My friend and colleague Robert McClure passed around some bad news in January. His employer, the Hearst Corporation, was planning to close his newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in 60 days unless someone could be found to buy it. Add his newspaper, which has done some remarkably enterprising environmental reporting in recent years, to the newspaper endangered list. Last week, Hearst announced that the San Francisco Chronicle may soon face the same fate. Friday, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News shut down. The Rocky also left a legacy of strong science and environment reporting.

While Denver, Seattle and San Francisco are pondering the future as potential one-newspaper towns, there are cities with only one newspaper who may see the same kind of failure. It’s not out of the question that Newark, Baltimore, or any one of a half-dozen other places could become the first major American city without a daily paper.

The autopsy would show multiple causes: Websites siphoned off classified ad revenue, then advertisers, then online readers. American attention spans, and tolerance for reading, are growing tragically short (present company excepted, I hope). Publishers feel overtaxed by the same stresses affecting heavy industry, including employee healthcare and retirement funds. And finally, the two-decade-long trend to replace local newspaper ownership with absentee mega-media conglomerates has left newspapers with no feeling of civic pride or obligation at the top of their food chains.

This is bad news for cities, for good government, and for democracy. It’s obviously also bad news for journalists. It’s particularly bad news for reporting beats that are viewed by many news executives as marginal. For mainstream media, science and environmental are two of those beats.

A few weeks ago, we gathered at the Wilson Center in Washington to discuss “The Future of Science and Environment Reporting.” Two of the best beat journalists in Washington, Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press and Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio, spoke on their experiences covering Washington both before and after a presidential regime change while moving into an era where climate change threatens to eclipse every other environmental story.

Jan Schaffer, a former award-winning editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the current director of J-Lab, also spoke.  J-Lab, housed at American University, is a sort of R&D facility for new media and community-based journalism.

The Wilson Center has a link to video of the event. Borenstein and Shogren both spoke of their experiences with news organizations that are among the few maintaining a strong science and environment focus. Schaffer offered a hopeful glimpse into journalism’s future amidst the layoffs and shutdowns. Particularly inspiring was a look at the Voice of San Diego, a web-only, nonprofit newspage with a staff of 12 covering America’s eighth-largest city. With only a handful of reporters, the Voice can’t be everywhere (even in this age of layoffs, a big-city daily’s reporting staff will still top three figures). But they seek to hit the high notes, with quality investigations, watchdog coverage of city hall, and frequent scoops over the city’s daily paper and TV stations. And they follow science and environment issues regularly. Another is MinnPost, which also has its own Health/Science section as part of its coverage of the Twin Cities.

I neglected to mention one more web-only news source for a major metro area.  After 146 years on paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer may go online-only, if it doesn’t fold or get sold. There have been no prospective buyers reported, and the deadline’s next week.

More from Peter on this topic:

> Green charities feeling the economic pinch


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Media Mayhem: Running low on green ink
Newspapers across the country are slashing their staffs (especially the science reporters,) and some are folding altogether.