A Time of Change, a Time to Stay the Same

September 1, 2016

SEJ President’s Report

By JEFF BURNSIDE

Little did Jim Detjen know when he hired a part-time worker more than 25 years ago for the newly launched Society of Environmental Journalists that it would lead to an astonishing era of leadership.

It was Beth Parke he hired.

Under her leadership as executive director, SEJ has grown into the world’s leading group of professional journalists who cover environmental issues. Beth has overseen a rise in membership peaking at nearly 1,600 from every U.S. state, across the Canadian provinces and many other countries.

Beth has developed relationships with funders who help cover the costs of our programs and operations totaling millions of dollars over the years.

And Beth has watched over every SEJ conference as they’ve evolved to become the best in the journalism world.

In short, Beth Parke has become the dean of American journalism groups and made environmental journalism better and more robust.

Now, after accomplishing so much, she’s stepping down as SEJ’s executive director around the beginning of 2017 for some well-earned time to do other things with her life.

“I am forever grateful to SEJ for giving me the opportunity to help build something profoundly meaningful and learn something new every day,” she said in the official announcement.

“For the 23 years I've worked with Beth,” said SEJ Associate Director Chris Bruggers, “I've been amazed at her boundless abilities as a visionary.”

SEJ Conference Director Jay Letto, another staffer of more than 25 years, said Beth “has embodied and championed SEJ’s spirit of cooperation in our effort to seek elusive truths on complex environmental issues.”

A search committee spent the summer reviewing dozens of applicants and interviewing finalists to enable the SEJ board to select our new executive director. Beth has graciously agreed to help with a careful transition.

But no one can truly replace Beth Parke.

Beth’s departure also means the SEJ board is moving our headquarters location from Jenkintown, Pa. near Beth’s home. Our new headquarters location, to be selected in conjunction with the new executive director, will offer specific benefits to SEJ.

So it’s a time of careful change for SEJ and yet it’s also a time when SEJ holds steadfast against certain changes too. Here are some examples of both I want to share with you because it’s important we all know about these:

The foundation world, from which most of SEJ’s revenue comes, has evolved to be less eager to fund operational expenses that pay the bills, the salaries, the rent and keep the lights on. Beth has deftly navigated this change and helped us look for other acceptable revenue.

Several years ago, the board approved a change allowing SEJ to accept donations for general operations from anyone, capped at a certain amount. The change had almost no impact.

Several months ago, with unanimous approval from the SEJ board after vigorous discussion, Beth implemented an expanded and more expensive option for conference exhibitors that offers a bigger table, better signs and more recognition to help keep costs down for attendees. It begins at the Sacramento conference.

Except for media companies, foundations and our host institution, SEJ has historically refused direct contributions to fund our conferences. Not only can no one influence our conferences, we don’t want to ever leave that appearance.

You may, however, see small changes that we hope you find acceptable. For example, supporters can underwrite the cost of coffee during breaks and get a sign or other acknowledgment next to the coffee. This allows attendees to drink or not drink at their discretion. Along with our host institutions, we’ve also thanked other underwriters passively on screens. We hope that meets your approval.

One thing is clear: There will never be a corporate logo on the podium, or a sponsor’s banner over the stage, as some other journalism groups allow. Not SEJ.

SEJ’s board steadfastly refuses to create a new membership category for certain non-journalists like public relations professionals or public information officers as we’ve seen in other journalism groups. The language of our membership categories is frequently tweaked to reflect a changing journalism landscape and everyone should read the language on our website. But SEJ was founded by journalists for journalists — and there are no plans to change that whatsoever.

Financial pressures and new technology mean there are changes in SEJ’s publications program too. SEJ member surveys clearly indicate you prefer the content of the SEJournal to come to you in email. So Beth has approved a transition of that content to email under the SEJournal banner. Tipsheets, EJ Today and other world-class content written by SEJ members will all be delivered to you several times each month. The SEJournal will continue in print but adopt a single topic for each issue so we can find enough funding support and sell enough advertising to pay staff and costs. (Read more here.) The SEJournal editor will oversee this new publications strategy. We hope you like it. Let us know.

As Beth prepares to depart from her leadership role, SEJ is fortunate to have her team still working hard for us. Chris Bruggers and Jay Letto have each been with SEJ for more than 20 years. And Lisa Cosgriff and Cindy MacDonald are also veteran hardworking staffers who remain there for us, as are editorial staffers Adam Glenn and Joe Davis. We continue to be so grateful to them.

My term as your board president ends during the September SEJ conference. I’m so grateful to all of you for the chance to serve this wonderful institution. I trust you’ll give our new president all the support you’ve given me these last two years. Thank you.

Jeff Burnside, most recently a senior investigative reporter with KOMO television in Seattle, has been awarded several working fellowships and is the recipient of more than 20 journalism awards.He has served on the SEJ board for eight years.

 


* From the Fall 2016 SEJournal.