Standing Together in Spite of Distancing

April 1, 2020

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SEJ President’s Report: Standing Together in Spite of Distancing


Dear SEJ members,


Between the time I finish writing this letter and the time you read it, the situation we find ourselves in will have changed again. The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Never have we had to be as responsive, adaptive, flexible. 

Photo: Ashley Garmon

Every new day, we have to try to balance the passion we have for bringing vital information to the public through stories about the environment, with the health and safety needs of ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues and the people we depend upon as sources for those stories. 

We are a part of this ongoing news story.


No new normal

For the Society of Environmental Journalists, the health of our staff, board and membership is our foremost priority. Without that in place, all the other important work we do — for the public, for non-human creatures and the ecosystems they inhabit — becomes impossible. 

On the positive side, adjustments are easier than for many others in some ways. SEJ staff were already working remotely, and with nearly a third of our membership being freelancers, many of us are already familiar with the pros and cons of home offices (I am writing to you from my desk, tucked into the corner of my living room as my husband teaches a class via his laptop in the next room). 

But for all of us — news staffers and freelancers, associate and academic members — we do our work related to the environment beat in real life. 

As SEJ member and University of Florida professor Cynthia Barnett wrote recently on an SEJ-Talk listserv: “after admonishing [my students] all semester to not phone this in,” she was turning to SEJ for guidance on her first virtual class. The topic: "getting the goods by phone.” We are also fortunate to live in a time of Zoom and FaceTime and WhatsApp, to make this work possible. 

But the more troubling side is the fact that we as journalists have always embodied a precarious profession. Our large contingent of freelancers is facing a market where there seems to be only a single story the editors want to hear about. Staffers face the same situation, too. 

Everyone is figuring out how to transform living spaces into workspaces, and juggle pressing and sometimes competing roles as professional, parent, roommate, spouse. Or for those who live and work solo, we’ve lost our ability to step out to the coffee shop or library for some social stimulation, let alone lacking the life force of on-the-ground reporting. 

Stories that have been planned for months might now be on hold. The economic fallout for publications that were already financially tenuous will be ongoing. And for all of us, rents and mortgages and utilities are still due. Staying healthy simmers below all of this.

So my question to you is: What do you need from SEJ at this unrivaled moment? 

The economic ramifications for members are going to be huge — and the impact on environmental coverage is already clear. The staff, with advice from the board, is redesigning our Fund for Environmental Journalism, or FEJ, grantmaking program in line with the new reality. 


We hope to announce very soon 

new rapid response grants for climate, 

conservation and environmental health coverage. 


We hope to announce very soon new rapid response grants for climate, conservation and environmental health coverage. In addition, the staff are working with existing FEJ grantees to adapt projects curtailed by travel restrictions. 

SEJ is also launching its first-ever webinar series on April 2, with a discussion entitled, “Covering a Crisis: Climate, Coronavirus and Global (In)Action.” 

If you have ideas for webinars, please reach out to Program Director Jay Letto


Staying connected while staying home

As always, you can count on SEJournal Online to provide timely tips and story ideas during this difficult time. 

Barnett followed up her listserv query with an info-packed piece that will appear in the coming weeks. Joe Davis is publishing a torrent of pieces in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, including TipSheets to share the energy and environment aspects of the new stimulus package and another about how journalists can be prepared for public health emergencies, coronavirus among them. And there’s a new Backgrounder about the environmental and energy angles to the pandemic. 

Also, the latest Freelance Files by Julie Halpert offers tips for sustaining yourself as a freelancer. And SEJournal is also relaunching WatchDog in a new form — as a regularly published opinion column advocating open information in a personal voice. This builds on two decades of work keeping a sharp eye on potential restrictions on press freedoms and advocating for government transparency. 

SEJ’s mailing lists and discussion listservs remain a place to stay informed about SEJ activities and to support your fellow SEJ members throughout the year, along with crowd-sourcing resources to best face the COVID-19 crisis. Members can sign up for one listserv or all, depending on your focus: SEJ-Talk, -Edu, -Diversity,  -Canada, and -Freelance. And if you're not yet a member, now's the time to join here. There’s also the water cooler of Facebook groups, one for the public and another that’s for members only.

If you have ideas of how SEJ can help our membership (while being cognizant of staff limitations at this moment), please reach out to Membership Committee board member Lyndsey Gilpin to share them. 

Start preparing your pitches for journalism projects on climate, conservation and environmental health in anticipation of the grant announcement. Because the effects of this pandemic open up new realms of environment and energy stories, from the fall of global emissions to the parallels to climate change warnings, our work remains as vital as ever.


Finance and visions — today and for the future

On the financial front, SEJ is secure — for now. SEJ’s financial policy prohibits investing our operating funds in instruments that put the principal at risk. SEJ’s small endowment, however, which is invested in a portfolio of mutual funds, has lost value. But since these funds were set aside by donors and the board for long-term growth, we’ll follow our broker’s advice to hold tight to ride this rollercoaster out. 

That said, we will likely feel the effects in 2021 as philanthropic donors and foundations adjust or redirect their support. SEJ’s budget depends largely on foundation grants for its operating and program funds. You can help us continue to support SEJ members by connecting Executive Director Meaghan Parker to funders that want to bolster environmental journalism and support journalists during this crisis. 


Amid the current emergency, we can’t forget 

that we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary 

this year! Remembering this can help shift 

our perspective out of the present moment.


But SEJ has weathered other crises. Amid the current emergency, we can’t forget that we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year! Remembering this can help shift our perspective out of the present moment and into a more pensive future, when the need for strong journalism on the environment will remain pressing. 

To mark the achievement, SEJ is launching a Legacy Giving Circle and working on securing funds to match contributions. We’re still sorting out the details — stay posted — but remember that if you want to help secure SEJ's long-term stability, one way is to consider SEJ for your planned giving. I have personally updated my will to include SEJ and hope you’ll join me.


Strategizing, from Boise to beyond

SEJ is fortunate to have an unparalleled staff. They are working hard to draw up emergency operational plans and rejigger programs and grants. 

Co-chairs and staff are still planning a great annual conference this fall in Boise, Idaho, Sept. 23 - 27, and figuring out fun ways to coordinate with the simultaneous Treefort Music Fest. I hope to see you all there, but organizers are also making contingency plans, including possibly conducting the all-day workshops and the plenaries virtually.

Meanwhile, the board continues to move forward with our new strategic plan and we’ll be reaching out to you over the summer for your thoughts before final approval. 

And soon, we’ll be sending out the call for candidates for the next election. In times of upheaval, strong leadership is critical. If you have benefitted from the work of SEJ, please consider giving back by serving on the board, volunteering for a committee or serving as an awards judge. 

I want to extend a great heap of gratitude to long-term SEJ leader and investigative journalist Jeff Burnside for his service, as he steps down from the board. 

If you want to help shape the trajectory of SEJ for the decades to come, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or any of the board members if you have interest or questions. 

I know we are all facing this crisis at the same moment, but also each in our own ways, with our own situations. May we all be able to keep SEJ strong for the next 30 years, while still balancing our professional and personal lives — and most of all, keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy in mind and body. 


Take good care,


Meera Subramanian

SEJ Board President

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 13. 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.

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