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Why We Fund Independent, Enterprising Environmental Journalism

April 20, 2021
Amid the perils of climate change, we need journalists telling the story of its impact on our communities

“Every day we write the future. Together we sign it. Together we declare it. We share it. For this truth marches on inside each of us.”

This quote, from poet Amanda Gorman, captures the spirit that makes our nation strong and compels us to confront our challenges - and work together to solve them.

For those of us in the conservation movement, her words ring especially true now. Our planet is facing incredible peril as the realities of climate change continue to assert themselves with more and more clarity.

Particularly at this moment, it is also critical that we tell the story of how climate threats impact the everyday lives of people and communities. At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe that an informed public makes better choices – it’s why we are committed to funding independent, enterprising environmental journalism.

Philanthropy can bridge the gap between demand for robust environmental reporting and the shortage of journalists.

Environmental reporters are the storytellers called to write the future by covering what is happening on our planet every day. By documenting what’s happening, sharing it, and telling the truth about it, they increase our collective awareness and commitment to act.

There have never been more stories to tell.

Right now, millions of people experience climate change through its impact on water – the area we focus on in the foundation’s Environment Program. From water shortages caused by more prolonged and more severe droughts to flooding caused by ever-more-extreme weather events to disappearing coastlines caused by rising sea levels, every news cycle is filled with stories that demand attention. Environmental coverage is also intimately connected to urgent public health, economic and racial justice issues.

But while all this is happening, the journalists and newsrooms covering these issues are spread increasingly thin. According to the Pew Research Center, newsrooms have shrunk by 25% since 2008. The environmental beat is often among the first casualties.

Philanthropy can bridge the gap between demand for robust environmental reporting and the shortage of journalists. By maintaining an editorial firewall between funders and newsrooms, journalists have the freedom to research, report, and tell the stories most important to the communities they serve.

The foundation is proud to support quality environmental journalism through several current grants:

The Associated Press. This new $785,000 grant will support the AP’s creation of three new water and environment beats. The Associated Press is one of the country’s most trusted news organizations, delivering independent journalism through more than 15,000 newsrooms and businesses. This grant will help establish in-depth coverage of issues related to health, available water, and environmental policy, with reporters based in two Midwestern cities and Washington, D.C.

The Water Desk. This $600,000 grant to the University of Colorado Foundation supports The Water Desk initiative at the university’s Center for Environmental Journalism. “Our mission at the Water Desk is to increase the volume, depth and power of water-related journalism,” Mitch Tobin, the project’s director, said during a recent foundation-hosted panel on environmental reporting.

Through its own explanatory and investigative coverage of water issues in the Colorado River basin and its grants to reporters and news outlets throughout the region, the Water Desk has created a collaborative platform for quality coverage of water issues in the West. The project also works with the University of Colorado Boulder to help train the next generation of environmental reporters.

“Environmental journalism is still in a state of crisis because of the digital disruption of our industry. But we have seen over and over how philanthropic support, and other means of generating revenue, can lead to really powerful coverage,” Tobin said.

Society of Environmental Journalists – Coastal Desk. This $517,000 grant supports the Society of Environmental Journalist’s coastal desk, in partnership with The Times-Picayune|Advocate newspaper. The coastal desk provides award-winning coverage of the myriad environmental challenges facing South Louisiana, including coastal land loss. The project supports journalism that creates awareness through beat coverage and investigations of environmental threats and restoration projects designed to protect and rebuild land. Demand for coverage is increasing as climate impacts grow and Louisiana implements its Coastal Master Plan, journalist Mark Schleifstein, who leads the three-person reporting team, told our panel.

“The issues [on the Gulf Coast] are significant and keep getting bigger,” Schleifstein said. “Whether it be sea-level rise, flood risk caused by storm surge from hurricanes, or increased flooding from intense rainfall events, you name it, our audience is very interested in hearing about it.”

WWNO Coastal Desk. This $300,000 grant to the University of New Orleans supports the coastal desk at WWNO, the New Orleans affiliate for National Public Radio. As with the SEJ’s coastal desk, WWNO’s team produces consistently high-quality journalism that educates and informs coastal residents about environmental issues and restoration projects. Its work is frequently shared with a broader audience through NPR nationally, increasing awareness of coastal threats that impact the nation and its economy.

We also make grants to support experts at the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and more.

Throughout this year, we will be announcing a handful of targeted new grants to continue this work during a critical time in the conservation movement.

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