How the Times-Picayune is rebuilding its environmental team in a critical time

Mark Schleifstein wasn't at work seven years ago, when an explosion rocked an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20, 2010, the day of the BP oil spill, the Times-Picayune's environmental reporter was at home on furlough.

Schleifstein, whose work won a Pulitzer for Public Service in 1996, got to work anyway covering the massive environmental disaster.

By then, a lot had already changed at the Times-Picayune, and a lot more changes were coming, including layoffs, a move downtown and a shift to print delivery three days a week. Schleifstein was paired with reporters from other departments after Hurricane Katrina, at the time of the spill and a few times since. But as newsroom numbers dwindled, there were less people to cover the environment.

Until now.

Last week, The Times-Picayune announced a revival of its environmental reporting team thanks to a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism that will provide more than $300,000 in funding over three years. Schleifstein will join state news editor Drew Broach and two new full-time environmental journalists, along with contributions from a Times-Picayune outdoor reporter and photographer/videographer.

That's four full-timers covering the environment full time.

While nonprofit newsrooms are used to funding their coverage with grants, it’s still a fairly new approach for many legacy outlets.

"This is unchartered territory for us," said Mark Lorando, editor and vice president of content for NOLA.com "I don't think that we can be timid about entering into these kinds of partnerships. It's pretty evident that the era where newsrooms would just find enough resources to cover the stories they thought were important, that era's over.”

The new coastal reporting team, slated to launch in March, will cover the biggest environmental issue facing Louisiana – the loss of coastal wetlands. The state is set to begin enacting a $50 billion plan for coastal restoration and protection, and the BP oil spill will provide money for 15 years.

The grant will help the Times-Picayune keep track of where that money ends up over the next three years.

"I describe it as the world's largest environmental restoration experiment," Schleifstein said. "It is a huge effort to keep up with."

SEJ has helped serve as a firewall between sponsors and news organizations. SEJ has served in the same role for donors and individual journalists and news organizations, including at the Los Angeles Times and High Country News.

In this case, the money comes through the Walton Family Foundation to the Times-Picayune through SEJ. The Times-Picayune maintains editorial independence. The grant is for $109,800 a year for three years and includes benefits and modest raises during that time, said Beth Parke, SEJ's outgoing director. The Times-Picayune will cover all other costs, including equipment, travel and training.

Grant-funding is an evolving field, Parke said, "but I think that philanthropy has a really important role."

The Walton Family Foundation has already funded environmental coverage in New Orleans at The Lens and WWNO.

Schleifstein, who's also a SEJ board member, hopes to see more organizations step up and support work in places that were affected by the spill, including Mississippi, Alabama and North Florida.

This might be the first grant-funded position for the Times-Picayune, but they're already looking for more partners locally and nationally, Lorando said.

"I think partnerships are going to be an important part of what all news organizations are going to have to be doing going forward."

Correction: An earlier version of this story flubbed the full title of the SEJ. It's Society of Environmental Journalists. We apologize for the error.

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