Monday, February 16, 2009

The Future of Environmental Journalism

An event on Thursday at the Woodrow Wilson Center featured fascinating analysis of the uneasy state of science and environmental journalism. The panelists were (pictured, left to right): Seth Borenstein of the AP, Elizabeth Shogren of NPR, Jan Schaffer of J-Lab, and Peter Dykstra, formerly of CNN.

Borenstein set the tone: "The journalism business is like Detroit. We're getting it worse and we're getting it faster." 

Examples from the other panelists and audience members drove home this point: The L.A. Times' D.C. bureau has closed. NPR has had big layoffs. Content-sharing agreements between former rival newspapers are increasingly happening, quite a change from the old days, when every paper and reporter wanted the scoop.  Many bosses/editors see the environment as a "marginal beat." The Baltimore Sun has gone from three environment reporters to one. The Boston Globe has terminated its Health and Science section and now environment stories are placed in the Features section.

The was a lot of talk about how niche publications are taking the place of mainstream ones. For example, interested readers and experts can get more information about global warming than ever before from online sources such as Climate Wire, Mother Nature News, and Grist. But an average Joe still needs mainstream media reporters to pluck the most important news away from these niche publications because he won't go to Climate Wire (either because he doesn't know about it or won't pay for the pricey subscription). For more on this, there's a powerful new study by Pew about the growing importance of niche reporters in Washington D.C.

I could go on, but I'll mention one other point. The panel was about the future of environmental journalism. So what will environmental journalists be covering? Borenstein said it will be pork, waste, and stupid spending; and land mines left for Obama by the previous administration. 

Shogren said programs in the economic stimulus package will provide endless stories. Will the electric grid get any smarter? Will people change the way they use electricity? How will the country decide to curtail our greenhouse gas emissions? What will happen with cap-and-trade money? Do climate bills fail because they look like pork? What will be the impacts of climate change?

The full two-hour Webcast of the event will be up soon here and a more in-depth article on last week's event appears online at the Columbia Journalism Review.


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