Who’s Watching the World, Now?

Changes in media climate snuff out two in-depth environmental reporting outlets

With untold millions of gallons of crude oil spewing into the Gulf and a troubling outlook for energy legislation in the United States, the need for strong environmental reporting is urgent. But dwindling resources and consumer demand have pushed many news organizations to cut back on such coverage, or in the notable case of CNN, to cut their science reporting staffs altogether. So it’s a special kind of ”bummer” that two valuable sources of deep reporting on environmental issues, a bi-monthly magazine and a nationally syndicated daily radio broadcast, will shut down in coming months, further evidence of the difficulty of sustaining such coverage in the stricken media climate.

The July/August edition of World Watch magazine, a publication of the Worldwatch Institute, will be its last, and ”The Environment Report,” a public radio program based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will cease its daily broadcast in early June.

Worldwatch Institute was founded in 1974 by Lester Brown, now president of the Earth Policy Institute, and began publishing its flagship annual book ”State of the World” in 1984. The Institute launched World Watch magazine in 1988. In an e-mail to readers about the decision to shutter the magazine, Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin noted the problems facing all magazines: “the realities of declining subscriptions, rising costs, and strained budgets.”

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic, has followed the institute’s publications from the beginning. In an e-mail to me, he wrote that the closure of the magazine, part of the institute’s “noble effort to watch over the world,” was “like losing an old friend”:

I know that cutting trees to make paper causes environmental problems, but so does mining rare metals to make iPads and other electronic gadgets that made World Watch magazine (and other magazines) a tough economic proposition in times of tight funding …

We are awash in an electronic fire hose of data and information but still seeking knowledge and wisdom. That’s what I saw in World Watch magazine, a distillation, a curation, a seeker of knowledge and glimmers of wisdom.

I get the need to move on, to make the most of limited dollars in hopes of making the world a better place.

But I will miss World Watch magazine. It was a slow-moving beacon in a world of fast lights, built by people I know and care about, who care about the world.

World Watch is also a publication written for people who care and presumably worry about the world, which perhaps is part of the problem. According to recent polls, the American public’s concern over global warming is drooping. So too, apparently, is its appetite for a daily radio broadcast on environmental issues.

“The Environment Report” grew out of a collaboration of public radio stations in the Upper Midwest, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium. It launched in 1995, providing a news feed on regional environmental issues carried by twenty-three stations. It won many awards and expanded steadily over the years, adopting its current name in the summer of 2006 as a national, weekly environmental news service. In 2008, six primary contributors headed by host and senior editor Lester Graham, began producing daily, four-minute broadcasts in addition to stand-alone features that were carried by stations around the country. But, just two years later, the show is returning to its local focus, paring back to a twice-a-week format that will cover environmental issues for public radio stations in Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

“The bottom line for The Environment Report’s national show is this: not enough public radio stations in major markets picked it up and that made it impossible to secure a national corporate sponsor,” Graham wrote in an e-mail to the Society for Environmental Journalists listserv. “Michigan Radio has been subsidizing the unit. An extensive survey of listeners found the listeners appreciated the coverage, but did not find a daily show essential. They did, however, want more and better coverage of their state. Michigan Radio management decided the listeners should get the kind of coverage they want and support with their donations.”

The new show will be hosted by one of the show’s current producers, Rebecca Williams. Graham will lead a new investigative unit dealing with a broader range of issues, and Michigan Radio has offered jobs to the show’s other full-time staffers. “Rebecca will keep doing a Michigan version of ‘The Environment Report,’” Graham said during an interview. “We might not be national now, but I have a lot of confidence that some national stories will be coming out of that unit.”

There are signs of new life that may help offset the losses, too. The Observatory has noted the recently created Ohio River Radio Consortium, a small group of public radio stations with a mission to “increase environmental literacy about the most critical issues affecting the bioregion of the Ohio River Valley.” Also, although World Watch magazine is folding, the institute’s president, Flavin, said it will put additional resources into its Web site, which already includes four strong blogs, Revolt, Nourishing the Planet, Green Economy, and Transforming Cultures. The goal is for the site to feature work comparable to what the magazine has published, but under the institute’s moniker.

“We considered the possibility of a pure online magazine, but after looking at other models of publications that had done that, we decided that wasn’t the best route,” Flavin said. “A major revamp of the institute’s Web site is in the works. In the meantime, we’ve started to step up the effort to include more stories on the homepage, the issue area pages and on the blogs.”

Flavin thinks the financial woes of the print magazine reflect general problems in publishing, but not environmental publications in particular. “There’s a tremendous interest from the public,” he said. “The amount of environmental information flowing in the world is probably at its highest level ever. But it’s a crowded information environment, and the medium has changed.”

We will see. In the March/April issue of World Watch magazine, Ben Block assessed the health of climate change coverage following the Copenhagen summit. He issued a warning that bears repeating here:

The financial decline of traditional journalism organizations has stifled investigative and foreign news. While online news and social media are spreading more information more widely and rapidly, the growing lack of explanatory journalism may nonetheless result in a less informed public. The trend should be a concern for anyone dedicated to environmental sustainability. Journalism’s economic adversity not only diminishes the ability of newsrooms to generate insightful, balanced reports on science-related topics such as climate change, it also limits our understanding of how governments and industry are responding to our global environmental crisis.

The public’s limited understanding of environmental issues necessarily limits the sense of urgency that moves governments and industries to action in the first place. We hope the loss of World Watch and and The Environment Report isn’t a vicious cycle in the making.

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Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.