Introducing SEJ's New Executive Director, Aparna Mukherjee

February 20, 2024
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SEJ President’s Report: Introducing SEJ's New Executive Director, Aparna Mukherjee


Photo of Luke Runyon

Dear SEJ members —

I have exciting news to share. It is with great pleasure that I announce the successful conclusion of a comprehensive, months-long search process for the next Executive Director of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

I am thrilled to introduce you to Aparna Mukherjee, SEJ’s new leader.

Aparna brings with her a wealth of experience in journalism and a passion for SEJ’s mission. Her impressive background, leadership skills and commitment to advancing environmental journalism align seamlessly with the values of SEJ. I am certain that Aparna's strategic vision, innovative thinking and collaborative approach will greatly contribute to the continued success and growth of our organization. She starts her new role today, Tuesday, February 20, 2024.

Most recently, Aparna served as the Chief Program Officer at Resolve Philly, where she ran the solutions nonprofit’s newsroom. She has also worked in East Asia and Germany and held posts at The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press, McKinsey, the Paley Center for Media and the Goldhirsh Foundation. In 2020, she was a John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow at Stanford University and worked in the university’s Deliberative Democracy Lab. She holds dual master’s degrees from Columbia University, in journalism and an MBA.

The search committee — composed of board members Tony Barboza, Jennifer Bogo and me — was impressed with Aparna’s professional experience and her enthusiasm in tackling SEJ’s coming challenges and opportunities. The committee chose finalists out of a pool of more than 60 applicants and presented them to the board for interviews. After making contact with more than 350 potential candidates and conducting more than two dozen candidate interviews, we are confident in Aparna and her vision for taking our organization to the next level. 

Aparna succeeds Meaghan Parker, who served as SEJ’s executive director from September 2018 to December 2023. Meaghan, who is currently acting as a Senior Advisor to support fundraising, will continue to assist with the transition for a few more weeks. Aparna has an opportunity to build upon the growth and success SEJ has seen under Meaghan’s leadership. In the past five years, Meaghan tripled SEJ’s revenues, built healthy operating reserves, and improved governance and financial management, while doubling membership diversity and launching new fellowship and grant programs. And she did that despite the COVID-19 pandemic and economic turmoil that presented huge challenges to small nonprofits throughout the country.

I am grateful to Meaghan for all that she has done for SEJ and for supporting the board and staff in this important transition.

Leadership transitions can be challenging, and so I also want to express my gratitude for the hard work and dedication of SEJ’s staff and consultants during this time. They have been a source of steady strength during this time of change, continuing to put in motion what's shaping up to be our best conference yet and delivering high-quality programs, services and resources for our members. On behalf of the entire board, you have my sincere appreciation. 

I also want to thank you, our members, for your patience as the search unfolded. 

Please give Aparna a warm welcome to SEJ when you see her at #SEJ2024 in Philadelphia this April 3-7. So that you can get to know her better in the meantime, we sat down for a short interview (edited for clarity and brevity) included below. 

We’re in a critical moment for our industry. I feel heartened knowing we have a steadfast new leader in Aparna. 

Thank you, as always, for your support of SEJ. 


Luke Runyon is president of SEJ's board of directors. He's the Co-Director of The Water Desk at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism. Current SEJ term: 2021-2024.

Photo of Aparna Mukherjee

Aparna, what inspired you to apply to be the Society of Environmental Journalists’ next executive director?

I cannot overstate the importance of environmental journalism, and climate reporting, specifically, in this moment of global change and climate crises. The opportunity to support the journalists and subject matter experts best positioned to inform local communities, bridge information divides and battle disinformation with credible and empirical reporting feels like a call to action.

Given I started in environmental and science beats in my first newsroom years in the US and Asia, including at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, I’m especially inspired by the work of SEJ members as a catalyst for change in a time of uncertainty and climate pessimism. I view the mission of SEJ as core to modern news and information literacy, to equip our youngest audiences with a fact base to make educated decisions about our planet's future, starting in their own communities.


