In Depth

Environment on the Agenda

Reactions Vary as Station Groups, Nets, Media Conglomerates Push Their Initiatives

As news pros gather for the 18th annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke, Va., this week, the state of the industry in terms of reporting, broadcasting and covering environmental issues depends on which side of the fence you’re on. Tim Wheeler, environmental reporter for The Baltimore Sun and president of the SEJ Board of Directors, is optimistic.

“I think there’s a strong demand for environmental stories,” he said. “I have to say in some ways this is the best of recent times to be an environmental journalist. There’s a lot of news. Climate change, sustainability, green marketing … there’s a real interest among consumers to buy environmentally sensitive and sustainable products, including organic foods and recycled products. It has filtered its way throughout commerce and throughout society. Will it last is anybody’s guess.”

On the other hand, there’s William Brent, head of the cleantech practice of Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm. “I hear a lot that demand is low. News is so much a business these days and doom and gloom doesn’t move papers or boost ratings, so not a whole lot of love these days,” said Mr. Brent. “Since I am now on the ‘supply side’ of news (so to speak), my take is that resources being committed to environmental stories are minimal. Broadcast is threadbare and very reactive. Print struggles with editors looking to boost circulation, and environmental news is a tough sell.”

Corporate Concern

Almost every major media corporation has the environment on its agenda. NBC Universal’s motto is “awareness, activation, results” and its “Green Is Universal” campaign is evident in all NBC media outlets—from NBC to Telemundo to Bravo, as well as alternative platforms online. The GreenIsUniversal.com Web site includes information in a variety of forms, including Web video, blogs, message boards and interactive question-and-answer centers.

“It’s more common among media organizations that have deep pockets and deep benches,” said Mr. Wheeler. “Two years ago, a small chain of community newspapers in eastern Oregon did a yearlong series on the environment. It was a way to stretch things. It was a vision and commitment, and even in these times you can do some very good work.”

Gary Weitman, senior VP of corporate relations for the Tribune Company—which owns radio and TV stations including the flagship WGN-TV in Chicago, along with newspapers the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and others—said individual media outlets determine the need for environmental journalists. He added that the newspapers continue to have reporters working full time on the environment beat.

Gannett Group, like the Tribune Company and NBC Universal, has multiple outlets. According to Tara Connell, VP of corporate communications, Gannett lets individual stations and publications plan their own environmental coverage. “I can tell you anecdotally there has been increased interest in ‘green’ coverage—more in some places than in others,” she said. “Some stations have responded with green pages on which they post stories and link to others. Some newspapers, such as Burlington, Vt. [the Burlington Free Press], do much more green coverage because there is a local appetite for it.”

Green Web Sites

Ms. Connell recently compiled an informal list to show Gannett properties with green sites or green coverage. It was more than 20 outlets, including Newsquest’s Green Guardian Campaign, a go-to guide to recycling in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), and the Arizona Republic’s AZ Green.com Web site. The latter links to Green Sources for Arizona, a site where locals can learn about carbon footprints with a carbon calculator, read a green newsletter and check out Earth 911,which provides local recycling and environmental information.

Another Gannett Group product is Nashville’s TennesseeGreen.com. The Web site is part of TeamGreen.com, a Middle Tennessee group that organizes events focused on health, well-being and the environment.

“Some newspapers do commit to yearlong coverage of things,” said Mr. Wheeler. “Some media do things like the Climate Connection that National Public Radio did. That took an entire year and involved virtually everybody on their staff, generating stories from all around the planet on how the climate was changing and how it was affecting the way people were living.”

The Walt Disney Co., including all of its media outlets such as ABC-TV, calls its environmental initiative Environmentality, which it defines as “attitude and commitment to think and act with the environment in mind.” The brand represents Disney’s fundamental ethic that blends business growth with the preservation of nature.

Mr. Brent sees a pattern in some environmental coverage. “‘Planet in Peril’ (CNN), ‘Powering the Planet’ (CNBC), Planet Green (Discovery) ... clearly ‘planet’ is a brand. But what’s interesting to me is what I believe to be a misguided notion that somehow we can save the planet, when in fact what we are talking about is trying to save ourselves from ourselves. The planet is too big for many people to care about. Where do you start?”

Perhaps with the SEJ Conference, where members will be discussing these questions and presenting speakers and experts who may have answers.

“The SEJ has conferences, newsletters and other opportunities for journalists to be current with what kinds of stories are being covered and how they are being covered. So it’s a good place to see what others are doing and what topics are hot,” 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.”

“The whole media outlook is changing. It’s becoming more diverse and more fractured, so you have to take that into account,” said Mr. Wheeler.

“I think there will continue to be more and more people involved in informing the public about these issues,” he said. “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. The 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.”