Columbia Suspends Environmental Journalism Program, and Malcolm Gladwell Is Okay With That



Emissions aren't the only thing being cut by the recession. On the same day that the Times axes 100 newsroom staff, Columbia University's prestigious journalism school announces that it will be suspending its 14-year-old enviornmental journalism masters program amidst a media-wide financial crisis. This sounds like bad news for everyone, at a time when the public clamors for and deserves more and better information on environmental science, health and policy.

Then again, paying $89,000 for two years of education that may not land you a job doesn't exactly sound sustainable, if you will."Although our students are assuming huge debt for knowledge and skills that we think are valuable," the program's directors wrote in a letter, "we do not feel comfortable exhorting young people to take on that burden when their chances of repaying it have so diminished."

The program has not been cancelled outright, not yet. Its directors will evaluate "its accomplishments to date and prospects for the future."

Less Generalists, More Experts!
But in the environment department, expertise and good storytelling skills are sorely needed. As the media's Copenhagen hope-defeat rollercoaster ride (or the recent contrarian antics of some two bestselling economists) illustrates, squaring the science with the policy is a challenge best handled not only by strong, lucid writers but by those who can grasp the admittedly very slippery policy and the at times esoteric science and whip it into something readable. After all, these aren't topics just for crunchy environmentalists and policy wonks, but for everyone living here.

While the issues become more complex and the stakes grow higher -- and as media outlets get pickier -- the journalists who will succeed at educating the public and holding onto a job are those with deep understanding, not the liberal arts generalists of yore.

That's Malcolm Gladwell's argument at least. In an interview published today, he tells Time:

The issue is not writing. It's what you write about... Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

It's a timely message for budding environmental journalists. The media needs to get over the superficial, celebrity-soaked fad approach to environmental journalism -- an approach that reeks of insincerity and bombing anyway -- and deliver something that people want: more and better in-depth environmental news.

Looking for New Models
So where exactly does a blog like yours truly fit in? Sure, the web has lowered reporting standards, and added more noise to the conversation than ever. But as the Columbia Journalism Review points out, a healthy variety of websites like Grist and Yale Enviornment 360 (and this one, we might add, among others) are picking up the slack left by cuts in the mainstream media, where even the remaining environmental reporters are struggling to fill the shoes of their laid-off colleagues. Also playing a crucial role are a growing number of non-profit citizen journalism sites like ProPublica, and, to some extent, citizen journalism tools like Twitter and NowPublic.

At a conference on environmental journalism I attended earlier this year (sponsored, no joke, by the Times and Columbia), one of the seminars focused on new media approaches to green reporting. The audience was eager: most of the journalists present were freelancing or fresh out of jobs. One even lost his decade-old job during the conference, when his paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went under.

But that reporter and a number of other award-winning but under-employed veterans of the green journalism scene weren't staying down for the count. Two groups of writers at the conference had already teamed up to launch innovative local news gathering operations. One of them, InvestigateWest, an in-depth journalism "studio" focusing on environmental, health and social justice issues across the West, kicked off in June, with the support of foundations, companies and individual investors.

What's the Kicker?
Without as many jobs to go around, will those interested in reporting on the environment find ways of honing their skills as freelancers -- a life with precious few editorial relationships in which to bounce ideas around, and with no on-the-job training? Will they swallow debt and seek refuge in the remaining environmental journalism programs, like NYU's? Will they turn to more hands-on graduate programs in environmental science and public policy?

Or is there a third way out there, another way of fostering writers with reporting skills as sharp as their expertise? Think of that conundrum as the analog to journalism's bigger looming question: not how to report on issues like finance or sustainability, but how to make journalism itself financially sustainable.

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