As you transition into your new role, what do you see as your main priorities for SEJ in the coming months?

Our industry is clearly in crisis. Supporting members, specifically journalists who are facing challenges on multiple fronts of change, layoffs, of news outlets shutting down, safety risks and constrained resources, is the number one priority of SEJ — to serve and uplift our membership.

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to what's possible, to explore the potential solutions and opportunities in newsrooms and other spaces for journalism and information access. Hearing what members need is what I’ll use to guide us to potential new paths for greater partner resources, innovative newsroom models, enhanced training and strategies to ensure members are able to work safely and in a sustainable way.


Could you share a specific project or initiative from your past work experience that you are particularly proud of and how that experience might inform your role at SEJ?

In my most recent role at Resolve Philly, a local solutions journalism newsroom with a practice arm, I'm struck by the need to make news and information more relevant to all communities, especially the ones that historically have not been served by media outlets. I'm especially proud to have touched Documenters, a nationwide program that trains and pays residents from priority communities to cover local governmental meetings to create a new public record. The network is developed and run by City Bureau, a singular nonprofit journalism “lab” in Chicago. There are now 19 hubs around the country. Working with the incredibly smart and talented team of young leaders to launch Philly Documenters at Resolve has been a joy and privilege of the last year.

And it’s really brought the coverage of public meetings, freedom of information, sunshine and transparency laws, and participatory journalism to a whole new community of Philadelphians. Tapping into this experience for SEJ, I see opportunities to find and foster more community engagement in environmental reporting, to help demystify complex issues, making them more relatable to the public and encouraging active participation in addressing local challenges.


We’re in a really troubling moment for journalists across the country with mass layoffs at media organizations over the past few months. What role do you think SEJ can play in supporting the people who are affected?

SEJ can play multiple roles in supporting journalists during these challenging times — by fostering community, facilitating career development, amplifying members' work and advocating for the field's value and sustainability. I anticipate a big part of my role will include making the case to media leaders and journalism educators at all levels to prioritize and champion the importance of environmental journalism, when the need has never been greater. To invoke a Nieman headline: “Everyone Is a Climate Reporter Now.” SEJ is well positioned to meet the needs and opportunities of this reality.

I’ve also emphasized in conversations with the board how much we need to acknowledge the emotional toll on members, and the need to take steps, including pursuing real care and potential health resources in the face of layoffs and cuts, for those directly affected, as well as those at risk of burnout, working harder with fewer resources amid this uncertainty.


Collaboration and partnership are key in addressing the challenges SEJ’s members face. How do you envision fostering collaboration among journalists, scientists, policymakers and other journalism groups?

What we're all working towards in this polarized era of disinformation is providing access to empirically reported information, research and journalism with an eye towards accountability and solutions. So I want to create more opportunities through partners to open data, to increase connections with sources, to exchange ideas and then bring that to SEJ’s membership and program committees.

Knowing the challenges and opportunities for members go beyond North America, I’m excited about potential collaborations that cross borders and especially, those that support SEJ’s presence in the Global South. In terms of my experiences, collaborations with academic institutions, especially HBCUs and community colleges after launching The New York Times’ online education platform, feel like a natural fit.

I would say working with other J-groups is the biggest part of this, especially with affinity groups, which is a joy for me because I’m someone who's really made my way through this industry and returned to it, thanks to journalism organizations and their convenings. Notably, ONA (Online News Association), as well as the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), where I've served on chapter and national boards.

How we move forward through this time of change is with support from each other. I'm a huge fan of working with all the J-groups and the conferences of IRE, ASME, plus the combined Solutions Journalism Network and the Institute for Nonprofit News conference.

We want to make sure that we give everyone both the opportunity and reasons to join SEJ, and to increase our membership while doing the same for these other organizations. I think we're all working to achieve the same things and doing that in increased numbers is how we're going to survive and even flourish.


