Needed: More Environmental Journalism !

If you enjoy all the wonderful programming on public radio, as many people do, and depend on it, too, as a source of news, you may have noticed this: less and less coverage of environmental and conservation news. Or, you may have noticed nothing of the sort. The “news,” after all, is one of those commodities of daily life that we really “need”, but we take it for granted, too.

It can be hard to articulate just what kind of news we do “need,” and it’s even harder to quantify what news stories we’re listening to and which are most important. If all the news programming from National Public Radio just ceased one day, we’d notice that for sure! But as long the news keeps flowing from our radios on a regular schedule, we’re not likely to be all that aware of shifts in time and resources devoted to particular topics. Unless it’s our job to notice.

From the Gulf of Mexico . . .

From the Gulf of Mexico . . .

So when NPR cut it’s staff on the environmental beat from 4 to just 1 part-time position last October, it was other journalists who reported and analyzed it, and advocates for conservation and environmental issues who really felt the loss.

Katherine Bagley, a reporter at InsideClimate News where the story of the NPR staff cuts was originally broken, cited a measurable decline, throughout 2014, in the amount of NPR’s environmental coverage. An InsideClimate News study of NPR stories tagged “environment” found more than 60 such stories per month early in the year, that dropped to only 40 or so per month as the year progressed. For it’s part, NPR, is saying that specific environmental reporters aren’t needed, “because so many other staffers cover the subject, along with their other beats.” It’s not an answer that has calmed the critics, though.

 . . . to Great Lakes wetlands . . .

. . . to wetlands in Wisconsin . . .

Thinking of advocates for the environment and conservation issues, I wondered how, locally, this might impact the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and got in touch with Anne Sayers, the group’s Program Director, to ask if she had an opinion about this. “Yes, she told me in an email, “I was devastated by the news. It’s a huge loss of a valued resource.”

Anne likened NPR’s need to make staff cuts, to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. It is, she said “so underfunded that it is now citizens who are finding and reporting environmental violations. We’ve learned that just because the state isn’t looking for violations, doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening.” She sees NPR’s staff cuts as a parallel situation. “Just because NPR can’t pay environmental reporters doesn’t mean there isn’t serious environmental news to report.”

NPR is not the first news company to cut its environmental coverage. Far from it. I’ve been aware of this journalistic development, for nearly five years, watching it with a mixture of interest (because its part of the process of journalism moving to the web) and anxiety (about the shrinking coverage of important subjects).

 . . . to wildlife issues . . .

. . . to wildlife issues . . .

While the story of diminishing coverage is a matter of choices that editors are making about what issues to cover, it’s also a bit more complicated. It is tied to the unique problems shared by all media as the digital world has upended the way everything was done before the technological shift.

Before the shift the news media was mostly dominated – and led by – large, robustly staffed newsrooms for print media. As all news companies have scrambled to establish an online product – all need one, whether print or broadcast doesn’t matter – shrinking advertising revenue has meant drastic cuts in newsroom staffs. Finding the perfect business model that can support large reporting staffs for online news companies is proving elusive, and news staffs remain “lean and mean” for now.

Former New York Times science reporter – now blogger – Andrew Revkin (whose well-respected Dot Earth blog endeavors to cover the “efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits,”) wrote about this when the Times made similar staff changes two years ago. In a post, “The Changing Newsroom Environment,” Revkin explained some of the “background financial pressures, building around the industry,” and why he believed – contrary to many others – that the Times was still committed to “sustained, effective environmental coverage.”

 . . . to the Great Lakes - just a few examples of sources of environmental news stories waiting to be told.

. . . to the Great Lakes – just a few examples of sources of environmental news stories waiting to be told. (All photos by Kathlin F. Sickel)

As early as 2008, Joel Makower, the chairman and executive editor of the always insightful GreenBiz website, wrote about cuts he said were “devastating for environmental journalism.” In “Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?” he detailed multiple examples, and asked the question: “Who will bring the deep knowledge and big-picture perspective necessary to create informed stories, not just sound-bite ‘content’?”

