San Francisco, CA. – No single reason adequately explains why news of climate change and other vital issues related to the environment are consistently absent from the front pages of most newspapers.

But veteran investigative reporter Mark Dowie thinks he knows one underlying factor: “It’s our fault,” the host and executive producer of Talking Points Radio recently told a packed hall at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. During the decades from environmental journalism’s inception and up until the turn of the millennium, he said, “We offered content that frightened readers.”

“If I were going to do it all over again,” he said of his years as publisher and editor of Mother Jones, “I would make sure that 20 percent of the stories we ran would be positive. Because there are positive stories to report.”

Yet, ironically, one means by which Dowie expects environmental stories will recapture mainstream media attention is through catastrophe. “[Super-storm] Sandy almost did it,” he said. “And I hate to think it’s going to be catastrophe that drives environmental journalism back to the front page.”

Still, dour environment stories tend to linger in the reader’s attention, regardless of the hopefulness conveyed in the positive reports.

A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published by the University of Oxford, found that eight in 10 stories related to climate change focused on disaster and implicit risk. Just as many stories also mentioned the uncertainty over exactly how climate change will manifest, but uncertainty was “less salient, and much less frequently a dominant tone.” The news stories studied were based on past reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reporting on the melting of Arctic sea ice.

Growing Access and Opportunity

The majority of the panel’s discussion focused not on the tone of environmental coverage but on the dwindling resources available to report on the environment. Many watchers bemoan newsroom cuts that have slashed environment and many other specialized desks and beats over the past decade.

Panelist Jane Kay, a veteran science and environmental reporter long with the San Francisco Chronicle and now freelancing for Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate, is an example of those newsroom budget and staffing cuts.

But her fellow panelist Paul Rogers, environmental reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and KQED Science, reminded the audience that all beats have been cut, and decisions to reduce reporting staffs was not “made by men sitting in a room saying they didn’t want news coverage.” Rather, Rogers said, those decisions resulted from the industry’s failure to compete in an Internet age. The newspaper business model “was obliterated by Craigslist and eBay,” Rogers said, echoing a sentiment common among journalism academics and news media experts.

Now What? Prospects for Nonprofit Journalism

Rather than dwelling on these economic realities, the panel pivoted to a discussion of various new and emerging, and mostly non-profit, journalism models.

Panelist James Fahn, who directs the Earth Journalism Network, an organization that provides training in environmental journalism through partner networks in 70 countries, told the Commonwealth Club audience that news media are expanding significantly in many parts of the globe. “There is room for environment and science coverage” in places like Indonesia, Fahn said, describing his task as identifying new ways of telling environment stories.

One way Earth Journalism Network does this is through GeoJournalism, which combines mapping tools with environmental data to visually convey information. An interactive mapping platform called InfoAmazonia is one example of this approach. It uses a combination of maps and text to convey data on mining and deforestation and on issues involving protected areas within the Amazon. This type of journalism requires that, on top of a reporting acumen, journalists also have mapping and software skills, which Earth Journalism Network provides through training.

This kind of training is important, noted Kay, because “new media should not be bad media.” She and other panelists expressed dismay at the poor work — much of it in the guise of responsible journalism — often delivered through blogs and other social media channels. “Would you want a citizen surgeon?” Kay asked, referencing the “citizen journalist” movement. “Why would people read a story if it wasn’t fact-checked and weighed by editors who ask the important questions — like, ‘Is this even a story?’”

At the end of the day, however, the website with the most hits — most “eyeballs” — tends to win, both in terms of readership and revenue. With so many news organizations having turned to non-profit models in which philanthropic organizations and individual readers fund the work, it’s all the more important that responsible non-profit journalism initiatives attract readership and show that their work is reaching intended audiences — social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter have proven themselves to be vitally important on this score.

“Eighty percent of the readership for KQED Science comes through side doors [rather than directly to the website],” Rogers said. “Facebook is the number one entry point.”

Rogers also pointed to public broadcasting as a bright light on the national media scene, giving KQED, where he works, as an example serving Northern California.

“This is the only market in the U.S. where a PBS station [KQED] is the top radio station. Taken together, the 900 PBS affiliates have the power to be the next Associated Press,” he said.

The Challenge of Paywalls

The biggest challenge to any news beat involves getting readers to pay for quality reporting, according to Kay, because the public is now so used to getting a lot of its news for free. The non-profit model is working for some publications, but the media industry is ripe for significant innovation and disruption in terms of how it delivers news and funds newsgathering and news gatherers. (Those disruptions hold promise and also great peril for many newsroom employees long-accustomed to a regular paycheck and benefits such as paid vacation time and health insurance.)

Fahn said one avenue worth exploring involves linking news organizations more directly with donor organizations, or asking readers to pay on a story-by-story basis. A very young startup called Beacon, for instance, hopes to subvert the traditional newspaper model even further, by asking readers to subscribe to specific reporters (to access their stories) for $5 per month.

Covering environmental news does not mean just writing articles, transmitting radio stories, or shooting documentaries, Dowie emphasized to the audience. “Media is all the information that is transmitted. It is poetry, it’s legitimate theater, it’s much bigger than just the press — but the press forgets that. We need to think of every possible way to communicate environmental journalism,” he said…and to do so in the most responsible ways.