In Depth

SEJ's 'Tip Sheet' Provides Valuable Keys to Doors

By Hillary Atkin

Among its many valuable resources, the Society of Environmental Journalists provides a one-stop shop for editors and reporters looking for story ideas and sources.

It’s called The Tip Sheet. Started in July 1996, it comes out biweekly, with an alternate week edition called The Tip Sheet Watchdog issue, which is completely devoted to freedom of information issues.

“The members have loved it and it’s survived when a lot of other things haven’t,” said Joe Davis, its longtime editor. “Every issue has source names and phone numbers. We come up with new stories every time, stories of national, regional and local significance that journalists can adapt to their audiences. Originally it was faxed, but then it became e-mail and Web-based.”

There are about 1,500 subscribers, and the list is limited to reporters, assignment editors and editors. Public relations people are able to access it several days later on the Web, giving subscribers several days of exclusivity.

“Lots of PR people want to get their names and phone numbers into The Tip Sheet. The newsletter isn’t for them,” Davis said. “We pick and choose our stories and our sources. We try to be fair and balanced and cover all facets of a story. Just because you have a client doesn’t mean you’ll be listed as a source in The Tip Sheet.”

With 30 years of experience, Davis knows the score on how to determine reliable sources. “I’ve been hoaxed, blown off and burned by all of them,” he said, laughing. “I know the ones who have been reliable and know the ones who have blown smoke. There’s reputation, too. Usually, you can tell an expert from a nonexpert by applying a few simple criteria that most journalists use. If someone’s published a book, they’re likely to be an expert. Most of the experts tend to be associated with significant organizations or a university.”

In the environmental world, various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), non-profits and associations are also continually working to get their viewpoints into the media.

“There are solid and flaky ones. We tend to go with the big, solid ones mostly, but not always,” said Davis, who called the unreliable ones “Astroturf.”

Reporters on tight deadlines might be quick to quote such organizations without knowing their background. “Those industries have viewpoints that should be represented, but should be represented honestly, transparently and clearly,” Davis said. “We have a lot of experience dealing with these outlets that helps us sort them out.”

Davis sees his main mission as separating the wheat from the chaff, and getting down to the bedrock on reliable information sources.

“There are hundred of environmental groups of all shapes and sizes, specialty subjects and modes of action, and there are certain ones that are predictably more fruitful for journalists, at least on national issues,” he said. “It’s important to know the landscape of groups, so you know which ones to talk to. We call everyone up to see if they’re legit, and if they don’t return our calls, they’re dropped from the list. They have to prove themselves.”

The Tip Sheet is subject-searchable on areas such as natural resources, wildfires, conservation, science and health, then it gives journalists a list of experts for each topic.

“Our mission is to find stories that will happen in more than one place. The Tip Sheet might focus on a story that could be happening in half a dozen states or more,” Davis said. “Wildfires are a big story this time of year in certain parts of the country. Every year there are some new issues related to wildfires.”

Another part of the challenge is in navigating the vast government bureaucracies that come into play in reporting many environmental stories.

For instance, the U.S. Forest Service oversees millions of acres across the country, and is organized into a vast system of local entities. The Bureau of Land Management is also in charge of millions of acres.

“We give people the names and phone numbers — the keys to open the door,” Davis said.