Media stunner: Columbia suspends Environmental Journalism Program even though “our graduates have done well in their careers.”

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"Media stunner: Columbia suspends Environmental Journalism Program even though “our graduates have done well in their careers.”"

Columbia Journalism Review itself reports the startling and depressing news:

For the first time since it was created fourteen years ago, Columbia University’s highly regarded dual-degree graduate program in environmental journalism will not be accepting applications for next academic year.

In a letter to faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism, the Department of Environmental Sciences, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the program directors cited falling employment in the field, the rising costs of education, and a lack of financial aid for students as the reasons for their decision:

“As you know, media organizations across the county are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists’ jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable. Although our graduates have done well in their careers, even those still employed are finding few opportunities to do the kind of substantive reporting for which the dual degree program has trained them, as they scramble to do their own work plus that of laid-off colleagues.”

Maybe not a total surprise to readers of this blog and Chris Mooney’s book, Unscientific America,” but very untimely decision for two reasons.  First,”The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change.”  And second, the issue of global warming has already emerged as a top tier issue — and it’s increasingly obvious that it will become “the Story of the Century,” as I called it in my book.  Indeed CJR quotes one of the graduates pointing this very fact out:

Dina Cappiello, who covers environmental issues out of The Associated Press’s D.C. bureau, has worked at some half dozen news outlets since she completed Columbia’s dual-degree program in 1999. She says she has managed to stay “one step ahead of the crashing wave” of layoffs that has battered the industry. And having an environmental degree has, at times, been a nuisance when applying for jobs where editors mistook her for an environmentalist or didn’t understand the need for the rigorous scientific training she received. But once on the job, Cappiello adds, editors always recognized the value of her training, and never more so than over the last couple years.

“You have legislation on Capitol Hill that rivals the environmental statutes of the 1970s, at the beginning of the environmental movement,” she says. “You have an administration that made climate and energy its number-two priority, behind healthcare. It’s a beat that I, as one person, struggle at times to keep up with, and I wouldn’t be able to cover it as well as I do without my experience and training. At my last job at Energy & Environment Publishing, there were ten people that break my beat into ten slices.”

So this is just amazingly shortsighted of Columbia University, where I briefly taught as an adjunct professor nearly two decades ago.

Here’s the rest of the story:

The letter stressed that the two-year program””which offers two master’s degrees, in environmental science and journalism””will be suspended, rather than cancelled, so that its directors, Kim Kastens and Marguerite Holloway, can evaluate “its accomplishments to date and prospects for the future.”

Layoffs and buyouts have been rife among environmental journalists (whether more or less so than in the rest of the industry is hard to say). Many newspapers with reputations for strong coverage on that front, from the Sacramento Bee to the Columbus Dispatch, have let go of talented specialists. At Columbia, applications to the environmental journalism program have not seen a marked drop-off, Kastens says, but the number of students who accept offers to enroll has declined over the last three years. Although the classes have always been small, with no more than six students, this year, only one of eight matriculated.

“Although our students are assuming huge debt for knowledge and skills that we think are valuable,” Kastens and Holloway wrote in their letter, “we do not feel comfortable exhorting young people to take on that burden when their chances of repaying it have so diminished.”

Environmental journalists and both current and former students widely regarded the decision as a loss for the field. While many sympathized with Columbia’s predicament, not everybody thought suspending the program was the right move, myself included. In full disclosure, I am a graduate of the dual-degree program and was very satisfied with the education I got. Kastens also invited me to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory a few weeks before the final decision was made to discuss the matter. I tried to persuade to her keep the program running while evaluating its financing and direction, and I am not alone in my opinion.

“I have a lot of respect for the decision and the people who made it, but strongly disagree,” says Dan Fagin, the director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, which enrolls 15 or 16 students every year and competes with the Columbia two-year program for students. “We’ve never needed well-trained science, health and environmental journalists more than we do right now. Yes, the market is tough, but with persistence, flexibility, and the right training, it is possible to find professional work even in this difficult environment. It can be done; it is being done.”

Indeed, the woes of environmental journalism are not universal. ProPublica””perhaps the most prominent of the new nonprofit startups””recently advertised for two investigative reporters with experience covering environmental issues. The staff at Energy & Environment Publishing, which runs Greenwire and ClimateWire, has grown considerably in recent years. And though they don’t offer much in the way of fulltime employment, online outlets such as Grist and Yale Environment 360 have won praise for their commentary and analysis, and offer freelance reporters a place to make a name for themselves.

