How to Place a Story?

Survey finds top environmental newsmakers still target traditional media

Despite disruptive changes in the media industry, which have made it more difficult to place stories and develop relationships with journalists, top environmental newsmakers continue to target the biggest, longest-lived news outlets, according to a recent survey.

Commissioned by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and carried out by Harvard Business School’s Community Partners, the survey found that “most organizations interviewed have a person dedicated to working with new media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, yet social media budgets are generally less than 10% of total budget and augment rather than displace traditional media expenditures.”

SEJ’s executive director, Beth Parke, said she was surprised by the continued focus on traditional media and that “new media” is still a secondary pursuit for newsmakers. Otherwise, the survey corroborated many of her “hunches” about the state of the field.

“Results of the study confirmed a key assumption for SEJ and all SEJ members: Credible reporting on environmental issues has great intrinsic value. I am constantly looking for indicators about that. It’s great to have this study to provide some objective evidence,” Parke wrote in an e-mail. “I will be using it in my quest to gather and encourage new resources for SEJ and the environmental journalism community at large.”

The Community Partners team contacted forty-two influential newsmakers, based on a list drafted by SEJ. Twenty-one responded, including two government agencies, six academic institutions, six nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), six corporations (or industry associations), and one foundation that funds environmental projects. Despite reaffirming the value that these groups continue to see in professional journalism, however, some of the survey’s findings were discouraging. For example:

Many survey responders point to enormous changes in traditional media: deteriorating economics of print and broadcast news, consolidations of news organizations, cutbacks in full time paid journalist positions, fewer journalists dedicated to specialist areas such as environmental news, and generally a reduced ability and willingness of news organizations to provide in-depth research and reporting.


Traditionally, building long term personal relationships with journalists has been a key factor for success in media relations. With the turmoil in traditional media—layoffs, reassignment of people, reorganizations, fewer specialists covering environmental issues—media relations departments find it increasingly difficult to know who to contact, particularly in news outlets beyond the highest profile organizations (such as regional media players). One interviewee stated that it was increasingly important to reach out to assignment editors vs. journalists.

When asked who they think are the most important and influential news organizations, survey respondents cited thirty-four different media outlets. The New York Times got eleven mentions and The Washington Post got seven. NPR, The Associated Press, and National Geographic each got four. USA Today, Nature, and the Los Angeles Times each got three. Politico, Greenwire, NBC, “Time/Newsweek/Fast Company etc.,” Treehugger, and Popular Science (Popular Mechanics) each got two. The rest, which included legacy brands like The Wall Street Journal and CNN as well as newcomers like Grist and ClimateWire, each got one mention. [Update: In addition to Greenwire’s two mentions, its sister site, ClimateWire, and its parent, Energy & Environment Publishing (referred to in the survey as Energy & Environment News) each got one mention, which would elevate the ranking of E&E if grouped together.]

The outlets newsmakers get their news from are somewhat different than the ones they target, with Google Alerts, The New York Times, The Washington Post, SEJ’s newslist, NPR, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Congressional Quarterly, and Twitter searches receiving the most mentions. [Update: Greenwire and “ENE News” (most likely another reference to Energy & Environment Publishing) each got one mention, which, taken collectively, would again elevate E&E’s ranking.]

When asked about the most influential environmental journalists, newsmakers cited thirty-nine different names, of which only nine came up more than once. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin got five mentions. The New York Times’s John Broder and Andy Revkin (who writes the Dot Earth blog) each got three mentions. And coming in with two mentions each were NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren and Christopher Joyce, Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Mark Schleifstein, The New York Times’s Matt Wald and Kate Galbraith, and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sandy Bauer.

According to the survey, most newsmakers feel they know how to reach the top-tier news outlets and get their news out, relying mostly on traditional methods such as media e-mail and phone lists, in addition to wire services and their own websites. However, “many of the organizations are finding that they must do far more legwork in the creating stories while simultaneously having to educate the reporters [more of whom are younger and less experienced] on the basics of the subject matter.”

It should be unsurprising, then, that “even though most of the organizations have only begun to using social media tools within the last year or so and think of it as complementing their traditional effort, there is general agreement that social media - or parts of it - will continue to increase in importance in future years.”

Already, there is some evidence of what could be called a trickle-up effect, with various digital media sources feeding stories and information to traditional outlets. Blogs, for instance, “received a mixed review.” According to the survey:

It is much easier to get a story in the blogs than in the written press. One media director indicated that her strategy for placing news stories in the NY Times was to place the story initially in the NY Times environmental blog and then hope that the print version of the paper would later pick it up.

Another option, of course, is to sidestep the press entirely. Although social media aren’t yet a major part of their communications strategies, 76 percent of newsmakers said they use Facebook and Twitter. “One advocacy group stated that Twitter (and to a lesser extent, other social media tools) was invaluable because ‘it allowed them, with their advocacy message, to bypass the filters of traditional news sources while they can completely control their message and tell their own story,’” according to the survey report.

SEJ’s Parke intimated that the fact that newsmakers are still so focused on major new outlets or otherwise trying to get around the press is somewhat dismaying.

“It made me think how so many newsmakers, even given that they may be nationally focused, are missing out on the wide range of smaller news outlets serving important audiences of different descriptions with environmental news,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It wasn’t clear to me that those surveyed realized how many outlets for good environmental journalism actually have developed over the last two decades and how much amazing work is being done by freelancers who may be hard for them to find. I don’t think they have a handle on how to work effectively on a regional basis or in the new media landscape, other than through ‘new media’ that they themselves control.”

But the point of the survey was to identify where SEJ can help build bridges (at its annual conference or through its press release distribution service, for instance) between newsmakers and journalists, Parke added, and she expects that its findings will be very helpful in that regard.

SEJ board member Heather King, who oversaw the survey for the society, said that the takeaway message for individual journalists was threefold. “(1) It’s important to be facile with new media, whether or not you are in a new media organization; (2) make yourself the ‘go to’ person in your region/marketplace; (3) develop a plan for branding yourself - area of expertise, website, social media, etc.,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Both Parke and King cautioned that survey, which Community Partners did on a pro bono basis (and which is available online only to SEJ members), was very limited in scope and that more research is needed (related to regional and local newsmakers and to funders, for instance). Nonetheless, it’s a good start.

“It may not be easy for SEJ or individual journalists or news organizations to monetize the intrinsic value of quality environmental reporting, and be rewarded for excellence in providing or supporting it,” Parke wrote in an e-mail, “but credible environmental journalism and lots of it will continue to be important to a great many constituencies. This “beat” is not going away. If anything it grows more important to more people and more communities every day. That’s not confirmed by this study, but it is implied.”

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