All in One Place at One Time

September 1, 2015

SEJ President’s Report

By JEFF BURNSIDE

Society of Environmental Journalists’ founder Jim Detjen and I were sitting together at an SEJ gathering not long ago wondering about the size of the collective readership/viewer/listenership of all of SEJ’s members. In essence, what is our potential reach? We calculated that it must be in the tens of millions.

That’s power to help set the national dialogue and, in many cases, the global dialogue.

Now imagine hundreds and hundreds of those professional journalists gathering in one place at one time: You have the extraordinary annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. It is the tangible manifestation of the intangible global reach of our members’ work.

At an April reception for the SEJ board members in Sacramento designed to build interest in the 2016 SEJ conference there, I was asked to say a few words about the value of our annual gathering. In addition to leading California journalists and our energized hosts at California Public Radio (“Cap Radio”), the audience comprised scientists, NGOs, opinion leaders, faculty and staff from UC-Davis including University Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, and many more distinguished guests. Understandably, they knew very little about SEJ.

I remembered my chat with Detjen and relayed it to the group. This audience loosely mirrors the stakeholders of environmental journalism that are drawn to our conferences — and for very good reason. Our conferences provide an unparalleled opportunity for access to the very journalists whose work is helping to frame that national and global dialogue on a broad spectrum of environmental and energy issues. Indeed, the stakeholders who regularly attend our conferences know this.

I could see the light bulbs going off over the heads of people in that Sacramento audience. They realized the value and importance of not only SEJ but our highly-regarded conferences. I made it clear that one of these amazing conferences is coming to their region in 2016 and that they should start ramping up for it.

Journalists need to frequently escape the protected enclave of the newsroom or the home office where our work is created. Whether it’s through email or social media, the telephone or snail mail — we must be accessible to the public. Our conferences help serve that purpose.

Clearly, the leading focus of our conference is to advance journalistic skills. Comradery is important too. But learning about potential stories, meeting new contacts or getting story tips is critical. So, creating a venue for us to have access to the public, and for the public to have access to us, is critical as well.

Indeed, the exhibit tables we have at our conferences always sell out. The fees help keep registration costs down for attendees. Exhibitors love it because it gives them a chance to elevate their messages. And many of them are fascinating and have merit.

SEJ, prudently and carefully, provides other valuable ways to access our members: Advertising in the conference program, paid email blasts to members who opt in, ads in the SEJournal. Membership dues provide an extremely small percentage of our budget. Foundation support is waning for all nonprofits and is always difficult. So the earned income we generate is used wisely and miserly.

Right now, the 2015 SEJ conference is gearing up with our hosts at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Our teams who previously conducted site visits gave rave reviews about the issues that will be front and center there. Conference co-chairs Sarah Terry-Cobo of the Journal Record and Nancy Gaarder of the Omaha World-Herald are working closely with SEJ’s long-time conference director Jay Letto to bring you another highly regarded journalism conference that we hope will give you more skills and more story tips — perhaps some even filed from the conference itself, as is happening more and more.

I asked a rhetorical question at the Sacramento reception: Think of the last time you held a news conference and total the number of journalists there. Was it three? Five, perhaps? Now allow yourself to realize that the SEJ conference brings together from every state and dozens of nations the bulk of professional journalists who specialize in the very issue these stakeholders care about so much.

And this all happens in one place at one time. Imagine that.

Jeff Burnside is a senior investigative reporter with KOMO television, Seattle’s ABC station, and has served on the SEJ Board for eight years. He’s been awarded several working fellowships and is the recipient of more than 20 journalism awards. A Seattle native, he has reported on coral reef decline, overfishing, killer whales and biomedical research, from locales like Berlin, Bali, the Arctic Circle, Panamanian jungles, and throughout the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Everglades.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.