For some reason, donors generally seem less willing to support these journalism associations than they do environmental advocacy groups. Perhaps potential funders just don’t know about them. Or perhaps they don’t feel they would be able to exercise enough influence over the associations, which tend to protect their members’ freedom to report objectively regardless of a funder’s mission or priorities. Most journalism associations prefer funding from non-profit foundations or bilateral aid donors, and some such as SEJ have strict rules about or against accepting money from government, businesses or environmental advocacy groups. Others do end up taking funds from these sources, even while trying to keep an editorial firewall that allows their members to report as they see fit. It’s a tricky balancing act that leads to fierce internal debates.
Another unfortunate consequence of spotty funding is ineffective management, which plagues many of environmental journalism networks. “We have never been able to secure money for the most basic thing that an organization needs, which is administration. So we have never had a paid director or fundraiser,” says Talli Naumann, a founding member of the Mexican Network of Environmental Journalists (Rempa, to use its Spanish acronym).
Many journalists are just that—journalists—who have no management experience and lack the time needed to run complex association. “The will to develop organizational strategy and the availability to carry it through are not the priorities for many,” Naumann says. “Environmental journalists are usually over committed to begin with, because the demands of the industry require they perform other duties to earn a living No [leadership] campaigns have been conducted [at Rempa], and no slates of candidates have ever formed, for that matter. The elections have been last-minute nominations with secret balloting at the same moment candidates are proposed.”
As with any organization, overzealous managers sometimes hoard control of “their turf” and are reluctant to relinquish authority, or simply lack the necessary leadership skills. In Burma, a network of environmental journalists fell apart largely due to a failure of communication among its leadership. A portion of the membership felt the manager did not provide enough information or about planned activities. In fairness, this lack of consultation may have partly due to the harsh political environment in the country, which fosters secrecy and mistrust, leading people to fear being about their activities even if they are doing nothing wrong.
That said, there are more success stories than failures, concerning individual leaders and organizations alike. Naumann points out that Rempa has overcome its managerial deficiencies to achieve many successful activities and functions by “building a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. This has been particularly important as a base of support for those of us, like myself, who are among the many having lost jobs in the mainstream media due to cutbacks and having ventured forth with independent projects.”
In Indonesia prior to 2006, there had only been an informal e-mail list maintained by Harry Surjadi, a former journalist for the Kompasnewspaper. That year, forty-five Indonesian journalists gathered at a national conference in Sumatra and created the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ), modeling it directly after SEJ in the U.S. by making it a dues-paying membership organization, with a governing board and by-laws. Given their low wages, it’s not easy asking Indonesian journalists to pay dues—nominal as they may be—and volunteer their time. But it seems to have worked. The organization is thriving, has a full slate of activities, and about 180 members. That it has received steady funding from the Packard Foundation in recent years has certainly helped. But to its credit, SIEJ also pulled off a seamless and seemingly peaceable change in leadership, something of a rarity among such organizations.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) helped launch SIEJ as a formal organization (along with Rempa in Mexico and the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists) by providing modest funds and technical support. Indeed, one of EJN’s objectives is to work with and nurture such networks, largely because of the benefits described above.
But, as Parke notes about SEJ (and as I feel about EJN), “there’s something else, on a different level entirely, that I think of as the biggest benefit of being a member of this organization. SEJ has become a network of networks — many groups of people that together define the field of environmental journalism. Membership connects you to the whole field in a very special way.”
By the nature of their profession, environmental journalists often feel isolated. Many work freelance, and even those who are full-time staff for media organizations work solo on their beat. Intangible as it may seem, one of the biggest benefits of these associations is simply becoming part of a group, of realizing you’re not alone in your chosen career.