New Orleans Retreat Examines SEJ Mission in These Difficult Times

July 15, 2009

President's Report


SEJ's strategic planning retreat started with gumbo ya-ya and ended with new vision and mission statements, and new marching orders for our almost- 20-year-old organization.

In a time of massive transformation in our industry, SEJ-ers are not the slightest bit unclear about who we are: a group of people who share a commitment to making sure people — lots of people — understand clearly what is happening to our environment. We aren't activists, but we are mission-driven. We don't advocate outcomes, but we do the work we do because we hope for good outcomes.

With 30 wordsmiths in one room, you might expect trouble. What we got instead was a clean, crisp re-statement of SEJ's vision — our overarching goal, the big vision that guides us as a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit. Whether we fully attain it or not, it's the lofty outcome we seek.

The group went from this: "SEJ members envision an informed society through excellence in environmental journalism" to this: "Credible and robust journalism that informs and engages society on environmental issues."

There's a lot packed into two adjectives and one verb. "Engages" — a commitment to making a bigger impact, "robust" — a vision of a changed future that is even healthier than it was before all this churning began, and "credible" — the enduring value we refuse to give up no matter how intense the economic pressure. This is a vision statement we'll actually remember.

The revised mission statement — our everyday mantra, a statement of what is possible, what we strive to accomplish with all of SEJ's programs and operations — also reflects where we are and where we hope to head.

Current: SEJ's MISSION: To advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.

Proposed: SEJ's MISSION: To strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media to advance public understanding of environmental issues.

Most noteworthy is who comes first in the new mission statement: Journalism, with a capital J.

It's not because we've stopped caring what our readers and listeners and viewers and surfers get out of our work. It's because, without us, they won't get serious, authoritative and trustworthy information. For the moment, we need to turn our gaze inward.We need to hold up high standards as we create new media outlets and platforms. We need to tell the story of the 21st Century, the story of the environment, to an even wider audience. We need to pass on our highest values to a new generation of reporters, editors and content producers. And we need to protect the brain trust of environmental journalists who've spent years learning this challenging beat.

SEJ has always been about journalists helping journalists, in a field where there's a lot of complexity to master. Since SEJ was founded in 1990, the stakes have risen higher and higher.We now face a world where the environment itself is under severe threat, at a time when we, the messengers, face an uncertain future. The next three to five years are likely to be as critical for the fate of the planet as for the future of journalism.

The crisis has hit print hard, but no media platform is immune, and no funding model has yet emerged as a clear solution. It's not clear how bad things will get before the industry hits bottom. It's not just newspapers that have lost advertising revenues. Magazines, niche publications and newsletters are also cutting staff. Commercial television stations all over the country are buying out their highly paid anchors. Some for-profit companies see the answer to their woes as going non-profit. But even public broadcasting has hit hard times. National Public Radio recently laid off more than 50 people in its newsroom, and marquee PBS programs have been losing major funders for several years.

Will at least one newspaper survive in every major city? Will TV stations continue to produce local news, or will some pack it in, leaving big cities with one or two news teams instead of three or four? And in smaller towns, will any local TV survive? Will smaller dailies and weekly papers grow to fill the void left by shrinking big city dailies?Will online news sites ever make enough money to support many environmental beat reporters?

All of this was on the minds of SEJ's strategic planning group at the New Orleans retreat, where we committed SEJ's board and staff to re-examine our programs and services, find creative ways to grow and diversify our membership, engage both volunteers and staff to prevent burnout and renew SEJ, and make SEJ a leader in defining journalistic integrity.

One critical issue in the old plan that we didn't mention was building SEJ's stature. The reason?We're there. It's a testament to the hard work of SEJ's staff and volunteers that we have come so far in earning both public trust and the respect of our peers.

Are there bumps in the road ahead? Almost certainly. SEJ faces internal pressure from our growing number of freelancers to help them make ends meet. Some ideas are easy — like serving as a clearinghouse for information about publications. Some are harder, demanding significant staff time — like offering SEJ as a fiscal sponsor for members who win grants. Some may not be possible, like providing health insurance, which our lawyer has told us could run afoul of IRS guidelines for 501(c)(3) non-profit groups. But we are committed to exploring all of these possibilities, and many more.

There are also powerful external pressures. Keeping a steady stream of funding coming at a time when philanthropies are retrenching may be SEJ's biggest challenge of all. This summer, SEJ's board and staff will sit down with funders to brainstorm ways to keep environmental reporting strong, and better yet — to take advantage of this transition to create that vision of environmental journalism that is even more robust and credible.

Two members of the SEJ board recently lost their jobs, casualties of the current industry chaos. And yet, we're still fundamentally optimistic about the future. There will be a new model for journalism. And our story is so compelling that the need for people who can cover it well can't do anything but grow. The hard part is getting from here to there.

I love the sign you often see on tip jars in Portland coffeehouses — "Fear change?"

Sure, change is frightening, because it shakes our world and forces us to go somewhere new, a place where we're no longer comfortable. But afterwards, we often find ourselves somewhere better.

SEJ can handle change.

A week after SEJ's new website launched in May, SEJ staff moved into a new headquarters. The rent is cheaper, but the new offices are filled with light, and views of trees and green leaves. The new website is not just beautiful — it's infinitely better organized. And as we finish one transition, we get ready for the next, and the next, and the one after that.

Like the gumbo, the strategic planning retreat was a renewal of historic values, with added spice.

Christy George, SEJ board president, is special projects producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue.


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