CG: A dramatic percentage of our Web site—www.sej.org—is open to non-members. We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit, which means we’re an educational organization, and educating the public is part of our mission, in addition to educating our peers in journalism. So a tremendous amount of what we do is for everybody. We also do a lot of Freedom of Information work, and the vast majority of FOIA requests are not made by journalists, but rather by lawyers and activists, which is unfortunate for journalism; we should be doing it ourselves. We do a thing at SEJ called FOIA Friday where we encourage members to file Freedom of Information Requests—there’s got to be something that you need to know. And people have been doing that and they’ve been getting answers.
Past SEJ presidents have worked very hard on this issues—have found themselves, in fact, even testifying before Congress. Tim Wheeler, my predecessor, did that in his term because there were attempts to keep reporters out of Interior Department lands—National Parks—unless they paid a very stiff fee, the kind of fee that you’d expect a Hollywood movie producer to have to pay in order to film for two weeks.
We also just got a grant to rethink our strategic plan, which we’ll give some serious attention to given the threats to the beat and to print journalism in general, and try to figure out what we could reasonably do. Could we become a news outlet of some sort? We do have some publications; they tend focus on helping people with the beat and answering specific questions about how to do the job. But could we launch a reporting project? Maybe. That might help a few people.
CB: Looking forward, do you have any other advice for environmental journalists? What should be on their radars?
CG: Well I want to get a message out to all the non-environmental reporters that they are probably covering environmental stories. Example: there was session at the conference last week on the environmental roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Robert McClure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who’s also on the board, did that session. Folks who wanted to buy a first house, didn’t have enough money, didn’t have a down payment—the line is, you drive until you qualify, farther and farther in to suburbia, or exurbia, and when you finally get to a place where you can afford to buy the house you are consuming vast quantities of gasoline to commute to and from work—forty-five minutes, an hour, even two hours a day. And when gas prices went up, those people just didn’t have the money to pay for it, and that [combined with other factors] was when they got in trouble with their house payments.
The cost of energy and early impacts is affecting everything right now. There are just a lot of things to think about. We will have a president in January who is committed to doing something about climate and, by definition, if you’re doing something about climate, you’re changing the energy mix, and both candidates get that. So there’s going to be a tremendous wealth of stories that are political and business stories as well when January 21st hits. Every beat—health, sports, and fashion—has environmental implications.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story was amended to reflect the entirety of George’s answer to the first question.]