In Depth

Environmental Journalists Adapt to Life After Layoffs

By Dinah Eng

Industry layoffs and an economic downturn have sidelined thousands of journalists in the last year, forcing many who covered the environment to find new ways to make a living.

Reporters who once worked to raise public awareness of environmental issues are now creating entrepreneurial ventures online, working for government agencies or nonprofits, and teaching.

Most have moved into some kind of freelance career.

“Our membership continues to grow, which may seem counterintuitive,” says Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Jenkintown, Pa. “Like many other journalism organizations in this difficult period, our people are growing their networks and shoring up their skills.

“Where there are newspapers with commitments to environmental coverage — where they may have had three people on the beat — now they have one. There’s less time and less space for it. That said, there’s still award-winning work being done.”

Parke says the single largest employment category in membership shifted from “newspaper” in January 2008 to “freelance” in July 2009. In June 2007, SEJ had 309 working freelance, compared with 355 working freelance across all platforms in June 2008. As of July 2009, SEJ had 1,520 members.

She notes that numerous opportunities exist for environmental journalists, including working for outlets that may cover the environment with focused points of view, such as Greenpeace Magazine or Clear Skies TV.

“The skills that print and broadcast journalists have are valuable in government, public relations and universities,” Parke says. “People can teach or write books. What we’re concerned about is where is the public going to get their news? SEJ is doing what we can to promote the idea of the nonprofit news model, and being a business incubator that helps journalists set up entrepreneurial ventures.”

Robert McClure, an SEJ board member and longtime environmental reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was one of the first to move into the nonprofit news sector. When the Post-Intelligencer stopped its print editions in March 2009, McClure joined forces with other former staffers to launch InvestigateWest (invw.org), a nonprofit news venture online.

“We want to preserve and modernize investigative reporting in Western North America — including Canada and Mexico — on the environment, public health and social justice issues,” says McClure, vice president of InvestigateWest. “We’re doing one project a month, and have media partners that will pay for the stories. We’ll be getting money from philanthropic organizations, and later from the public as donors.”

McClure, who covers climate change and other environmental news topics in his blog Dateline Earth, says he’s working as hard now as he did on the multipart projects he did at the Post-Intelligencer on mining, endangered species and the need for environmental restoration of Puget Sound and the Duwamish River.

“We can only cover 12 stories a year, but there’s a place for us,” he says “I hope we’re pioneering a new way to do journalism.”

Chris Bowman, former environment and energy reporter for The Sacramento Bee, has carved out a new niche for himself after being laid off in May by combining a full-time job with the California Environmental Protection Agency, teaching and freelance writing.

“I write and edit scientific reports, press releases and legislative bill analyses for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment,” Bowman says. “I’m teaching a course on environmental news reporting and writing for graduate students at the University of Nevada at Reno on my furlough Fridays, and I pull together a monthly newsletter on the latest green automotive technology for a Silicon Valley public relations firm. I’m fortunate that it does tap some of my skills, and keeps me in the swim of things.”

Bowman says The Sacramento Bee has been in the forefront of environmental reporting, but early on, editors tended to view environmental reporting with suspicion as advocacy reporting. Today, having one or more dedicated environmental reporters on staff is still seen as a luxury, rather than necessity, he adds.

“Having one person cover the beat is like having one person cover all sports or the state capitol,” Bowman says. “Now that I’m working at Cal EPA, and scientists are freely talking to me, I see so many stories. But there are fewer reporters I can turn to who would do the story justice.

“With climate change becoming a part of mainstream news and education, editors can no longer ignore environmental reporting. The demand is there, but the industry hasn’t figured out how to make money off it.”

Miles O’Brien, CNN’s environment and technology correspondent until the cable network disbanded its science, technology and environment unit in December 2008, is creating an income stream with nonprofit Spaceflightnow.com, an online venture that provides space coverage.
O’Brien approached Spaceflightnow.com and suggested continuous video coverage of STS-119, the space shuttle that launched March 15. He found sponsors for the initiative and served as anchor/host for the Webcast, which has covered three other shuttle launches since.

“We had 190,000 unique visitors for the last launch (STS-128),” O’Brien says. “It was really gratifying. We’re in a new era of hyperspecialization with a lot of little audiences. Tweet a little bit, put it on Facebook, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

O’Brien, who worked for CNN for nearly 17 years, continues to work on documentaries for PBS and a blog. He says interest in environmental stories on air is difficult to maintain because topics like global change are big, but don’t necessarily lend themselves to visual storytelling.

“Mainstream media has walked away from the subject matter, but there are opportunities to tell the story in other mediums,” he says.

The Internet has welcomed many environmental reporters, such as Jane Kay, a longtime environmental writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who lost her job July 31 as part of a large reduction in force at the paper.

“I’m writing for Environmental Health News (environmentalhealthnews.org), a sister site to DailyClimate.org, based on the Pro Publica model,” Kay says. “EHN started in 2002 as an aggregator of stories, and in the last year it’s started commissioning original journalism. So as print reporters leave their papers, they’re ending up at places like this. It’s going to be up to the reader to figure out where to go now for their news.”

Kay says environmental journalists, who are knowledgeable about state and federal environmental laws and ecological issues, are concerned about diminishing public access to objective information.

“This is a time when our planet is facing great environmental problems, and we need sophisticated examinations of how we’re going to address these problems,” Kay says. “We don’t want to lose this knowledge that’s taken so long to build.”

While downsizing has pushed veterans like Camille Feanny, former CNN global environmental producer, to leave the business to pursue other passions — she is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Florida, and plans to work on global orphan issues — some have kept one foot in traditional journalism while blazing trails with new methods of environmental reporting.

Paul Rogers, resources and environment writer at the San Jose Mercury News, combines a 30-hour, part-time job at the newspaper, with a 20-hour part-time job as managing editor of public broadcast station KQED-TV’s Quest, a multimedia series that explores Northern California science, environment and nature through podcasting, radio and educational materials for teachers.

Four years ago, Rogers asked the Mercury News to cut his hours so that he could take on the new initiative with KQED, an arrangement that has worked well for all involved. Rogers notes that the newspaper gets the benefit of embedding Quest videos shot in hi-def into his stories on the newspaper Web site, and KQED gets more eyeballs on their work.

It’s likely that we’ll see more newspapers go bankrupt, or cease publishing on dead trees,” Rogers says. “I’ve been intrigued with public broadcasting alternatives because at KQED we’re able to cover stories with a different revenue model. Maybe some of the future models for environmental coverage will be these nonprofit models. If this is how we keep environmental reporting alive, so be it.”