SEJ President’s Report: Urgency of Katowice Carries Over to SEJ Mission
By Bobby Magill
Few things make me more thankful for the relatively clean air quality in the United States than having spent two weeks in December in the city of Katowice (that’s pronounced Kat-o-VEET-zah) in southern Poland covering the United Nations international climate talks.
As poor air quality goes in Europe, southern Poland is about as bad as it gets. In a coal-producing region almost entirely dependent on lumps of black carbon for home heating, coal smoke billows from the chimneys of houses and apartment buildings, leaving a blanket of dense smog hanging low over towns and creating halos around street lights. The pollution in the small town I stayed in burned my lungs as I walked down the street.
But the pollution on the coldest nights in Katowice isn’t nearly as bad as it is in larger Krakow or in the surrounding small towns. My hotel was in Oswiecim (pronounced Osh-vee-EN-cheem), known to the rest of the world as Auschwitz, and I commuted about 25 miles to the conference each day.
I’ve covered many conferences before, but none so intense and sobering as COP24, which is short for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
COP24 wasn’t intense just because of the frenetic pace of the conference itself. It was intense for me because I was able to experience living for two weeks in a Polish industrial town freighted by its history, polluted by its heating systems and largest employers, and overlooked — forsaken, perhaps — by tourists who skip the town itself to visit the Auschwitz museums on the edge of the city, commemorating those lost in the most heinous atrocity ever perpetrated on humanity.
But during World War II, the entire Oswiecim area was commandeered by the Nazis for the purposes of genocide. My hotel was adjacent to and surrounded by the trappings — industrial buildings, Nazi-era fences, dilapidated factories, bunkers and bomb shelters — of the Holocaust.
Like the remaining slave plantations and ghosts of the Civil War on the coastal South Carolina island where I grew up, the clues to injustice and evidence of atrocity felt like wallpaper: incorporated into the suburban sprawl and hiding in plain sight unless you look closely.
Journalists of all stripes now on environment story
The intensity of the conference itself sprang in part from the palpable tension that’s inherent in nearly all policy discussions about climate change: A rising sense of emergency was met with calls for action and a slate of private sector climate commitments in some quarters, but plenty of shrugs or even hostility in others, especially from U.S. officials.
Grindingly slow diplomacy was juxtaposed with climate activists demanding immediate action and climate “ambition” largely supported by science that shows that climate pollution must be cut drastically before 2030 to prevent humanity and the Earth from going over a precipice.
Scientists’ warnings that catastrophic climate scenarios are becoming more likely contrasted with the U.S. affirming its commitment to turn its back on the only coordinated global effort to address what U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres framed as an increasingly urgent existential crisis.
Climate change is the
environmental story of our era.
It may also be the story of our era.
Climate change is the environmental story of our era. It may also be the story of our era, and the more coverage of it, hopefully the better equipped all of us will be in reducing the risk.
There was a moment at COP24 when I realized that the roomful of reporters from around the world covering the climate talks aren’t all reporters on the environment beat, or even the climate beat. Many were TV and radio reporters whose beats didn’t neatly fall under “environment” at all. Others were bureau reporters assigned to COP24 as a global diplomatic and political event.
I don’t have to tell you that climate change is a rising global environmental crisis that affects everyone and all of the usual journalism coverage areas: environment, public health, business, finance, politics, education, terrorism, national security, city hall and on and on.
Journalists covering the environmental story of our time aren’t married to the environment beat, or even environmental coverage per se.
That has implications for SEJ’s future.
SEJ undertakes strategic planning process
SEJ is embarking on a process that charts our organizational path through the next three to five years, or longer. The question of how SEJ supports, promotes and enables coverage of the biggest story of our time is likely to be central to the SEJ Board’s long-term strategic planning.
That planning, which will begin in late January and hopefully conclude before the annual conference in October at Colorado State University, is vital to SEJ’s ability to raise money. It will directly affect you and the future of the organization. The goal is threefold:
- To articulate to members and funders the specific impact we seek to make on both the public’s understanding of environmental issues and reporters’ ability to cover them in 2019 and beyond.
- To set concrete organizational goals for the next three to five years, determining the programs SEJ plans to focus on, how much SEJ wants to grow its membership and how we’ll adjust to the changing media landscape.
- To provide SEJ Executive Director Meaghan Parker and staff with a framework for setting long-term performance goals and a roadmap for a successful SEJ.
The strategic planning process will reflect deeply on what SEJ is as an organization, who its members are, how we serve them, how our mission serves journalism and journalists, and how we improve the public’s understanding of environmental issues at a time when media and the ways the public gets factual information are as fractured as ever.
As part of this planning process, we’ll address one of the questions that previous boards have never been able to fully resolve: Are we an organization that primarily supports environmental journalism broadly, or are we an organization that is primarily of, for and about journalists?
One thing is clear:
Some of SEJ’s foundational ideas that were
relevant in 1990 or even five years ago
may not apply in 2019 or 2022.
Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is clear: Some of SEJ’s foundational ideas that were relevant in 1990 or even five years ago may not apply in 2019 or 2022. The planning process helps SEJ to figure out how we need to evolve, attract new funding and vigorously support environmental journalism — and all of you.
One very tiny way we’ve changed already is by creating a new Fundraising Committee, chaired by Jeff Burnside, as one of our standing committees on the SEJ Board.
SEJ was in survival mode for two years or so because the SEJ staff's normal efforts to maintain existing grants and seek out new ones were redirected to just keeping SEJ afloat as our previous executive director joined us and departed. Now, as Meaghan Parker hits her stride as executive director, we have to get the pipeline of grants flowing again.
The committee’s first effort, a major fundraising push in December from Giving Tuesday through the end of the year, raised more than $12,000 in individual donations. SEJ’s individual and direct donations for the fourth quarter of 2018 totaled more than $25,000.
But the committee’s and Meaghan’s biggest challenge will be to seek out new higher-dollar grants that sustain SEJ for the longer term. We’ll have more news on that in the coming months.
A ‘home’ at SEJ for tireless former executive director
Finally, the last three years have been intensely challenging for all of us on the board as we’ve worked through hiring a new permanent executive director. It has been a privilege to lead SEJ through the turbulence, and I’m honored to serve a third year as SEJ president.
The biggest honor, however, goes to our founding and now retired executive director Beth Parke, whose tireless dedication has kept SEJ afloat during our most difficult months.
As Beth enjoys her retirement, I’m going to recommend that the SEJ Board grant honorary membership status for her — a status given only to a handful of SEJ members in our 29-year history.
Honorary membership ensures that Beth’s institutional knowledge will remain with us for many years to come, and that she’ll always have a home among the SEJ family.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.