Charting SEJ’s Course in Chaotic Times

March 21, 2017

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SEJ President’s Report: Charting SEJ’s Course in Chaotic Times

By Bobby Magill

Just as major changes are unfolding for media and government today in sometimes unexpected and unprecedented ways, so too must the Society of Environmental Journalists change in order to grow and thrive for many years to come.

As we have renewed our resolve to become better journalists in the Trump era, SEJ has been undergoing a transition of its own that began late last year with the hiring of our new executive director, Melisa Klem.

Klem began work with SEJ in January, and since then, SEJ has ridden a wave of journalistic enthusiasm to a true high point for the organization.

SEJ President Bobby Magill
SEJ President Bobby Magill

Thanks to the dedication of several SEJ members in Washington, D.C., including Seth Borenstein, Cheryl Hogue and others, we held an overwhelmingly successful member-organized “Reporter’s Primer” mini-conference at NYU-D.C. in early February.

The same weekend, I presented SEJ’s first-ever “Reporter’s Guide to Energy and Environment” at the Wilson Center.

And, SEJ’s letter objecting to the EPA’s gag order following President Trump’s inauguration was printed in The New York Times in January.

An SEJ rebranding ahead

There’s a lot of work ahead of SEJ in this transition year. When the SEJ board met in February, Klem mapped out her agenda for 2017, including a plan to cultivate 40 new or former foundations and other funders this year.

One of the most noticeable parts of her plan is a full SEJ rebranding and revamp of our website, which we hope will send a clear message to members and funders that SEJ supports environment-related journalism across all media.

Though SEJ members have always covered stories that touch on all aspects of environmental journalism presented on a variety of platforms, our current logo might suggest — especially to younger journalists — that SEJ idealizes a bygone era of nature writing that involved mostly pen and paper.

Our goal is to update SEJ’s brand to strongly suggest that environmental journalism broadly encompasses reporting on environmental policy, science, energy, land and water use, climate change, clean air, clean water and — critically — environmental justice, among many other issues that are not immediately obvious as “environmental” topics.

The board will be considering rebranding proposals over the next several months. Stay tuned for news about SEJ’s new logo.

A vision for the future — amid uncertainty, hostility

As we update SEJ’s identity, we’re also updating SEJ’s strategy for the future.

The SEJ board knew last year before we hired Klem as our first new executive director in 24 years that we’d need to use her expertise to reexamine how well SEJ’s mission, vision and strategic plan allow us to serve our members, support environmental journalism in innovative ways and grow amid the ever-changing media landscape.

In my mind when we first met Klem at SEJ’s Sacramento conference two months before the 2016 election, the journalism landscape would generally evolve in expected ways.

Traditional newsrooms would continue to shrink. The share of SEJ members who are freelancers would continue to grow. Facebook and other social media would continue to challenge news organizations and largely determine how they distribute news. And, all journalists would need to become more entrepreneurial to stand out and promote their work and the issues they cover.

In order to grow and thrive in that landscape, SEJ would need to diversify its membership, reach out to new funders and think big about how we support environmental journalism.

Since the election, all of those things are still true, except they’re occurring amid the chaos of the Trump administration, a new level of uncertainty in the world and an unprecedented level of hostility toward the press, science and environmental regulation.

Of course, the best way for journalists to get through these uncertain times is to do what we do best — double down on accountability reporting and use the general sense of hostility toward the press to illustrate to the public the value of what we do every day.

But for SEJ, thriving in this new environment isn’t a matter of simply doubling down on what we do. We have to look hard at SEJ’s mission and its strategic plan to ensure that we’re doing the best we can to serve our members by helping them find new ways to reach new audiences and become better journalists.

We also need to take a close look at what we’re already doing and make sure we’re carrying out those tasks as best we can.

What would SEJ look like, if started from scratch?

I’d like to think of the task ahead this way: If we were creating SEJ from scratch in 2017, what kind of organization would we create? How would our mission be different? How can we serve our members effectively? How would SEJ more creatively promote press freedoms, government transparency and the First Amendment? What creative new funding strategies could we employ?

Our strategic planning process should be guided by the answers to those questions.

One of the lessons I’ve learned since moving from suburban Colorado to a mostly immigrant community in the Bronx is that increasing diversity is a critical part of making journalism better by reaching new audiences.

If journalism’s purpose is to inform the public, then it’s important that SEJ help journalists reach those who are most affected by air and water pollution, climate change, natural hazards, lack of environmental regulation and other environmental challenges.

That means helping our members find new ways to reach low-income communities, communities of color and anyone else who is not a typical consumer of “environmental” journalism. It means diversifying SEJ’s membership.

Environmental journalism can only serve its purpose if we’re reaching those in power, those with little of it and as many people in between. That’s an ideal, of course, but it’s something to strive for.

As the SEJ board updates its strategic plan this year and takes another look at our mission and vision, we’re going to be reaching out to you — our members. We’re going to be organizing meetups in hubs of SEJ membership across the country to hear more from you about how SEJ needs to evolve with the media landscape.

It’s possible everything SEJ is doing today is exactly as it should be and nothing needs to change. But I suspect the feedback we receive from each of you will be enlightening, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about how SEJ needs to evolve.

Keep an eye out for more information about how we’ll gather this feedback. I look forward to hearing from each of you.

Bobby Magill is senior science and energy writer at Climate Central in New York and is president of the SEJ.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 12. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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