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Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?

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For all the media reports about a surge in "green jobs," one place we won't likely be seeing them is in the media itself.

The past few weeks and months have been devastating for environmental journalism. Just after Thanksgiving, Fortune magazine gave layoff notices to Marc Gunther, one of the leading business writers on corporate environmental practices (whose blogs also appear on GreenBiz.com), along with Todd Woody, whose coverage of clean technology has led the pack. (Gunther has been asked to stick around as a "contributing writer" and again chair next year's Brainstorm: Green event.) Over at CNN -- which has been pushing hard its new Planet in Peril series -- the network's entire seven-person environmental team, including stalwarts like veteran anchor Miles O'Brien and pioneering producer Peter Dykstra, was let go. Even the Weather Channel, which has been hyping its climate change program, Forecast Earth, extinguished the Environmental Unit that produced it. (It did this, by the way, while turning its normally blue logo green as part of NBC's Green Is Universal promotion.)

It goes on. In recent months some of the better journalists covering the environment have taken buy-out packages offered by their financially beleaguered employers: Claudia Deutsch at the New York Times, Marla Cone and Janet Wilson at the Los Angeles Times, Ilana Debare at the San Francisco Chronicle, and others.

What's going on here? For starters, the mainstream media business has been tanking along with the rest of the economy. With ad sales and consumer spending down, bloggers and other so-called "new media" providing low-priced competition, and general panic on Wall Street devaluing media stocks, business reporters are finding themselves a part of the same economic meltdown they're covering. Like so many industries, the media business is in the throes of a transformation, with yesterday's leaders becoming -- well, fish wrap.

But it's more than that. Corporate environmental topics have long had a volatile existence within most mainstream media companies. For years, few newspapers, TV networks, and business magazines would touch stories about companies improving their environmental performance, or at best were ambivalent about them, even when such stories were substantive. And when these stories were covered, they often were positioned as precious, offbeat stories, novel corporate antics, or shallow efforts to ward off activist or consumer protests. While some of that may have been accurate -- a lot of companies have done the minimum needed to "green up" their image -- countless stories of companies' efforts to systematically wring out waste, pollution, and inefficiency, and improve business performance along the way, were dismissed as unworthy of coverage. When I launched a monthly newsletter, The Green Business Letter, in 1991, I was one of only a handful of writers covering these topics.

In the mid 1990s, I had the opportunity to lead a panel at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, a professional organization. At the panel -- the group's first ever on business reporting -- I posed a question couched in the classic terms of "Man bites dog." As Wikipedia explains: "The phrase Man bites dog and the related phrase Dog bites man are used to describe a phenomenon in journalism, in which an unusual, infrequent event is more likely to be reported as news than an ordinary, everyday occurrence."

So, I asked my SEJ colleagues, if the headline "Company Pollutes" represented the "Dog bites man" story -- that is, an ordinary, everyday occurrence -- shouldn't "Company Innovates, Reduces Risks and Improves Environment" be seen as its "Man bites dog" counterpart -- in other words, News?

My panelists agreed that it should be, but the reality was that reporters weren't typically lauded for telling good-news corporate stories. Their reward system was based on slaying dragons -- that is, bringing big, powerful entities to their knees.

Things have changed somewhat since then -- stories of proactive corporate environmental initiatives are now regular media fare -- but as I've noted earlier this year, mainstream business writers still seem ill-informed and overly cynical about company efforts to be greener. Like the preponderance of their readers, editors and reporters seem to start with the assumption that most environmental activities undertaken by companies, especially large companies, are done primarily for P.R. reasons. True, healthy skepticism is the currency of a good journalist, but undying cynicism is more the norm when it comes to environmental business reporting.

The recent spate of downsizings of writers, editors, and producers covering environmental issues will only exacerbate this, relegating green business coverage to reporters with less knowledge, context, and historical perspective on the transformation taking place in business. I hear from such reporters every week: general-assignment reporters from newspapers and broadcast stations around the U.S., niche trade magazines, and others seeking comment or context on a story they're covering. I can tell you unequivocally that the nature of their questions reveals a high degree of ignorance. I'm happy to bring them up to speed, but it's a slog.

The timing of the recent media layoffs is all the more troublesome given everything that's about to happen: a new administration and Congress with a big appetite for environmental regulation, green jobs, renewable energy, and carbon management -- with the potential of countless billions of dollars, and millions more in lobbying, devoted to such efforts. The automotive industry -- bailout or not -- is undergoing a revolution, a phase-out of the hundred-year-old gas-powered internal combustion engine in favor of electricity-powered ones -- creating the need for a new, smarter energy grid that will have vast ripple effects throughout the economy. Wal-Mart and other large players are driving their suppliers harder than ever before to reduce packaging, improve energy efficiency, and eliminate toxic ingredients in their products. The construction industry is undergoing a green revolution. Food growers and producers are seeing the beginning of an antiglobalization backlash, and a relocalization of some farming and food processing.

It goes on from there.

Who will be there to cover it all? Who will bring the deep knowledge and big-picture perspective necessary to create informed stories, not just sound-bite "content." Will the less-experienced reporters and editors be overly enthusiastic or hopelessly cynical?

Yes, of course, there are niche publications covering green business (including, of course, GreenBiz.com and its constellation of sites, of which I am executive editor). And there remain several strong (for now) environmental reporting teams at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, and a handful of other mainstream media. But even on their best days, their combined reach includes only a small fraction of the audience -- business people, activists, regulators, policymakers, investors, business students, and others -- that need to understand the trends and developments in the greening of mainstream business.

As we enter a new year, a new political era, and, arguably, a new environmental ethic, we'll need a more informed society than ever before. We'll see how it goes.