This Is Our Time: Opportunity Amid Media Turmoil

May 15, 2006

 

 By PERRY BEEMAN

I write this as the Winter Olympics end. Some athletes landed hard on the ice or snow and went home without the oversized jewelry they sought. Others turned an ice version of shuffleboard and a snow version of skateboarding into gold medals.

Many were inspired, and inspiring. It brought back memories of the speech '80 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks gave in the movie "Miracle." He wanted the young Americans to discard their fear of the Soviets, and said bluntly, "This is YOUR time!"

I shared that line with the SEJ board at our recent meeting, because in many ways SEJ is poised for a banner period. We are a leader in the U.S. fight for freedom of information. We have colleagues all over the country queuing to play host to our annual conference. We are reaching out to Canada, Mexico and elsewhere. We have the attention of editors and are working with their associations to promote the environmental beat.

For our membership at large, "This is your time" could mean action closer to home. Newsrooms are reorganizing, cutting jobs, scrambling to shift to web-first delivery of news. Many papers are fighting to meet the financial goals set with some of the loftiest profit expectations in any industry. Last issue, I wrote about my concerns about our futures. This time, I'd like to share some reasons for optimism and vigilance.

In other times, the cuts we now face often would have meant the environmental beat was about to go out the door. We have to make sure that doesn't happen. For us, the "This is your time" speech is about you defending your job and pointing out why newspapers and other media outlets would be making a huge mistake to cut this coverage.

I know you already are on this page, but we have to consider our message in the new newsroom atmosphere. What other beat so directly affects readers' and viewers' lives? What other beat offers investigative stories, features, database projects, news you can use, health, medicine, public affairs and recreation coverage, all in one?

Then we have the move to the Internet. That could be a huge boon to our beat. We can load whole databases on our websites. Let people look up their town and find how out pollution there ranks with the rest of the state or country. Take a digital camera and give the sights and sounds of the kayakers, the birds, the cleanup crews, water samplers, wildlife. One of our contest winners did such an excellent job with just audio of a Native American land. Imagine what we can do with audio, video, Internet links, blogs, expanded photos, polls, questions and answers, music, quizzes. We'll be much more relevant to classes by offering these one-stop, diverse arrays of information.

This is your time.

When newsrooms go to cut things, they increasingly look to boost local offerings. It doesn't get any more local than the recycling bin at your curb, the stream behind your house and the bike trail running along the abandoned rail line right of way in town. Even global warming – which sends many an editor to the Visine bottle – is undeniably a local story. That's still a tough message for editors. They are starting to get it, though. More carbon dioxide could be a great thing for corn yields, accelerating the growth of the plant. But if more frequent hail and tornado action strips the still-growing stalks, what have we gained? What if Arkansas pests start eating lunch in Iowa's fields? What if the gut-wrenching disaster in New Orleans is an early indication of increased coastal battering to come, across the globe?

Our message to newsroom leaders needs to be more than "we aren't environmentalists, we're journalists" and "actually, I don't own a pair of Birkenstocks but thanks for the stereotype." We need to sell this beat the easy way. By asking tough questions, by subjecting the spinmeisters to our b.s. meters, by simply doing good journalism. We need to use all the new tools we have on the Internet. We need to be watchdogs, investigative journalists, and we need to make sure we aren't missing the news on our own backyards. Our editors will expect that, and so will our readers.

This is our time.

In a world of mall beats and freeway reporters, and citizen journalists, we are among the few specialists still out there. We are on a beat – where there still are beats – that requires some added expertise. We offer depth, insight. We help readers make decisions on what could rightly be called the story of the century.

I don't know how any self-respecting news outlet could cut such a beat. I would think an expansion of environmental coverage, health news, and other hit-at-home beats would be an obvious need.

A full set of hockey gear might be a nice thing to have in the newsrooms of the 2000s. The economy and competitive forces are bodychecking us at the moment. Many times we feel like the goalie taking shot after shot, somehow trying to defend the net.

Unless too many of those pucks have struck the sides of our owners' heads, we'll be around for the next medal round.

Perry Beeman, SEJ board president, writes about the environment for The Des Moines Register. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue