Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?

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?