In Depth

A Tough Job Gets Tougher

Economic Woes Put Environmental Jobs on Chopping Block

The U.S. Labor Department recently announced the loss of 159,000 jobs—the ninth straight month in which America has suffered a decline in jobs. The employment crunch has been across the board, including many layoffs at media companies. Gawker Media, an online group of blogs, cut back 30% of its editorial staff in early October, and 160 employees at CBS Corp.-owned television stations in 13 cities were dismissed earlier this year.

Reporters and broadcasters specializing in environmental stories are not immune. “No one is being spared as cutbacks occur,” said Kim Carlson, eco-preneur, green living expert and author of the upcoming book “Green Your Work: Boost Your Bottom Line While Reducing Your Eco-Footprint.”

“In my market in Minneapolis [where WCCO-TV veteran meteorologist Paul Douglas was among the casualties of the CBS station layoffs] the major newspaper has also had dramatically decreasing revenues, resulting in many longtime journalists taking early retirement or severance packages,” Ms. Carlson said. “The paper has turned to both freelance writers and content experts for green housing and other specialized niches as a much less costly way for them to offer content than hiring a full-time reporter. The same is happening at local television stations, where more seasoned and expensive reporters with a specific knowledge base like the environment are being replaced with less costly general assignment reporters who don’t have specific environmental background or experience.”

“Television isn’t taking as much of a hit as newspapers and magazines,” said Tim Wheeler, environmental reporter for The Baltimore Sun and president of the SEJ Board of Directors. “It feels like we’re in the forest and the trees are coming down and each one is knocking the other over.

“There’s a steady drumbeat of budget cuts and staffing cuts throughout traditional media. It’s tearing back the media’s ability to do in-depth reporting. There’s been some loss. It’s hard to say how much in terms of folks who are dedicated to covering environmental news.”

At The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Wheeler saw 20% of editorial staff cut. “Where we had three people essentially covering the environment and growth issues at the paper, it’s now just me. That may not be typical in any respect, but that’s an example,” he said.

Meanwhile, demand remains strong for environmental stories—although perhaps not the end-of-the-world variety. “I’ve seen diminishing interest in environmental stories that are all the doom and gloom. That has its limits,” said William Brent, head of the cleantech practice of Weber Shandwick, a PR firm. “There is increased interest in the business of environment, i.e., cleantech—renewable energy, etc. More and more traditional and new media are devoting resources to the business of renewable energy and cleantech. That said, I’m still pretty amazed at how strapped most media outlets are for doing really adequate in-depth reporting.”

The difficult economic climate is just one of the challenges facing environmental reporters. “Another part of this issue is that the environmental field has become so broad,” said Ms. Carlson. “It is no longer only about clean air and water. Environmental problems and opportunities touch every area of our culture: food, weather, business, homes, the economy, our natural world, health and even religion. So it is difficult for a journalist to have the broad expertise needed to cover everything about the environment today.”

Mr. Brent was based in China for 16 years, half of that time as a reporter covering environmental stories. He doesn’t think much of the half-hearted attempts by some media to cover today’s green issues. “A lot of the reporting is just regurgitated without a lot of real digging,” he said. “As a former journalist, that’s very worrying.”

That said, media members are adapting to the new landscape. News pros are being asked to expand their skills to become more multifaceted. “We’re being asked to do more and more, to spread ourselves thinner and thinner to cover more media,” said Mr. Wheeler. “I haven’t been asked to do any videos yet, but they’ve asked me to come talk to the video people for our Web site. The blog I write used to have three contributors; now it just has me. There’s a tension where everybody is being asked to do a little bit more. It makes it hard to concentrate on an in-depth story when you have to constantly feed the beast in so many different ways. We’re having to write shorter stories, but not fewer stories.”

Mr. Brent agreed. “There is no doubt that all reporters are now expected to be multifaceted in their approach,” he said. “The toolbox has gotten much bigger. Corporate America has woken up to the story of sustainability, and they are pushing it to media as hard as they can, whether it is warranted or not. Many companies are making fantastic strides in environmental stewardship and are rightly discussing it with media. Others are jumping on the bandwagon, and getting on board despite having a dubious ticket.”

The fact remains that environmental issues are integral to news coverage, and media professionals will be needed to report the issues accurately.

“These issues are just too important, and we’re not going to solve them off in the next four years, whomever is elected president. The issue of climate change is going to be with us for decades,” said Mr. Wheeler. “Yes, the whole media outlook is changing. It’s becoming more diverse and more fractured, so you have to take that into account. But I think there will continue to be more and more people involved in informing the public about these issues. Whether they’re going to be working for newspapers or radio or TV stations, or from magazines or Web sites or blogging, its importance is going to be just as strong if not stronger a few years down the road.”

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