As executive director, what steps do you intend to take to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion within SEJ?

Drawing from my early career experiences in newsrooms, where I was often one of the few non-white faces in the ‘90s, one of SEJ's stated priorities overlaps with one of mine: to actively recruit more BIPOC journalists into the field and to increase the pathways to ascend into leadership roles. Partnering with journalism schools and organizations that support BIPOC students and professionals, offering targeted mentorship programs and creating pathways for career advancement within environmental journalism are ways to get there. I really love the work Meaghan has done to build a strong relationship with The Uproot Project.

Equally important is making the business case for why the future of our industry must include stronger coverage of communities that are the most underreported and undercovered. We need more reporters, editors, journalism educators and funders with lived experiences to support real understanding of communities’ information needs, especially among Indigenous, Black, Brown and immigrant populations. Stronger accountability and representation in community narratives can build trust in the practice of journalism in an era when distrust of institutions like newsrooms is at an all-time high.


The field of environmental journalism is rapidly evolving. How do you plan to keep SEJ at the forefront of these changes and ensure its relevance in the years to come?

I think one of the joys of being a lifelong learner is being well positioned to embrace ambiguity and rapid industry change. I've been fortunate enough to bookend my newsroom career with fellowships and learning opportunities, making journalism education a practical pursuit for me.

Having recently done JSK Stanford as a Community Impact Fellow, I had the privilege of working with incredibly smart CS and journalism students to explore and prototype an AI tool to aid in stronger coverage of public meetings. More than 15 years before that, I learned about the business side of news and product development, at Columbia, thanks to a Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism.

I’ve been a fan of the approaches JSK Stanford Director Dawn Garcia has taken, ever since we met at the last UNITY convention in Chicago in 2008, when she transformed the fellowship from a sabbatical academic year into one focused on innovation and hands-on, project-based collaborations. I also appreciate Dean Jelani Cobb, early in his tenure at Columbia, and his prioritization of equity and graduate outcomes, a theme I spoke to at last month’s winter faculty retreat at the J-school on the relevance of local news to students graduating into this job market.

Certainly, the kinds of approaches that will sustain news and expand the aperture of environmental journalism aren’t just coming from traditional educational institutions. I point to AAJA’s partnership with Gold House’s Founder Network to support media entrepreneurship as one example. There’s such a hunger for credible and trustworthy information right now, figuring out how to meet those evolving needs is one pillar of SEJ, one I’d like to expand, starting with learning from members who are experimenting with innovative editorial tools and models.


Finally, this year SEJ is headed to Philadelphia for its annual conference, April 3-7, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. You grew up near Philly and the city’s been your home base. What would be your best Philly recommendations for those attending?

The best parts of Philly for me are always about Philadelphians and where people gather in a city where folks so strongly identify with their home neighborhoods. A lot of those spots are in West Philly, home to Penn. I love recommending Booker’s as a soul food outpost and a community hub, just west of University City. And the White Dog Cafe, a farm-to-table pioneer that just celebrated 40 years. I interviewed founder and social entrepreneur Judy Wicks in my Associated Press days, and appreciated that the White Dog was the first business in Pennsylvania to source all of its electricity from wind power.

Beyond SEJ2024’s neighborhood, especially Baltimore Avenue, do explore other parts of the city! In the spirit of resource sharing, I’m an unabashed if biased fan of the Resolve Guide to Philly, created by Director of Practice Change Aubrey Nagle, who crowdsourced and created it for ONA’s 2023 conference.

Check out the map with an emoji key for inspiration, and you’ll find my favorite pick for cocktails at Charlie was a sinner, listed under the Gayborhood. For the opposite of a high-end tipple, get yourself over to the Pen & Pencil, aka the P&P, the country’s oldest running journalism club, since 1892. It’s also where Anthony Bourdain took a shot of hot dog water.


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