SEJ President: Environment is a ‘Stealth’ Beat

While reporting on Grist’s “Save Our Journalists!” campaign, which was aimed at raising money for “endangered species” (aka environmental journalists), I found myself wanting to know more about the state of environmental journalism.

I e-mailed some related questions to Christy George, a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and president of the Society of Environmental Journalists to learn more. Her edited responses are below.

Mallary Tenore: The Grist campaign is aimed at saving environmental journalists, which the site refers to as an “endangered species.” How do you think the cutbacks in newsrooms have affected environmental journalism in print, radio and broadcast?

Christy George: Well, we’re not really an endangered species. We’re an under-employed species. What we’ve seen at SEJ is that when a news outlet eliminates the environment beat altogether, the person who used to be on the beat usually finds a stealth way to keep covering those stories.

And that’s easy, because the environment touches every other beat: business, health, politics, city hall, real estate and development, recreation and lifestyle, even sports. And when one of our members is laid off, she/he often goes freelance, staying on the environment beat as an independent journalist. But there’s a personal cost; doing that doesn’t always pay the bills.

It’s no secret that the news business needs an overhaul. People are not in the habit of paying for news. Newspapers, commercial radio and TV all make money from the ads that surround the journalism. Now the Internet culture of free information, which is great in many ways, has killed that revenue model. I’m optimistic, though. I work in public broadcasting. Our audience pays the lion’s share of our costs. You may find pledge drives annoying, but they work because our listeners and viewers get it. They understand news isn’t free.        

From what you can tell, how has the oil spill heightened the need for more environmental journalism?

Christy George: The need has always been there for more environmental journalism. Most people get their news from local commercial television, and you can count on one hand how many TV stations in the United States have a reporter on the environment beat full-time. Even 10 years ago, when times were still good, most daily papers didn’t have anyone on the beat full-time. 

If you can point to one good thing about this disaster, it’s that it reminds people how much they care about special places like New Orleans. Everyone who’s been to ‘the city that care forgot’ has fond memories. The fact that it’s a second hit on Louisiana in five years only makes it more heart-wrenching.   

What role do you think sites like Grist and TreeHugger have in helping to fill this news hole?

George: Online sites are an important growth area for environmental journalism. The Web is where a lot of environmental journalists go after they take buyouts or are laid off. It’s a place where innovation thrives, and it’s where younger news consumers go. That means the Web is where news is heading for the future.

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Grist was a very early adopter, starting up way back when the economy was booming. Treehugger came along during the online boom. Both have proven resilient. They’ve survived because they’re good. They’re not just aggregators; they offer original content and they both have their own distinctive voices and styles. So I would hope and expect that both continue to survive.

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