreed to call the non-profit organization the Society of Environmental Journalists, or SEJ. On Feb. 14, 1990 — St. Valentine's Day — SEJ was formally incorporated in Washington, D.C.

SEJ's first interim officers included me as president; Rae Tyson of USA Today and Teya Ryan of Turner Broadcasting as vice presidents; Noel Grove of National Geographic as treasurer; and Bob Engelman of Scripps Howard News Service as secretary. Other board members included George Dwyer of ABC News; Julie Edelson of Inside EPA; Janet Raloff of Science News; Howard Chapnick, a photojournalist at Black Star Publishing; Bowman Cox of Pasha Publications; Tom Meersman of Minnesota Public Radio; Carmody, Anderson and Nyden.

The energy and enthusiasm of the original founders was overwhelming. We determined SEJ's structure by speaking to officers in IRE and the National Association of Science Writers. We decided to exclude public relations officials and made it an organization for journalists and journalism educators. We debated endlessly the categories of membership and possible sources of funding.

Everything seemed new and exciting. We designed brochures and application forms. We gathered lists of potential members. We decided to keep dues low — $30 a year — to make it possible for journalists at smaller news organizations to join.

Those were the days when e-mail was in its infancy so we used the U.S. mail, the telephone and talks at other journalism organizations to spread the word. In the spring of 1990 we were ready to begin soliciting members. I thought we might attract about 250 members.

In July we accepted our first 79 members. By October that number had grown to 160. By December 1990 we had 350 members. By the end of 1991 we had 622 and by the end of 1994 we had reached 1,000 members.

"SEJ's membership grew way beyond our wildest expectations," Tyson recalled.

Each application was scrutinized to make sure the applicant was eligible for membership and to determine the proper category. It wasn't easy and there were frequent debates about an applicant's eligibility.

The founding officers were running SEJ out of their desks in their newsrooms, after hours and on weekends. All of us worked very long hours to build a fledgling organization while juggling demands of our jobs and families. But none of us complained; it was a task we passionately believed in. "The work load grew and we knew that as soon as we were able to afford it we would have to hire some staff," Tyson said.

I had been teaching a weekly class in environmental journalism as an adjunct instructor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. One of my former students, Amy Gahran, was a computer whiz and she was hired on a part-time basis to create and manage a database of our members.

In the fall of 1990 we published the first issue of our quarterly newsletter, SEJournal. We decided to begin planning for our first national conference. In November 1990 I was invited to speak at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During my trip, university officials pledged to give SEJ $10,000, if we held our first convention in Boulder. We decided to accept the offer.

Like so many other things in those wild days of SEJ's early history, the first national conference was planned on a wing and a prayer. We convinced U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, D. – Colo., to speak at the conference planned for Oct. 3 to 6, 1991. Other speakers included Steve Schneider, an expert on climate change, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Two weeks before the conference only 35 people had registered. The U.S. economy was in a recession and we didn't know what to expect. But environmental journalists flew in from all over the country and we were delighted — and a bit shocked — when more than 250 people attended.

Dave Ropeik, a television journalist from WCVB-TV in Boston who was elected to SEJ's board at that first meeting, recalls his desire to take an evening stroll. "When I got to the doors to the rear, however, a sign said something like, "Do NOT go out this door. Mountain lions are known to frequent the area!" I chuckled to myself at how esoteric and abstract environmental dangers like hazardous waste and dioxin suddenly seemed, compared to this concrete, immediate, easy-to-understand threat — and went back to the group to get more wine and munchies."

We knew that in order to grow we needed a full-time staff and we decided to apply for grants from foundations. I called up Pete Myers, a biologist I had interviewed as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He was now the director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Pete was enthusiastic and he came to the Inquirer newsroom where he assisted me in crafting a grant proposal. Within a short period of time, we received a grant of $50,000 from the foundation.

By the summer of 1992 we were planning our second conference, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It became clear that we were drowning in details and we hired Beth Parke, a former radio journalist, to assist us parttime. Her first job title was director of program development.

The second conference attracted more than 300 people. We invited Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, to give a major address. Teya Ryan, one of SEJ's two vice presidents, told us that Turner ran hot and cold and that he had to be charged up to give an enthusiastic talk. Teya flew to Michigan with him on his private plane. When he arrived in Ann Arbor, Teya told me to rev him up by enthusiastically talking about SEJ. I recall walking beside him outside the University of Michigan auditorium where he would speak. He was like a caged lion, pacing at an intense pace, while we walked beside each other before he spoke.

