Revolving Door: When Enviro Reporters Leave the Beat Behind

June 1, 2015



Former AP reporter Dina Cappiello, center, interviewing former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, left, accompanied by an unidentified fellow AP staffer.
                                                   © AP Photo / Charles Dharapak

So, here is an SEJ riddle: What do George Orwell, Jim Detjen, Ernest Hemingway, Matt Wald, Mark Twain and Dina Cappiello have in common?

All of them, for a variety of reasons, left daily journalism for careers elsewhere.

In other words, since the days of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Animal Farm” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” talented individuals have decided that civilization as we know it would survive if they stopped working for the purveyors of news.

Although accomplished veteran reporters have been leaving journalism for decades, it was a pair of recent defections that had the Society of Environmental Journalists listserv buzzing: Veteran reporters — New York Times’ Matt Wald and Dina Cappiello of the Associated Press — both announced they were leaving the profession for jobs in the private sector.

Wald, a 38-year Times’ veteran who covered energy and transportation from the Washington, D.C., bureau, took a Times buyout offer, then accepted a policy job at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a D.C. lobbying group.

Cappiello, a former SEJ board member who covered the environment and energy for AP, left to become a vice president with Edelman, doing energy-related publications work for the firm.

Wald was mildly amused by the reactions to his departure: “Journalism has some aspects of the Mafia,” he said. “It is hard to be allowed out.”

For her part, Cappiello acknowledged that there were things she’d miss after seven years of reporting for AP. “I loved the notion of being an inside-the-Beltway reporter for people outside the Beltway.”

But for the mother of two boys, ages five and three, the daily challenge of working for the nation’s leading wire service while juggling parental responsibilities made her life stressful.

It is a familiar scenario in journalism, where the intersection of low pay, long hours, job insecurity and family responsibilities often triggers a search for better career alternatives, even among dedicated reporters and editors.

“I know a lot of people who are struggling with the same choice,” Cappiello said. “In the end, I, too, struggled with it because it was a hard decision to leave.”

Wald’s new position has him working on nuclear energy policy but not public relations. He explained: “I decided, after 38 years, that maybe it was time for something new.”

Trading on journalistic expertise

Former New York Times reporter Matthew Wald

Photo: courtesy Matthew Wald

Though Cappiello’s departure from AP did not seem to generate as much criticism as Wald’s move, both fueled the debate about veteran reporters moving into advocacy careers.

But the consensus was, perhaps grudgingly, that reporters do generally make good advocates because they fully understand the rules of engagement.

Throughout history, the notion of trading expertise, contacts and experience for another, often better paying, job is certainly not new.

Legislators — local, state or federal — leave office for positions as lobbyists for special interests. Political appointees commonly take lucrative jobs in the private sector after leaving public service.

But the transitions don’t always follow a logical path.

Take former public servants like George Stephanopoulos, who left the Clinton administration for a position with ABC News and “Good Morning America.” Or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who hosted a program on Fox News before leaving this year to consider a presidential bid.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., was a reporter for the Quad City Times for nearly 20 years before she successfully ran for public office. Wrote “It was a profession that suited her well.”

Despite that perpetual revolving door, advocates and fellow journalists alike react when an environment or energy reporter like Wald or Cappiello decides to leave the profession.

Typical was the reaction from Corporate Crime Reporter: “This did not sit well with public interest activists who for years had to deal with Wald’s pro-nuclear bias. And it continues an unseemly trend of mainstream news reporters going to work for the industries they covered as reporters.”

Asked about the accusations of bias in his energy coverage, Wald said, “I guess I will leave that for others to judge.”

Personal, financial considerations are factors

“How people live their lives is a personal matter,” commented SEJ member Nancy Gaarder, reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, about the recent departures. “Who am I to judge?”

Indeed, the decision to leave journalism is often personal, dictated by a number of factors.

Founding SEJ President James Detjen began covering science and environmental issues for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1982, during the time when legendary editor Gene Roberts was at the helm. “It was a very exciting time to be there,” Detjen said.

But, in the early 1990s, daily newspapers were showing serious signs of economic distress — and Roberts left the Inquirer.

After extensive family discussions, Detjen decided to leave journalism — not only because of uncertainty about the Inquirer’s future but also because he and his wife were worried about financing a college education for their children.

In 1994, Detjen accepted an offer to teach at Michigan State University, occupying the Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism. Detjen, his wife Connie and their two sons sold their home in Pennsylvania and moved to Michigan, where the new job included decent pay and the prospect of reduced tuition for their two sons.

