The Biz: Change Most Definitely Has Come. Now What?

January 15, 2009


Journalists by their very nature love change. Change is news. Change is good. And now change is everywhere.

So, journalists, get ready for a feast, a veritable orgy of change coming your way.

Having taken over as the capstone of both principal presidential candidates' election campaigns, and most assuredly of that of successful candidate and President-elect Barack Obama, change is the Big Kahuna of 2009.

It just doesn't get any better than this.

Or does it?

Change comes in different flavors. There's change that's to be welcomed, change that's to be anticipated, and change that's feared, albeit rightly or wrongly.

Journalists who have the environment as a significant part of their purview have all three on their radar screen.

Change ... and Obama

There's the change certain to come from a new Obama administration taking the reins in Washington, D.C. It's not too early to anticipate profoundly different approaches from those of the Bush administration in the federal government's approach to and management of environmental issues. Some of these will take place in the halls of Congress, but far more – and no less importantly – in the halls of Executive Branch regulatory agencies ranging well beyond just the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. From the Agriculture Department through Commerce/NOAA, State and Treasury, a virtual 180-degree change is likely to ripple across the land and across dozens and dozens of environmental and natural resources programs, with implications globally, nationally, regionally and locally.

Keeping track of those changes won't be easy for a substantially depleted Washington press corps feeling the pinch, like those in their home offices, of pink slips and buy-outs. Whether and how well Washington's still-booming specialized press corps and the "new media" can fill the void and provide meaningful grist for hyper-localization-crazy home-town media remains a big unknown.

Change ... and Climate Change

Part and parcel of the change the Obama administration will bring to town and to the international arena are the ongoing changes scientists are daily documenting in our global climate. These ongoing changes aren't susceptible to the daily peaks and valleys of the Dow Jones Industrial Average or NASDAQ, and their march onward seems for all practical purposes unreceptive to much else that constitutes "news" on any given day.

With a more sympathetic White House and, one guesses, House and Senate, the greatest change on the climate change front may come not in how the climate itself is affected, but rather in the shift in emphasis from climate science to climate policies. Think here of "solutions," a seemingly irresistible, though perhaps hopelessly optimistic, catch phrase.

Reporters covering the climate change issue by no means should take the passing of the climate doubters' denials as a given. They and other opposition to regulation of carbon dioxide emissions – both in the scientific and in the policy arenas – in fact may be emboldened now that their adversaries are in charge not only of the workings of science, but also the workings of the federal infrastructure.

The shift to moving forward on suitable climate policies – the economics, the costs/benefits, the public health implications, the energy tradeoffs, the regional and local implications – will take place in the context of a collapsed financial system which itself appears likely to dominate Washington, Obama, front-page news, and citizens' pocketbook realities for months to come.

Reporters failing to consider climate change – and what to do about it – in the context of the sagging global economy are deluding themselves and, more importantly, their audiences.

Change . . . and Journalism

If it were just the nature of change coming from a new administration and from climate change that were dominating the bandwidth of journalism listservs, environmental reporters would have more than enough to keep them busy.

Fact is, however, that on many of the most viable and sentient listservs (including that of SEJ), it's the nature of change in journalism that also commands attention.

As well it should.

The changes under way, and seemingly (and frighteningly?) accelerating, lie at the heart of how the reading, listening, and viewing public in the future will come by the important scientific, political, and policy information they need to keep the machinery of a democratic society well-oiled. Consolidations of ownerships, reductions in traditional revenue streams, losses of subscribers and "eye balls," parings of news holes, eliminations of foreign and state capital bureaus, "dumbing down," and pink-slip-induced brain drains – these and more are the stuff of environmental and other journalists' nightmares.

The variety of "change" here – with one's employer, in one's newsroom, as it applies to one's chosen field/profession/trade – in many ways involves more, and more immediate and intense, unknowns than even the changes in Washington or in the climate. They're the kinds of changes that can directly, and soon, affect or even drive decisions on things like options for the kids' education, the family's mortgage, the summer vacation, or the credit card balance.

Change. And changes. They're not just coming. They're here. Dealing with all of them, and with their attendant unknowns, will define how and how well environmental journalists do their job as they and their audiences enter this new period of uncertainties. And how they do their jobs in the midst of this unprecedented period of change, uncertainty, and anxiety will in turn determine how the American public gropes and copes with its responsibilities to be informed as citizens of a democracy.

Perhaps Bob Dylan said it best with "The Times, They are A-Changin'." The best environmental journalists and their editors cannot only survive those changes, but in fact steer them and benefit from them. That's the challenge. Take it?

Bud Ward is an independent journalism educator and founder/ former editor of Environment Writer. He now is editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Bud Ward
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