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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

For NY Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May Be Good but the Signs Are Not

by MARGARET SULLIVAN, The New York Times, March 5, 2013

Judging by appearances, things are not looking good for environmental reporting at The Times.
In January, The Times dismantled its environmental reporting “pod” – a group of reporters and editors solely devoted to that subject who worked with one another to develop stories and projects.
Then, on Friday, The Times’s “Green” blog ended after more than four years (initially as Green Inc.).
Many readers are unhappy and disillusioned about the changes, believing that they speak to declining interest on the part of top editors in this important subject. And in the case of the blog, they miss having a single online destination for environmental developments that may not be big enough to make it into the paper and for other voices from freelance contributors.
John Tuxill of Bellingham, Wash., expressed the disappointment of many in an e-mail to me, writing that the blog had been a major source of news for him in recent years:
Environmental issues are not becoming any less important or prevalent in our lives. On the contrary, I believe that climate change, water resources depletion, food production trends and other environmental challenges are the defining issues of our times. So why on earth is The Times closing the blog?
I teach environmental studies classes to college students in Washington State. I make a point of telling my students that The Times is one of their best sources for environmental news and staying up-to-date on the events affecting our nation and our planet. I cannot in good conscience tell my students that anymore. I’m not even sure where to tell them to look now for environmental news in The Times.
You’ll forgive me for being highly skeptical that The Times will find other ways to cover environmental news as efficiently. I believe this decision is as shortsighted and nonsensical as they come.
The moves have been criticized in the journalism press, as well. Curtis Brainard, writing in Columbia Journalism Review online, called it “terrible news,” and was harshly critical of Times management:
“They’ve made a horrible decision that ensures the deterioration of The Times’s environmental coverage at a time when debates about climate change, energy, natural resources and sustainability have never been more important to public welfare …”
Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot.Earth opinion blog on, mourned the Green blog’s demise in a post, calling it “an excellent aggregator of environmental news and analysis that didn’t fit in the flow of conventional articles.” And he said that he would list, on his blog, the Green blog’s former freelance contributors, so that his readers could continue to follow their work.
I talked with a number of writers and editors at The Times, including the blog’s editor, Nancy Kenney, who has been reassigned to the Culture department, and to the managing editor, Dean Baquet, who made the decision in consultation with other top editors.
Mr. Baquet said the move was done, in part, for cost-cutting reasons, as The Times eliminated 30 management positions, but more for coverage reasons.
“I think our environmental coverage has suffered from the segregation — it needs to be more integrated into all of the different areas,” like science, politics and foreign news, he said.
He agreed that environmental coverage is of great importance, and said that having The Times’s environmental reporters working on other desks is the best way to “drive more of these important stories onto the home page and the front page.”
“The thinking used to be that ‘you’ve got to have a blog’ for every subject you care about,” Mr. Baquet said. That thinking has changed, he said, and now readers can find environmental news on the Caucus blog, the Bits blog and in other places.
(Some readers also noted unhappily that the news of the Green blog’s demise was announced at 5 p.m. on Friday, a convenient time for an inconvenient truth. Mr. Baquet agreed that, in retrospect, “we could have handled that better.”)
As for the complaint that readers with a particular interest in the environment can no longer go to a single online destination, “I acknowledge that criticism,” he said. He said, though, that he hopes that a continuing Web site redesign may make it easier for readers to locate the topics that they are particularly interested in.
Ms. Kenney described the blog’s strengths. “When there was an overriding issue or event, the blog was a locus and a magnet, attracting tens of thousands of readers” to a particular post, she said, “with the Deepwater Horizon spill as a great example.”
She added, “I’d be the first to admit that the blog was uneven because of a shortage of resources.” It needed a dedicated editor, she said; as deputy environment editor, she was able to give it only a few hours a day, given her other duties.
Here’s my take: I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.
Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.

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