Univ. of Montana Launches Environmental Journalism Program

School cites expansive value of training, diverse job possibilities

At least somebody gets it. The University of Montana in Missoula announced on Monday that it is accepting applications for a new, two-year graduate program in environmental science and natural resource journalism.

The news comes less than a month after Columbia University, in New York, decided to suspend a similar and highly regarded fourteen-year-old program, citing falling employment in the field, the rising costs of education, and a lack of financial aid for students. Many journalists, students, and bloggers criticized Columbia’s decision, noting that environmental issues are at the forefront of many economic and policy debates and that specialized journalistic training prepares students for a wide array of jobs within the industry and out.

The University of Montana is operating under the same logic, and to call its initiative a “new program” is something of an understatement. The journalism school has actually replaced its thirteen-year-old graduate program with the new one focused entirely on the environment and natural resources.

“We’re going all the way,” said Henriette Löwisch, the director of the graduate program and an associate professor at the journalism school, which also accepts undergraduates. “This a general direction that the University of Montana is taking to focus on environmental issues throughout the university.”

An external review in 2006 recommended that the journalism school take steps to make its graduate program “more distinctive,” Löwisch added, and concentrating on environmental issues seemed a fairly common-sense approach. Students in the new program will take about half their courses at the journalism school and half in environmental science, policy, or economics elsewhere in university (including its esteemed College of Forestry and Conservation).

Asked why the school is launching an environmental journalism program when the industry is undergoing such turmoil, Löwisch said she takes an expansive view of the value of such training.

“I don’t see environmental journalism as such a narrow field in the sense that there are very few newspapers and magazines that still employ a full-time beat writer,” she said. “I see it more as crossing beats. I strongly believe that in local, regional, national, and international coverage, so much of it is in some way going to be related to environmental issues. So, somebody who can knowledgably report about these issues has a competitive advantage compared to somebody who has just learned how to do the police beat or cover government.”

Moreover, Löwisch added, an environmental-journalism education prepares students for the more rough-and-tumble world of non-traditional media.

“I think journalists that are going into the profession now have to be very entrepreneurial. And to be entrepreneurial, you need some kind of specialty,” she said. “If we’re going to train journalists to make a living by setting up their own Web publications, or collaborating on Web publications, the people that succeed in that are people that have a certain specialty. And there’s a huge audience for this specialty in particular. You can see it. There are so many blogs out there on a whole host of environmental issues that have come to brink of being professional.”

Even more importantly, perhaps, the University of Montana recognizes that journalistic training has value far beyond the journalism industry.

“Our graduates will find work everywhere that journalists are working today and in the future, from traditional news media to online news organizations, nonprofits, government agencies and educational institutions,” the program’s Web site states. “The practical skills and special knowledge they acquire in Montana will expand the venues for them to practice their craft.”

“I’m absolutely not worried about my grad students finding jobs,” Löwisch said. And she is not alone in her optimism.

Two years ago, Michigan State University launched a two-year graduate program in environmental journalism (although it has provided training in the discipline for over a decade). Its director, Jim Detjen, said that despite industry troubles, his students have found journalism jobs as well as non-journalism writing jobs at places like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He also criticized Columbia University’s decision to suspend its program.

“This is an important area and there are only a few journalism schools that have specialized programs in environmental journalism, and I think there’s a real need for that,” Detjen said. “I think there’s a real need for advanced training in a field as complicated as the environment and environmental science, and for journalism schools to provide people with all sorts of new media and entrepreneurial skills.”

Michigan State now has three instructors focusing almost exclusively on teaching environmental science and health courses in print, broadcast, and online. It has also expanded its course offerings in environmental journalism, and the graduate program now fields six to nine students per year.

The University of Montana will have two “point people” running its new program—Löwisch and assistant professor Nadia White—with additional support coming from the journalism’s school’s eighteen other faculty members. White is the only one who specializes in covering environmental issues, but that’s still a good start. In July, CJR complimented her for launching an innovative reporting project in which her students spent an entire semester covering one of the most significant environmental criminal prosecutions in United States history, which took place in Missoula.

The new graduate program—which will take up to fifteen students—is accepting applications until February 15, and will begin classes next fall. At a cost of almost $40,000 in tuition and fees, it is significantly less expensive than its counterparts at Columbia ($89,000) and NYU ($69,000), and slightly more than its counterpart at Michigan State ($36,000). All of the schools offer options for partial tuition support and financial aid.

One hopes that the University of Montana will have no trouble attracting applications. If it can field a solid class, deliver a useful education, and help its first graduates find jobs (within the industry or otherwise) three years from now, it will have proved a very important point about the value of such programs.

Clarification: A sentence that previously read, “All of the schools offer roughly comparable levels of tuition support and financial aid,” was changed for clarity. While the schools offer similar types of assistance, the relative amounts they are able to provide are less clear.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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