SEJ’s ‘Changing West’ Annual Conference: Climate and Much More for 700-Plus Attendees

MISSOULA, MT.   A veritable feast of substantive field trips, plenary sessions, and concurrent sessions — coupled with some somewhat less substantive but enjoyable evening receptions, focused small-group lunch tables and dinner events, and a ski-lodge based closing dinner/reception — greeted some 700 registrants at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) 20th annual conference in mid-October.

ESSAY

Photo
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One of Glacier National Park’s 25 remaining glaciers as seen through dying tree limbs along the park’s 10-mile-long Lake McDonald.

Climate change issues, a dominant placeholder at the organization’s recent annual conference, were noticeably less front-and-center this year, with the emphasis on “Wild Rockies and the Changing West.”

The casual observer could be excused for even thinking climate change issues were nowhere to be found. They would be wrong. Those issues were, not surprisingly, a dominant and lurking presence and a heavy thumb on the scales in practically all sessions and dialogs. That was the case whether the specific subject being addressed involved the challenges of a steadily more-arid American West, the outlook for Big Sky forests and prairies and wilderness and trout, or the myriad issues facing Indian Country.

Journalism, it’s hardly a secret, is undergoing what can only be described as a rollicking revolution, in many ways a downright painful and scary one. The field and its remaining serious practitioners practically each day reinvent themselves, or try to, in light of eruptions brought about by digital competitors, pretenders, and wannabes and the double-whammy of a wrenching media economy. All of it compounded, of course, by overall economic woes. Perfect storm, anyone?

A microcosm of the wide journalism ecosystem it inhabits, SEJ itself, in its 20th anniversary year, also is undergoing a revolution of its own. Its near-record membership totals of some 1,500, and also its popular annual conferences, consist of fewer and fewer full-time daily newspaper reporters and editors. That is, fewer of those comparatively flush with their own employer-sponsored benefits programs, health care coverage, paid annual and sick leave, and employer-backed 401(k)s and pensions.

Amidst newsroom furloughs, salary-rollbacks, and newsroom “down-sizing,” things are a far cry from the relative glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, Cronkite and Brokaw … and even from that more-recent Philip Shabecoff, Casey Bukro, Hal Scarlett, Boyce Rensberger period (for those old enough, and long enough in the environmental journalism field, to remember!). Many of the reporters still making the annual trek to the popular SEJ conference increasingly do so on their own dime and on their own time, no longer supported by their immediate employers and travel budgets (remember those?). Their dedication to the organization is obvious in the extraordinary member volunteerism that long has characterized SEJ, no doubt a major factor in its continuing success in these trying times for the economy, for charitable giving, for journalism, and for the environment itself.

The Yale Forum postings of October 21, 2010, offer snapshots of the organization’s 20th annual conference, which ran from October 13-17 at the University of Montana, in Missoula. Written by regular Yale Forum contributors Christine Woodside, Julie Halpert, and Lisa Palmer, each of them conference participants, they provide a glimpse into some of what makes the annual SEJ conference a must for so many reporters, editors, and others regularly tilling these fields.

Many say they return home from the conference each year with a new sense of energy, urgency, and camaraderie with their fellow journalists. From long and often pretty pricey air travel through several time zones and connections … from sunlight-starved mid-city windowless cubbies … from 24/7 blog- and soundbite-dominated “feed the beast” news outlets …

They came to far-off Montana in this case to again savor the camaraderie perhaps common to many distinct disciplines and fields, but seemingly heightened in this case by the common angst so many now feel for their chosen field of endeavor and for their own financial well-being and security. Misery may indeed love company, but the sense of camaraderie instilled by such get-togethers somehow trumps all, at least for a while and until the next one.

That may be the real pleasure in taking reporters from places with subways, cloverleaf highways, and a Starbucks on every corner …

… to a place where the prospects of sighting a grizzly, a wolf or coyote or an elk, even just a run of deer, seems at least a possibility, if far less often a reality.

One can’t help but think, and hope, that serious environmental journalism, and its audiences, are the better for such comings-together. The influx of a younger demographic, an at least marginally more diverse group of reporters, writers, and communicators — these are among the healthy signs at conferences such as SEJ’s in Missoula. The “unprecedented generosity” (SEJ’s words) of the University of Montana in helping underwrite 20 reporters’ attendance is another.

There are too many others — rays of hope all — to be fully captured in the words making up this October 21 posting, but together they offer a glance into what make the 20-year-old SEJ and its 20th annual conference a something-special event for those who were able to partake in the proceedings.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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