CG:I think the shrinking of newsrooms is a top issue for us. We were founded primarily by print reporters and the vast majority of membership is print reporters; so we need to do something about that. We don’t print news stories, but there are probably creative ways that we can help. And as a broadcaster I want to bring more broadcasters into the group. We are seeing more coverage of the environment on TV—network TV, not so much local stations. Radio, public radio in particular, does a great job with the environmental beat, but we really need to reach out to folks in broadcasting. The environment is a fantastic broadcast story—I mean, it’s got great pictures, whether it’s animals or cars on the freeway. And it’s a great audio story as well for radio, and something that touches everybody. Part of our mission is simply to get more environmental stories covered. The other is to support reporters who are covering the beat, especially because a lot of people cover it as general assignment reporters, as opposed to real beat reporters. When you get thrown into the fray, there’s a lot of science that folks may not know. So we’re here to help.


CB: In terms of accomplishing some of the goals that you’ve laid out, can you tell me exactly what kinds of tools and resources SEJ makes available to members, and non-members as well?

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.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.