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Green Media Takes Another Hit: Columbia University Environmental Journalism Program Suspended

Are you a writer with a green cause? Then you probably shouldn’t bother applying for Columbia University’s 2-year Earth & Environmental Science Journalism Master’s Degree (EESJ) this winter. It doesn’t exist anymore. After 14 years of turning out graduates who’ve gone on to write for Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Nature Magazine, Scientific American, Plenty Magazine, OnEarth, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, Houston Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, science & tech academic journals, and lots more, the program is “suspended,” and won’t take a single new student for fall 2010. Program directors Kim Kastens and Marguerite Holloway explained in a letter to Columbia’s Department of Environmental Sciences, the Graduate School of Journalism, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, that it just doesn’t seem fair in today’s desolate media climate to send newly minted grads out with 90 thousand dollars of debt on their shoulders, and no job prospects.

“We do not feel comfortable exhorting young people to take on that burden [of debt] when their chances of repaying it have so diminished,” wrote Kastens and Holloway.

Of the state of the media at large, Kastens and Holloway had this to say:

As you know, media organizations across the country 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.

Curtis Brainard, the enviro journo (and EESJ grad) who covered the story for Columbia Journalism Review, made no secret of the fact that he thinks Kastens and Holloway have made a big mistake in suspending the program. He points to new media institutions like Pro Publica, Grist, and Yale Environment 360 as evidence that there are still green reporting jobs to be had.

Alisa Opar, another EESJ grad, now gainfully employed at Audubon Magazine, also laments the directors’ decision to suspend the program. “It’s such disheartening news, “she said today. “I absolutely loved the program, and wouldn’t have any reservations about doing it again, despite the cost.”

“I’m already in debt from undergrad,” she joked, “what’s 90 thousand more?” Opar said the connections she made in the scientific community during her two years at Columbia were, and still are, invaluable. “I can’t imagine breaking into science journalism without having had that training,” she said.

Across the fence, Alex Pasternack, who picked the story up for Treehugger and the Huffington Post, declared “Columbia Axes Environmental Journalism Program, and Malcolm Gladwell is Okay with That.” True, Gladwell isn’t big on journalism degrees (don’t get one, he says, but instead become a specialist in statistics or some other field), and happened to say so to Time Magazine, the day before Columbia announced it was cutting EESJ. But the interview Pasternack cites never touched on environmental journalism, or on Columbia’s unique dual degree, so his assertion that Gladwell must be glad Columbia axed its enviro program seems a bit tenuous. If Gladwell wants young writers to specialize, wouldn’t he support a degree designed to train reporters in the hard science and technology behind environment al news?

More important than what Malcolm Gladwell wants, what does the American public want? Who do we want to translate the weather for us as climate change worsens? Who do we want to explain to us how carbon capture and sequestration actually works, or what in the world those UN delegates are talking about in Copenhagen this December? The media job market is shrinking and changing, yes, but so are the earth and its store of natural resources. We’re going to want well-versed, well-trained science journalists (not scientists, not journalists, but science journalists) to tell us why. There may not be much funding out there for programs like Columbia’s EESJ, but if ever there was a time to grow the global community of environmental reporters, this is it.


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