Columbia Suspends Environmental Journalism Program

Falling employment, rising education costs to blame

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.

Dina Cappiello, who covers environmental issues out of The Associated Press’s D.C. bureau, has worked at some half dozen news outlets since she completed Columbia’s dual-degree program in 1999. She says she has managed to stay “one step ahead of the crashing wave” of layoffs that has battered the industry. And having an environmental degree has, at times, been a nuisance when applying for jobs where editors mistook her for an environmentalist or didn’t understand the need for the rigorous scientific training she received. But once on the job, Cappiello adds, editors always recognized the value of her training, and never more so than over the last couple years.

“You have legislation on Capitol Hill that rivals the environmental statutes of the 1970s, at the beginning of the environmental movement,” she says. “You have an administration that made climate and energy its number-two priority, behind healthcare. It’s a beat that I, as one person, struggle at times to keep up with, and I wouldn’t be able to cover it as well as I do without my experience and training. At my last job at Energy & Environment Publishing, there were ten people that break my beat into ten slices.”

More recent graduates of Columbia’s dual-degree program also affirmed the value of their education, but tended to support the decision to spend a year re-evaluating its financing and direction. Most of those interviewed for this piece seem optimistic about their own prospects, but less so about the outlook for future graduates. According to Kastens’ most recent records, only two of the nine graduates in the last three years has found a full-time staff job in journalism; although many have landed coveted internships and others are happily freelancing.

“I may be a bit unusual but I never was seeking gainful employment, and I am still not,” Justin Nobel, who graduated in 2007, wrote in e-mail from Micronesia, where he is working on a story. “I am after a way to stitch together a life that allows me to explore science and culture and get paid for it. Columbia’s program has given me the credibility, confidence, and work ethic to be able to do that. I have been able to get paying gigs at small newspapers and mainstream magazines, while harnessing opportunities on the side.”

Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, says the future of the dual-degree program comes down to a “matter of money.” If the journalism school can raise enough to provide students with “substantial” tuition support, they will return, be believes.

Venkat Srinivasan, who was accepted into the dual-degree class of 2010 and opted to enroll only in Columbia’s one-year journalism program instead, says the decision was largely financial. “I couldn’t afford a two-year cost, and the scholarship was never going to be enough to make it more attractive than a one-year program,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It was difficult at first, but money quickly decided everything.”

Finding more financial support for the dual-degree problem will be difficult for many complicated reasons that involve a lot of inside academic baseball. Basically, the program’s strength is also its Achilles heel. It compartmentalizes the education into a year of immersion in the sciences and a second year in the journalism school, but neither the science departments at Columbia nor the school of journalism take real ownership of the program.

Lemann says he’d “very much like to find a way to reawaken the dual-degree program,” but concedes that it belongs to a “far-flung corner of the realm” and that it is not one of his top priorities. “A lot depends on donors,” he said. “If I encounter a donor who says, ‘I have a passion for better environmental journalism,’ then I’d say, ‘Great. I’ve got a great idea for you.’”

Fagin says the financial aid budget of NYU’s program has not increased since before he took the job in 2005, but applications have remained steady and the percentage of students who accept offers to enroll has never been higher. NYU’s sixteen-month program is about $30,000 less than Columbia’s two-year program, however, which costs nearly $89,000. Columbia also offers a separate, one-year master’s in science journalism, but what makes the dual-degree program unique is the rigorous hands-on lab and fieldwork in environmental science.

Given the price, it is no wonder that students are thinking twice about going that route, but cost is clearly only one of many issues that Columbia must address. Kastens and Holloway say that the design and structure of their program could also use a few tweaks. But the most important thing is that Columbia’s science departments and its journalism school begin to prioritize environmental journalism in a way they previously haven’t. It is one of the most important beats in the industry right now, and they will be letting down their colleagues and the public if they do not find a way to revive this crucial program.

[Clarification: This post was changed to reflect the fact that two of the nine graduates of Columbia’s dual-degree program in the last three years have found jobs in journalism. An earlier version of this story reported that none had.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.