The strategy worked. Turner gave a very funny, idiosyncratic talk and charmed the SEJ audience. As soon as he was done, he went back to his plane where his wife, Jane Fonda, waited for him. And they then flew to his ranch in Montana.

In the fall of 1992 we advertised for a full-time executive director and reviewed applications from more than 40 people. We selected Parke as our first executive director because of her experience both as a journalist and an administrator.

In December 1992 we opened up SEJ's first office in a 12-foot-by- 20-foot room in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. By that time SEJ's membership had grown to more than 800 and we needed an office to house a desk, copying machine, filing cabinets and office equipment. The rent was $175 a month, including utilities.

SEJ had grown amazingly quickly in a very short period of time. By the fall of 1993 the organization had 870 members, an office and an annual budget of about a quarter of a million dollars a year. Noel Grove, our founding treasurer, described the transition this way, "It's like piloting a Sopwith Camel and then a Concorde."

He recalls making SEJ's first deposit of $1,470 with the dues of our first 49 members in June 1990. "By the time I relinquished bookkeeping duties to a professional accountant in November 1992, SEJ had a balance of $142,894.18," he said.

In 1994 I was approached by Michigan State University with an enticing offer — an endowed chair in environmental journalism — and a chance to build a university program in environmental journalism. I agonized whether to accept the offer. I had spent my career as a professional journalist and understood the politics of newsrooms. How would I fit into the environment of a major university?

I decided to accept the offer and stepped down as SEJ's first president in January 1995 when I joined the MSU's faculty as the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism. It was — and is — an excellent job and I've enjoyed teaching at MSU.

The hardest part of leaving the newspaper wasn't giving up daily journalism. I was ready for a change and a new challenge. The hardest part was stepping down as SEJ president, a volunteer job that I thoroughly loved. Under SEJ's rules only journalists who are active members of SEJ could hold office. I knew the rules well because I had helped write them.

Today, I am an academic member of SEJ and have remained an ex officio board member since SEJ was founded. As far as I know, Jay Letto and I are the only two people who have attended every SEJ national conference.

It has been a delight to watch SEJ grow and develop, adding many new programs and continuing to flourish. SEJ has been blessed with a remarkable staff and incredible stability. Its volunteers have given their hearts to this organization and enabled it to thrive despite economic downturns, and a dramatically changing media landscape.

I have no doubt that SEJ will continue to be a remarkable organization that invents new ways to adapt and prosper. Beth Parke always said I was Dr. Pangloss, the incurable optimist in Voltaire's novella Candide.

On the wall of my MSU office is a plaque that the SEJ board of directors gave me on January 7, 1995. It is an honor that I will always cherish. It reads, "Presented to Jim Detjen, Founding President, Society of Environmental Journalists, 1990-1994, With Deep Appreciation for Outstanding Generosity, Dedication and Leadership. From the SEJ Board and Staff."

Jim Detjen, SEJ's founding president, is director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. As SEJ's founding president he is an ex officio member of the SEJ board of directors.

 


 

SIDEBAR

Several of the people instrumental in founding SEJ 20 years ago were asked to reflect upon what SEJ has meant to them and to give their views of the future. Here are some of their responses.

Emilia Askari

Role: SEJ's second president and co-organizer of SEJ's second national conference in Ann Arbor
Job in 1989: Environment reporter for the Detroit Free Press Freelance journalist and a master's degree student at the University of Michigan's School of Information
Memories: Moderating a panel discussion about Alar between Warren Brooks, the late Detroit News conservative columnist, and Ellen Silbergeld, who is now a professor at the Johns Hopkins University … "They really went at it, raising the decibel level of the debate and jabbing fingers."
Importance of SEJ: SEJ was and continues to be very important to me as a job resource and also as a community of professional friends.
Optimistic?: I'm very optimistic about the future of SEJ.

Jim Detjen

Role: Founding President from 1990 to 1994
Job in 1989: Science/environmental writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer
Job Today: Director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University
Memories: Incredible camaraderie of the founders and staff members…Very long, sometimes chaotic early board meetings …Beth Parke called me Dr. Pangloss because of my ever optimistic view of life.
Importance of SEJ: More important than any of us could have predicted.
Optimistic?: Yes. There will always be a need for accurate environmental information … Smart people will figure out successful economic models to support environmental journalism.

Bob Engelman

Role: SEJ's founding secretary
Job in 1989: Environmental writer for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C.
Job today: Vice President for Programs, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, D.C.
Memories: They're dim but he recalls the difficulty back then winning the support of editors, which helped to eventually push him into a new career in advocacy.
Importance of SEJ: I've been excited and gratified to see SEJ grow so impressively.
Optimistic?: I'm a bit of a curmudgeon about environmental journalism — I feel it's failed to convey the magnitude of the risks we face with confidence and courage, especially on climate change.

