For the first time since it was created fourteen years ago, Columbia University’s highly regarded dual-degree graduate program in environmental journalism will not be accepting applications for next academic year.
In a letter to faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism, the Department of Environmental Sciences, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the program directors cited falling employment in the field, the rising costs of education, and a lack of financial aid for students as the reasons for their decision:
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.
The letter stressed that the two-year program—which offers two master’s degrees, in environmental science and journalism—will be suspended, rather than cancelled, so that its directors, Kim Kastens and Marguerite Holloway, can evaluate “its accomplishments to date and prospects for the future.”
Layoffs and buyouts have been rife among environmental journalists (whether more or less so than in the rest of the industry is hard to say). Many newspapers with reputations for strong coverage on that front, from the Sacramento Bee to the Columbus Dispatch, have let go of talented specialists. At Columbia, applications to the environmental journalism program have not seen a marked drop-off, Kastens says, but the number of students who accept offers to enroll has declined over the last three years. Although the classes have always been small, with no more than six students, this year, only one of eight matriculated.
“Although our students are assuming huge debt for knowledge and skills that we think are valuable,” Kastens and Holloway wrote in their letter, “we do not feel comfortable exhorting young people to take on that burden when their chances of repaying it have so diminished.”
Environmental journalists and both current and former students widely regarded the decision as a loss for the field. While many sympathized with Columbia’s predicament, not everybody thought suspending the program was the right move, myself included. In full disclosure, I am a graduate of the dual-degree program and was very satisfied with the education I got. Kastens also invited me to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory a few weeks before the final decision was made to discuss the matter. I tried to persuade to her keep the program running while evaluating its financing and direction, and I am not alone in my opinion.
“I have a lot of respect for the decision and the people who made it, but strongly disagree,” says Dan Fagin, the director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, which enrolls 15 or 16 students every year and competes with the Columbia two-year program for students. “We’ve never needed well-trained science, health and environmental journalists more than we do right now. Yes, the market is tough, but with persistence, flexibility, and the right training, it is possible to find professional work even in this difficult environment. It can be done; it is being done.”
Indeed, the woes of environmental journalism are not universal. ProPublica—perhaps the most prominent of the new nonprofit startups—recently advertised for two investigative reporters with experience covering environmental issues. The staff at Energy & Environment Publishing, which runs Greenwire and ClimateWire, has grown considerably in recent years. And though they don’t offer much in the way of fulltime employment, online outlets such as Grist and Yale Environment 360 have won praise for their commentary and analysis, and offer freelance reporters a place to make a name for themselves.
None of this is meant to sugarcoat the situation for environmental journalists. It is much harder to find work today than it was three years ago, and Fagin stressed that it is very important to be honest with prospective students about the difficulties they will face when entering the job market.
Yet the fact remains that numerous outlets are, in fact, making environmental coverage a priority, and the reason is simple: topics like energy and climate change are at the forefront of the national agenda.