None of this is meant to sugarcoat the situation for environmental journalists. It is much harder to find work today than it was three years ago, and Fagin stressed that it is very important to be honest with prospective students about the difficulties they will face when entering the job market.

Yet the fact remains that numerous outlets are, in fact, making environmental coverage a priority, and the reason is simple: topics like energy and climate change are at the forefront of the national agenda.

Jeers to Columbia.

The letter stressed that the two-year program””which offers two master’s degrees, in environmental science and journalism””will be suspended, rather than cancelled, so that its directors, Kim Kastens and Marguerite Holloway, can evaluate “its accomplishments to date and prospects for the future.”

Layoffs and buyouts have been rife among environmental journalists (whether more or less so than in the rest of the industry is hard to say). Many newspapers with reputations for strong coverage on that front, from the Sacramento Bee to the Columbus Dispatch, have let go of talented specialists. At Columbia, applications to the environmental journalism program have not seen a marked drop-off, Kastens says, but the number of students who accept offers to enroll has declined over the last three years. Although the classes have always been small, with no more than six students, this year, only one of eight matriculated.

“Although our students are assuming huge debt for knowledge and skills that we think are valuable,” Kastens and Holloway wrote in their letter, “we do not feel comfortable exhorting young people to take on that burden when their chances of repaying it have so diminished.”

Environmental journalists and both current and former students widely regarded the decision as a loss for the field. While many sympathized with Columbia’s predicament, not everybody thought suspending the program was the right move, myself included. In full disclosure, I am a graduate of the dual-degree program and was very satisfied with the education I got. Kastens also invited me to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory a few weeks before the final decision was made to discuss the matter. I tried to persuade to her keep the program running while evaluating its financing and direction, and I am not alone in my opinion.

“I have a lot of respect for the decision and the people who made it, but strongly disagree,” says Dan Fagin, the director of New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, which enrolls 15 or 16 students every year and competes with the Columbia two-year program for students. “We’ve never needed well-trained science, health and environmental journalists more than we do right now. Yes, the market is tough, but with persistence, flexibility, and the right training, it is possible to find professional work even in this difficult environment. It can be done; it is being done.”

Indeed, the woes of environmental journalism are not universal. ProPublica””perhaps the most prominent of the new nonprofit startups””recently advertised for two investigative reporters with experience covering environmental issues. The staff at Energy & Environment Publishing, which runs Greenwire and ClimateWire, has grown considerably in recent years. And though they don’t offer much in the way of fulltime employment, online outlets such as Grist and Yale Environment 360 have won praise for their commentary and analysis, and offer freelance reporters a place to make a name for themselves.

None of this is meant to sugarcoat the situation for environmental journalists. It is much harder to find work today than it was three years ago, and Fagin stressed that it is very important to be honest with prospective students about the difficulties they will face when entering the job market.

Yet the fact remains that numerous outlets are, in fact, making environmental coverage a priority, and the reason is simple: topics like energy and climate change are at the forefront of the national agenda.

Dina Cappiello, who covers environmental issues out of The Associated Press’s D.C. bureau, has worked at some half dozen news outlets since she completed Columbia’s dual-degree program in 1999. She says she has managed to stay “one step ahead of the crashing wave” of layoffs that has battered the industry. And having an environmental degree has, at times, been a nuisance when applying for jobs where editors mistook her for an environmentalist or didn’t understand the need for the rigorous scientific training she received. But once on the job, Cappiello adds, editors always recognized the value of her training, and never more so than over the last couple years.

“You have legislation on Capitol Hill that rivals the environmental statutes of the 1970s, at the beginning of the environmental movement,” she says. “You have an administration that made climate and energy its number-two priority, behind healthcare. It’s a beat that I, as one person, struggle at times to keep up with, and I wouldn’t be able to cover it as well as I do without my experience and training. At my last job at Energy & Environment Publishing, there were ten people that break my beat into ten slices.”

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11 Responses to Media stunner: Columbia suspends Environmental Journalism Program even though “our graduates have done well in their careers.”

  1. “Very untimely decision” (my emphasis).