For an answer to that now, in 2015, I’ll turn once more to Anne Sayers, who says we’ll have to fill the gaps for ourselves. Just as citizens in Wisconsin are stepping up to report environmental law violations, she believes the loss of trusted news sources means that, “more than ever – citizens have to educate themselves and rededicate themselves to being a voice for endangered natural resources.”

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On the Road with Dr. George Archibald, ICF’s Founder

Dr. George Archibald, one of the founders of the International Crane Foundation, has been retired from his duties as ICF’s President and CEO for a decade and half now, but he’s anything but retired when it comes to travel, meetings, and speaking on behalf of the world’s cranes. Just a glance at “Travels with George” – a feature at ICF’s website, makes it clear what a world traveler he is. His many trips are sure to involve meetings and lectures about ICF, the cranes, and conservation issues that affect the cranes – and all of us.

I learned recently through a Google Alerts (for news about whooping cranes) that Dr. Archibald – George, to his many friends and followers all over the world – was in Southwest Florida this weekend, speaking about ICF and whooping cranes on the Isles of Capri, and it served as a reminder that now might be a good time to review just a few of the many trips described by George in the past two years.

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012. (Photo by Kathlin Sickel)

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012.

It was also a reminder to check on and report where else he might be talking in early 2015. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at The Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor in 2012 and the depth and breadth of information he has to share, and his relaxed, storytelling style made it an experience I highly recommend to anyone.

Whatever George is talking about – whether it’s the historical development of conservation in North America, the indelible influence of Aldo Leopold on that history, or the characteristics of the world’s 15 species of cranes, or their beauty and power to bring people together to tackle tricky environmental issues – whether some of that, or all of it, you’ll enjoy yourself, and learn a lot too. Isn’t that a winning combination?

Dr. Archibald’s executive assistant at ICF sent me the following dates for two upcoming crane festivals where he will be a featured speaker. If you’re anywhere near the Texas gulf coast a month from now there will be two opportunities to meet and hear George at the Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival. On Friday evening, Feb. 20th, he will be joined by two other ICF colleagues – Dr. Barry Hartup, ICF’s crane veterinarian and Dr. Liz Smith who is ICF’s whooping crane conservation biologist, on location in coastal Texas. The trio will present “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Whooping Cranes,” from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. This is a free event.

You can also meet George Sunday morning as he will serve as the tour guide on the 4 1/2-hour Whooping Crane Boat Tour which leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf, Port Aransas, at 8 a.m., Feb. 22nd. There are Whooping Crane Boat Tours each day of the festival, but the one Sunday morning is the only one George is leading. There is a $50 per person charge for the boat tour.

In March, George will be the keynote speaker at the Monte Vista Crane Festival in southern Colorado. He will present his talk, “To the Heights with Cranes: Cranes of the Mountains,” Saturday evening, March 14th, 7:30 p.m., at the Vali 3 Theater. A donation is suggested.

The festival celebrates the Greater Sandhill Cranes – “part of the 20,000 strong Rocky Mountain flock that spends part of each spring and fall in the San Luis Valley. . .” The cranes migrate between the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and the Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Idaho.

It will be interesting to watch what other trips will be developing for George in this new year. I expect there’ll be many, but the only one to date, that I’ve seen described is a trip in June to Mongolia. It’s a trip that George has already taken several times, and is one that he leads as a tour guide (if you have an inclination to join an adventure trip like this, contact ICF for the details.)

Here are a few words from George about last year’s Mongolia tour: “Thousands of Demoiselle Cranes breed on grasslands across Mongolia, and perhaps as many as 1000 threatened White-naped Cranes live on wetlands in the northeast. ICF is helping our sister organization, “The Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia, in their comprehensive research on White-naped Cranes.”

In 2013 and ’14 George’s travels included such close to home trips as Ottawa, New York, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and South Carolina, and these more exotic locations: Japan, Russia, China, Bhutan, Thailand, North Korea, Zambia, India, and Australia. He has friends to see and work to do in each place. Capsule descriptions are all at Travels with George – for your armchair travels, too.