The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated.
InsideClimate News reported in their Friday scoop that the Times insists this won’t affect coverage. But I’m very skeptical, as are a great many others, judging by comments echoing through the blogosphere, twitter, and my inbox.
For instance, the award-winning journalist Peter Dykstra — a 17-year veteran of CNN now publishing the Daily Climate — sent me this note sharing his too-relevant experience:
It’s far from a precise match for our situation at CNN four years ago — we all got fired, not re-shuffled. And of course, CNN will never be confused with the Times. But CNN similarly assured everyone that coverage would not be affected. One area where a decision like this would likely have the same impact at the Times that it did at CNN: When you abolish a standalone beat, it sends a strong message to every career-conscious reporter and editor that chasing environment stories is not a path to advancement.
Anyone who follows climate science, solutions, and politics knows that climate change is in the process of emerging as the story of the century — and that’s only if every major country pulls together to rapidly transform the global economy to avoid catastrophe. If the climate silence and inaction continues, it may well be the story of the millennium — see NOAA: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe.
So I also think that, as the still-influential “paper of record,” it sends a very bad message to the rest of the media. That was a point Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” made in an email:
The decision by the New York Times to close its environmental desk accelerates the disappearance of climate change from our public discourse. Over the past year, the Obama Administration has been silent on the topic, and we have just had a Presidential campaign in which climate change was never discussed. Now the Times is closing its environmental desk. Despite their official statements to the contrary, this move will reduce the paper’s institutional focus and capacity to report on environmental issues.
Media coverage of climate change has an enormous impact on both public opinion and the policy agenda. As the leading U.S. paper, the New York Times also influences the rest of the media. This act sends an important message that environmental issues no longer justify a special institutional focus. We can only hope that the other news media do not follow the Times’ “lead” in abdicating their responsibility to environmental reporting.
Nobody is terribly happy about this, but some are considerably more unhappy than others. The paper’s public editor has a long column headlined, “Keeping Environmental Reporting Strong Won’t Be Easy.” She quotes a wide range of opinions and concludes:
Symbolically, this is bad news. And symbolism matters — it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.
In real life, it doesn’t have to be bad news. A pod’s structure, outside the major desks — Foreign, Business, National and Metro — by its nature means that the coverage is not integrated into the regular coverage of those desks, which have their own space in the paper and their own internal clout.
If coverage of the environment is not to suffer, a lot of people — including The Times’s highest ranking editors — are going to have to make sure that it doesn’t.
They say they will. But maintaining that focus will be a particular challenge in a newsroom that’s undergoing intensive change as it becomes ever more digital while simultaneously cutting costs.
That was similar to a point made to me by former NYTlead climate reporter and now lead NYT climate blogger Andy Revkin. He is in the “less unhappy” camp — see his post here and Facebook here — in part because he says this as an inevitable trend in the media and that the Times wasn’t singling out the environment. He said “specialized journalism gets hurt first” in any downsizing and the “scramble to become comprehensive and smart on subjects is growing even as the capacity is being dismantled.” We even discussed whether journalism would crash before a livable climate did.
Revkin noted that the recent NYT buyouts focused on management positions like editors, and wrote on his FB page:
I was never fan of standalone environment desk even when I worked for it. Creates a ghetto for the subject and reporters. Environment is not a beat. Environmental impacts are a result of human decisions and actions. I do think it’s a mistake, however, to end position of environment EDITOR. More than ever, the paper needs someone to track, coordinate and vet the environmental content coming through any desk…
The editor in question feels the same way, as the public editor notes:
Sandy Keenan, the environment editor, told me she wishes the decision had not been made.
“Of course, I’m disappointed,” she said. “I’ll try to hold everyone to their promise that the coverage won’t suffer.” She is uncertain of her next move, she said.
Then we have this baffling quote from Elisabeth Rosenthal, “a medical doctor and a 19-year Times veteran reporter,” whos has been part of the environment pod:
“The pro is that you give specific attention to a subject that needs it,” she said. “The con is that it takes the subject out of the mainstream of news flow.” The subject areas “don’t have their own real estate in the newspaper, and that can mean that it’s harder to get attention” for their stories.
“There’s not a lot of news in this area — we’re watching glaciers melting — so there isn’t an urgency to get things into the paper right away,” Ms. Rosenthal said. Integration into the main desks can be a help with that.
In fact there is a staggering amount of news in this area — once you realize man-made warming is poised to transform the nation and the world in the coming decades, perhaps for centuries, and that the impacts are already being felt here and everywhere.
Ironically, the pod seem to have been doing some good. As the Daily Climate reported just one week earlier:
“I ask myself, ‘In 20 years, what will we be proudest that we addressed, and where will we scratch our head and say why didn’t we focus more on that?’” said Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor of the New York Times.
The Times published the most stories on climate change and had the biggest increase in coverage among the five largest U.S. daily papers, according to media trackers at the University of Colorado.
“Climate change is one of the few subjects so important that we need to be oblivious to cycles and just cover it as hard as we can all the time,” Kramon said….
Kramon, the Times’ assistant managing editor, attributed last year’s uptick in the paper’s coverage to the fruition of a 4-year-old effort to group top reporters on a separate environment desk.
Now that is an amazing quote from an organization that had apparently already decided by then to send that very desk to the junk yard.