Strong environmental journalism is key to informing citizens and holding polluters accountable
Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER
Update (5/31/19): After publication of this article, Media Matters spoke with The New Orleans Advocate and learned that it has made job offers to The Times-Picayune's full three-person team of environmental journalists and those offers have been accepted. The Advocate also plans to bring over a grant-funded journalism fellow as part of a year-long environmental reporting project that was started at The Times-Picayune. These journalists, who are expected to begin their new jobs on July 2, will join the Advocate reporters who have been covering environmental issues as they intersect with other beats.
"We are extremely excited to be expanding our environmental coverage," said New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr. "The Advocate has a strong record of environmental reporting in New Orleans and Louisiana. These reporters will add to what we can do to keep citizens informed."
The Times-Picayune, a 182-year-old newspaper published in New Orleans, has produced some of the most important environmental journalism in the country. But after a surprise purchase by the owners of The New Orleans Advocate and the Baton Rouge Advocate in early May, the entire staff of the Picayune was laid off. The buyers reportedly plan to merge The Times-Picayune with The New Orleans Advocate, but it's unclear how many of the 161 Picayune employees will be rehired to work on the new joint paper, which is expected to relaunch in July. Local environmental advocates are concerned that a degraded and depleted Picayune will have a much harder time informing the public about important environmental issues.
The Times-Picayune has been a longtime publisher of award-winning environmental journalism
For decades, The Times-Picayune has produced groundbreaking stories about how humans affect the environment in southern Louisiana and around the world. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its “Oceans of Trouble” series, which examined threats to fish populations around the world.
In 2006, the Picayune was awarded another Pulitzer, this time “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” The paper's Katrina reporting was also built on critical work its journalists had done in previous years. In 2002, it published a prescient five-part series that revealed how woefully unprepared the region was for the full brunt of a major storm. The series included an ominous warning: “It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”
The Times-Picayune has twice earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, presented by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, it won for “Unwelcome Neighbors: Race, class and the environment,” a four-part series that examined environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism in Louisiana. And in 2008, it was honored with an Oakes Award for a special report titled “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.”
The newspaper also received many other accolades over the years. For example, the Picayune's reporting on the BP oil spill earned first place for outstanding beat reporting in a small market from the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2011. In 2018, the paper partnered with The New York Times to produce a three-part series that investigated the ecological catastrophe occurring along Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and further reporting on the topic won the 2018 Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors award for continuing coverage.
The Times-Picayune continued to produce innovative and informative environmental journalism even after suffering massive staff layoffs in 2012. But as in far too many other newsrooms across the country, good journalism would ultimately not be able to save the paper.
Great journalism isn’t enough to stem the tide of newspaper dissolution and consolidation
Notable achievements, high readership, and even profitability have so far proved unable to stem the growing tide of newsroom erosion and extinction all around the country.
Picayune journalist Haley Correll, who found out that she lost her job while in New York to accept an award, illustrated this point in a tweet.
Last night, I stood in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia and accepted The Dart Award. Today, I ugly cried on an airplane as I heard @NOLAnews was bought and we’re all losing our jobs in 60 days. The whole newsroom.
— Haley Correll (@HaleyCorrell) May 3, 2019
The Wall Street Journal recently took a deep dive into the dire state of local newspapers. The article noted, “Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one,” according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. The job losses have also been staggering: Between 1990 and 2016, newspaper positions in the U.S. declined by about 60%, falling from 465,000 jobs to 183,000.
In a region highly vulnerable to climate threats, activists stress the need for strong environmental journalism
Local environmental activists have expressed apprehension about what the Picayune’s sale portends for the future of journalism in a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and plagued by environmental injustices like “Cancer Alley.” Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based conservation nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told Media Matters, "Environmental protection starts with informed citizens, and The Times-Picayune has been an invaluable source of information on issues like sea-level rise, land loss, increased severity of storms, and oil and gas development, which are all very real threats to Louisianians.”
His unease is shared by Andy Kowalczyk of climate action group 350 New Orleans, who told Media Matters, “Unbiased reporting is increasingly important in Louisiana because there is an all-too-common and casual lack of transparency from regulators of polluting industries, and, of course, the industries themselves.”
They're right to be concerned. Research suggests that the loss of local newspapers can result in citizens who are less civically engaged and institutions that are less accountable, leading to more government and industry waste, fraud, and abuse. A recent study also found that newspaper coverage of polluting plants was correlated with lowered emissions from those plants.
Without knowledgeable journalists who can tell compelling stories, a local paper will sometimes morph into a digital version plagued by junk advertisements and rife with stories that have little relevance to the community it serves.
Renaud emphasized the importance of tenacious reporters: “We need dedicated environmental journalists to tell the stories that Healthy Gulf advocates for or else we risk important environmental news falling through the cracks.” Having experienced journalists on the job is particularly important for beats like environmental reporting that require a grasp of science, regulatory systems, politics, and local arcana.
There is at least one bit of good news on this front: Poynter reported that the leaders of The New Orleans Advocate intend to hire some Picayune journalists on contract, and “the hires will draw on the strength of the Times-Picayune’s environmental reporting,” among other areas of expertise.
Potential new models for local news
The outlook for local news outlets around the country is bleak, but there are new models being pioneered that have the potential to help newspapers survive and even thrive in some cases.
One example is Report for America, a project aimed at recruiting, training, and placing 1,000 reporters in local newsrooms by 2023. The organization splits the cost of a reporter’s salary with the local newsroom and an individual donor, university, family trust, or foundation. This year, Report for America placed 61 reporters in 50 local news organizations.
Another project is focused specifically on the environmental beat. InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network is "hiring experienced reporters based in key regions of the nation to write stories, train local reporters, and collaborate with newsrooms to produce more in-depth environment reporting.” The network recently teamed up with 14 news outlets in the Midwest to produce a series of stories on local climate solutions.
Public funding of news outlets is another model that is beginning to be tested in the U.S., as the Nieman Lab reports. In New Jersey last year, grassroots activists successfully pushed through the Civic Info Bill, which created a public fund to support journalism projects and other potential ways to inform state residents.
In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it is seeking to become a nonprofit. If successful, the paper would become the first “legacy U.S. daily to switch to nonprofit status,” according to a Tribune article. The effort will be a complicated process; to kick it off, the Tribune’s owner has petitioned the IRS to change the paper’s status “from a privately owned business to a community asset.”
These are promising steps, but the ability of these models to support quality journalism is still in doubt -- as are the fates of many talented and experienced journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. But no matter which models ascend to fill the role historically played by local newspapers, one thing is certain: They should be guided by the consistently rigorous, revealing, and relevant reporting produced by local papers like The Times-Picayune.