    Certainly unfortunate, but I am not convinced that CSJ can or should be held responsible for the timing. The quality of the supply of environmental reporters cannot improve the demand for them. Until and unless those who hold the publishing strings actually come to be concerned about the quality and relevance of their reporting, then stacking up unhirable graduates does nothing to improve the field.

  2. WAG says:

    “As you know, media organizations across the county are in dire financial straits and thousands of journalists’ jobs have been eliminated. Science and environment beats have been particularly vulnerable.”

    Maybe that explains the recent deluge of denier talking points showing up in the MSM. Contrarian viewpoints draw in readers – so are environmental journalists, desperate to hold onto their jobs, doing their best to bring in dollars by dangling red meat for salivating denialists? Seems reasonable. Consensus doesn’t sell, and peddling faux controversy may be the best way for a threatened species of journalist to prove its worth to the bottom line.

  3. Ralph Smith says:

    New York times did layoffs today. The supply of writers is huge.

  4. Brewster says:

    Truly Depressing, especially when I see the quality of the stuff being printed in most newspapers…

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    This is terrible. We LIVE in environments, are dependent on them, and are inseparable from them. Society NEEDS a much better, and more engaging, understanding of nature and ecology. We need a much better understanding of science in general. What are we thinking?

    Sigh.

  6. ecostew says:

    Most of the technology needed to shift the world from fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy already exists. Implementing that technology requires overcoming obstacles in planning and politics, but doing so could result in a 30 percent decrease in global power demand, say Stanford civil and environmental engineering Professor Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California-Davis researcher Mark Delucchi.
    They then calculated that if no combustion of fossil fuel or biomass were used to generate energy, and virtually everything was powered by electricity – either for direct use or hydrogen production – the demand would be only 11.5 terawatts. That’s only two-thirds of the energy that would be needed if fossil fuels were still in the mix.
    In order to convert to wind, water and solar, the world would have to build wind turbines; solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar arrays; and geothermal, tidal, wave and hydroelectric power sources to generate the electricity, as well as transmission lines to carry it to the users, but the long-run net savings would more than equal the costs, according to Jacobson and Delucchi’s analysis.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091019122954.htm

  7. Seth Masia says:

    It’s a bad decision. The fact that newspapers are failing and reassigning specialist reporters to general assignments doesn’t mean a smaller market for environmental journalism. Historically, citizens who wanted the full story about complex issues have gotten it from magazines — The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Scientific American, National Geographic etc etc are doing a fine job and provide a solid market for long-form professionally-done environmental journalism. The market drying up is the deadline 800-word story, which was corrupted years ago by the balance fallacy.

  8. So many things hang in the balance these days.

    Hopefully this widely-praised program will be re-started soon: As all note, it is needed now more than ever.

    And that need will only be increasing as long as any of us are around.

    BTW, at ArchitectureWeek, freelance environmental and technical/science writing opportunities continue around a wide range of sustainable design, building, planning, and development issues, for both pitched and assigned stories. We support appropriate time for stories to be developed in-depth, and long word counts when merited.

    And these features have impact: Our in-depth assigned story comparing the FSC and SFI wood certification systems, for instance, was followed a few weeks later by a remarkably parallel story in the New York Times, interviewing and quoting the same list of people on the same topics.

  9. Seth Masia says:

    Newspapers are dying, and their science reporters are being laid off or reassigned to general reporting. But that just means the market for 800-word news stories has dried up. That format was long ago rendered useless for complex issues like climate by the balance fallacy.

    Citizens who want to learn about complex stories like climate (or health care or Afghanistan or ???) have had to rely on long-form professional journalism in magazines, and that market remains healthy. J-schools should get over their fixation on deadline journalism and focus on reality, in every sense.

  10. Instead of killing the journalism program, they should have put a disclaimer on it: “Burdening yourself with massive student debt in order to get a job where you will be competing with more experienced, laid off journalists, not to mention talented writers who found another way into this profession is not a good idea. So, hand us $60,000 at your own risk.”

  11. I think Seth Masia is right on the mark: This IS a bad decision.

    Which is why the University of Montana is starting a master’s program in environmental science and natural resources journalism next fall.

    Energy policy, climate change, the struggle for natural resources and conservation will be huge in the coming decade. They make for a story that crosses beats and media, and it needs to be told by reporters that “get” science as well as economics and (global) politics. My prediction is that there’ll be more than enough jobs to go around for journalists who are versatile AND knowledgeable, and our graduates will be.