“Initially, I wasn’t sure it would work out,” he said. “But it did and I loved it.”

Financial realities, including layoffs, also influenced others who left environmental reporting.

Peter Dykstra left Greenpeace in 1991 for a job in journalism. He got hired to work on environmental coverage at CNN in Atlanta. In 2008, “it was my turn to be laid off” when parent Turner Broadcasting cut back its science and environment coverage.

Dykstra, a former SEJ board member, landed a job as publisher at the Environmental Health News web site four years ago, but recently saw his hours and salary shrink when the non-profit lost a substantial chunk of funding.

Gary Polakovic, another former SEJ board member, covered environmental issues for 23 years, but a 2007 buyout offer led him to give up his job at the Los Angeles Times. After leaving the Times, he used some of his buyout money to create a public relations firm called Make Over Earth.

“I left because extreme instability in the newsroom made career traction impossible,” Polakovic said in a 2010 interview with the Poynter Institute. Polakovic declined to be interviewed for this SEJournal piece.

Finding ‘life after journalism’

Robert Engelman, SEJ co-founder and board member, covered science, health and the environment for the Scripps-Howard Washington bureau, where the fledgling SEJ held many of its organizational meetings.

“Once I understood the basic science surrounding the stories I was covering and had developed a diversity of good sources, I came to believe these were critically important stories, worthy of aggressive coverage,” he recalled.

But coverage disagreements with his editors had Engelman re-assigned to cover the House of Representatives, a beat he had little interest in.

“Feeling rebellious about having so little control over my beat assignment after many years in the profession, I began to consider other options,” he said.

Engelman decided to leave Scripps-Howard, taking an advocacy job with NGO Population Action International. He eventually moved to think tank Worldwatch Institute and served as president prior to his retirement.

For Connecticut journalist and SEJ member Jan Ellen Spiegel, moving back and forth from journalism to flacking for politicians like Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., proved to be challenging.

“I found it extremely hard to do,” she said. Spiegel is now writing for the online CTMirror.

Another SEJ member, Roger Witherspoon, left journalism for a time to work for petroleum giant Exxon in its environmental grants program. “The transition to Exxon was hard because the corporate world was different,” he recalled. Witherspoon eventually left the corporate world and returned to journalism. “Coming back into the business was not that big of an adjustment for me,” he said.

Reflecting on the economic realities of the current journalism climate, consider the plight of Kelly Conde. She was the winner of second place in last year’s SEJ feature writing category for a piece she wrote for The Missoula Independent while still a student.

Despite her obvious writing talent, Conde’s undergraduate degree in science and a graduate degree in environmental journalism, she ended up in an advocacy job with the Sawtooth Society because she said there were no reporting jobs available.

“I actually never left the journalism profession because I never really got a chance to try it in the first place,” said Conde.

‘Making lemonade’ with a PR slot

Though journalists are sometimes critical of former colleagues like Cappiello who leave the profession for public relations jobs, the universal feeling is, they will probably be good in their new role.

“I tend to look at such moves as making lemonade, and suggest that in the long term, it may help the entities they joined to better serve both media and the public, as the individuals are likely to bring their ‘bad habits’ of journalism integrity into their new shops,” said SEJ board member Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and

Agreed Witherspoon, also an SEJ board member: “It is always preferable to talk to someone who has been a journalist.”

Gaarder added, “When journalists go to the ‘dark side’ they often emerge as some of the very best PR people. They understand deadlines, they have good news judgment and, I hope, they have a thick skin.”

Dykstra also concurred: “It is easier to abide by the rules of engagement when you have seen both sides.”

Merritt Clifton, a veteran reporter, blogger and SEJ member with a knack for putting issues into perspective, including the current debate, put it this way: “Honest people will still be honest people, even if they do PR, while the pond scum in PR who once worked in journalism were probably pond scum then, too.”

In the end, former reporters like Detjen and Engelman, both SEJ founders, discovered there is life after journalism.

“It wasn’t easy to walk away from newspaper journalism,” Engelman said. “But, for me, there was not only life after journalism, but a fulfilling career that grew out of and benefited from my years as an environmental journalist.”

Added Detjen: “I never looked back.”

Rae Tyson, former environmental reporter for USA Today, is an SEJ co-founder and former president. He left journalism to become public affairs director at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Tyson rejoined journalism and SEJ after his retirement from federal service in 2010.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 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.

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