Noel Grove

Role: SEJ's founding treasurer
Job in 1989: National Geographic Magazine's first senior editor for the environment
Job today: Freelance writer, mostly of books
Memories: Our first bank deposit on June 22, 1990 was for $1,470. By the time I relinquished bookkeeping duties to a professional accountant in November 1992, SEJ had a bank balance of $142,894.
Importance of SEJ: Very important
Optimistic?: Yes. As long as there is concern about what we are doing to Planet Earth, there will always be someone to write about it.

Julie Halpert

Role: Founding SEJ board member, co-organizer of second SEJ conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Job in 1989: Editor of the newsletter, Inside EPA, in Washington, D.C.
Job today: Freelance environmental writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan and instructor of an environmental journalism class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
Memories: Except for Teya Ryan, I was the only woman involved in those early meetings.
Importance of SEJ: Vitally important
Optimistic?: I'm unsure what it holds.

Jay Letto

Role: SEJ national conference organizer since third conference at Duke University in 1993
Job in 1989: Environment Program Director at Scientists' Institute for Public Information (SIPI)
Job today: SEJ's Director of Annual Conferences
Memories: Meeting founding president Jim Detjen at a Chinese restaurant in New York City and learning about SEJ for the first time. "I almost knocked Jim out of his seat I was so excited. I've never looked back since that moment."
Importance of SEJ: It's been everything to me. It's been my professional home for 20 years.
Optimistic?: No. Like the rest of journalism, we need to find something new and fast or we risk losing our audiences … We must figure out new models of delivery and support … If there is a way out of this mess, SEJ will find it.

Beth Parke

Role: First and only executive director
Job in 1989: Senior producer and host of Consider the Alternatives, a nationally syndicated radio series
Job today: SEJ executive director. "I'm still in this job. Can you believe it?"
Memories: I remember meeting at the Freedom Forum (in Virginia), thinking that the furniture in that board room probably cost more than SEJ's whole annual budget … The 1995 national conference at MIT when over-eager student volunteers turned away Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt from the keynote lunch with E.O. Wilson because he didn't have a ticket. We chased the limousine a whole block to catch him.
Importance of SEJ: It's consumed the prime of my life...It's been such a worthy endeavor …There are so many folks who got involved early on who never drifted away … Everyone who's given time, money, big pieces of their lives in different ways to keep SEJ going.
Optimistic?: Yes. I have no doubt that journalism will continue to play a crucial role for our democracy.

David Ropeik

Role: Elected to board of directors at SEJ's first conference in Boulder, Colorado
Job in 1989: Reporter for WCVB-TV, Boston ABC affiliate
Job today: Consultant on risk perception and risk communication. Instructor at Harvard University's environmental management program at the extension school.
Memories: At the first SEJ conference in Boulder in 1991 he considered going outside for an evening walk. "When I got to the doors, a sign said something like: "Do NOT go out this door. Mountain lions are known to frequent this area!" I chuckled to myself at how esoteric and abstract environmental dangers like hazardous waste and dioxin suddenly seemed … and went back to the group to get more wine and munchies."
Importance of SEJ: SEJ has strengthened respect for environmental journalism as a separate discipline…SEJ offers a supportive professional community for journalists working on environmental issues, and that sense of belonging alone is empowering.
Optimistic?: Uncertain.

Rae Tyson

Role: SEJ's founding vice president and third president
Job in 1989: Environmental writer for USA Today
Job today: Director, Media Division, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Memories: It was an incredibly fascinating, challenging time. We were literally running the organization out of our newsroom desks … The first conference in Boulder was especially rewarding because we were afraid that no one would come. And the turnout was terrific.
Importance of SEJ: Vitally so for the profession. It has done exactly what we hoped.
Optimistic?: Yes. As the communications evolve, the need for specialists will be ever greater.

Bud Ward

Role: His office hosted the first organizational meeting of SEJ in Washington, D.C. in Dec. 1989.
Job in 1989: Editor of Environment Writer
Job today: Self-employed. Acts as a consultant for Yale University, the National Science Foundation and the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting.
Memories: The energy of the initial founders … Late-night calls on various organizing issues — mostly, overwhelmingly, from Detjen.
Importance of SEJ: Far more important and valuable than any of us could have imagined in those early days … a veritable watering hole, a community of spirits.
Optimistic?: I'm hopeful, but I find it hard to be optimistic about the future of journalism in its entirety, and the sinking of the whole ship could take the lifeboats with it.

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