Loss of newspaper environmental reporters costly to the public

On the same day that The New York Times said (buried in its Media Decoder blog) that it would cut 100 newsroom jobs (again), Columbia University said it would not accept applications next year for its dual-degree graduate program in environmental journalism. The former is no surprise; the latter is a sad sign of the impact of newsroom job cuts on what news gets reported — or not.

In a letter to faculty, the directors of the program wrote:

As you know, media organizations across the county are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists’ jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable. Although our graduates have done well in their careers, even those still employed are finding few opportunities to do the kind of substantive reporting for which the dual degree program has trained them, as they scramble to do their own work plus that of laid-off colleagues. [emphasis added]

The ability of newspapers to report credibly and capably on news other than sports, entertainment, business and politics has been severely undercut by the loss of several thousand journalists over the past three years. In the case of environmental issues, such as climate change, the loss is incalculable.

In the summer issue of SEJournal, the quarterly journal of the Society of Environmental Journalists, editor Mike Mansur interviewed Curtis Brainard, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory. The blog critiques the coverage of science. Mr. Brainard discussed the impacts of newsroom cuts on environmental journalism:

Obviously, it’s a very discouraging time to be working in journalism with so many layoffs, buyouts, and closings. There are fewer staff jobs for specialized environmental reporters and fewer resources available to those who do have jobs. Tragically, this is happening at a time when environmental issues are finally getting more attention from the political and business realms. … the fate of newspapers will be the fate of science and environmental journalism at newspapers. They’re hemorrhaging jobs like mad, as so many of this journal’s readers are painfully aware, and I certainly have no idea what will staunch the bleeding. However, I can say that it’s been phenomenally impressive to watch how well print reporters have transitioned to the Web over the last few years. I really have no idea how practical it is — because there’s still no reliable business model for any kind of (web) journalism … [emphasis added]

The increasing loss of science and environmental reporters from the nation’s newspapers is socially costly. It stills experienced voices that can comprehend the science behind issues such as climate change; present it in readable, interesting ways; and explain both the human and environmental context. Those are not easy skills to master. The nation’s best environmental journalists have developed their craft over decades.

One of those training grounds has been at Columbia. The directors of its suspended program, however, can read the tea leaves: Their graduates cannot reliably find reporting jobs at the nation’s daily newspapers. Yes, various online environmental journalism operations have sprouted. But their readership still can’t match the nearly 50 million newspapers printed daily. Though declining, that amount of paid circulation still has some muscle. But the decline in numbers of environmental journalists hurts, says the Observatory’s Brainard:

But who is watching all the municipal waste departments out there, looking over the environmental impact statements of local energy projects, or paying attention to water quality? Who will be keeping track of all environment- and energy-related stimulus money as it filters down to the lowest levels of government and out to businesses and contractors? Regional news outlets are the only ones who can reliably monitor such things. That’s exactly where we’ve lost so many of our very best journalists.

Again, as usual, the public is the loser. It won’t get information it needs to make informed consumer and political decisions.

[Disclosure: I am a member of the SEJournal editorial board and its former chair.]

4 replies »

  1. And today, a number of news outlets were successfully spoofed by the Yes Men. I can’t help but wonder if the spoof would have worked so well if more experienced environmental journalists were still around at the news outlets in question.