Feb
01
2010

Environmental Journalism in the Greenhouse Era

Looking for climate news beyond corporate media

climate-changeThe need for informed and nuanced environmental reporting has never been greater: The scientific evidence of global warming demands urgent action, climate change already underway affects every corner of society, and climate issues unavoidably arise in economic and energy debates. That a recent poll showed declining concern about the planet’s state (Pew, 10/22/09) only accentuates the need for coverage that explains what’s at stake.

But the ongoing migration of audiences and advertisers to the Internet, heightened by the current recession, threatens the very existence of conventional news media from which we seek information about this complex issue.

Environmental journalism in particular is at risk, as demonstrated by the beat’s downsizing over the past few years at major regional papers and on cable networks. CNN’s standalone science and environment team was eliminated (SEJ.org, 1/15/09), and the Weather Channel’s weekly climate program, Forecast Earth, was canceled (WashingtonPost.com, 11/21/08).

Though the New York Times launched a seven-reporter environmental unit in January 2009, designated climate specialist Andrew Revkin (see "NYT Cools on Global Warming," Extra!, 2/10) took a buyout less than a year later as the Times sliced 100 jobs. Revkin says he will continue to contribute to his Times climate blog DotEarth (CJR.org, 12/14/09), but it is not yet known whether his newspaper reporting will be replaced.

According to the upcoming book Environmental Journalists in the 21st Century, 50 percent of daily newspapers (but only 10 percent of local TV stations) surveyed between 2000-05 had a reporter assigned to the enviro beat. The job has tended to be part of the duties of a general assignment reporter, or one responsible for a related area such as health. (At local TV stations, it’s often the weather forecaster.) Only about a quarter of reporters surveyed spent two-thirds or more of their time pursuing eco stories; the average portion was 43 percent.

Today, “there are fewer staff jobs for specialized environmental reporters and fewer resources available to those who do have jobs,” according to Curtis Brainard, who writes about science reporting for CJR.org (SEJournal, 7/15/09). Indeed, the venerable Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism signaled its pessimism last fall by suspending its dual-degree graduate program in environmental reporting.

Environmental Reporters in the 21st Century co-author James Simon, a professor at Fairfield University who spent a decade as an AP environmental reporter, told Extra! he worries that the generalists now doing eco reporting may not be “able to do these stories as well as someone devoted to the beat. Readers and viewers will be the losers.” They may make a point to seek out environmental stories elsewhere, but, he predicts, “Casual [readers] and viewers are less likely to see them in the daily paper.”

Fortunately, what’s left of traditional media is not our only option for climate news and related environmental issues. There’s also what might be called the Green Press, much of which operates on a nonprofit model. These print magazines and other outlets have followed global warming since before it was a household phrase. Taking the scientific reality as a given, they aim to help the general public see connections between climate change and myriad other issues. Now, after years of preaching to the choir, they are targeting a bigger and broader audience.

These national outlets provide a benchmark for the type of environmental journalism that is possible and necessary in a world where threats to the planet challenge the traditional journalistic tenets of “balance” and “bias.” Though facing their own financial pressures, they are managing to survive and sometimes to grow.

Among them are veteran environmental media published by large environmental advocacy or science organizations, such as Sierra and National Geographic; independents, such as E: The Environmental Magazine; and for-profit magazines such as the adventure-oriented Outside and warhorse Scientific American. Cable television offers the Planet Green network; though mainly lifestyle-oriented, its Focus Earth offers serious, nontechnical news on climate and the environment.

E, published by the nonprofit Earth Action Network since 1990 and currently with 180,000 readers, was founded by now-publisher Doug Moss and his wife using a home-equity loan. (Disclosure: I’ve been a contributor.) Focusing on spotting and reporting trends “before they’ve fully emerged,” the bimonthly had a cover story on global warming as early as 1998. Moss told Extra! that climate-related stories—such as one on the environmental effects of raising meat—have been followed up by conventional media, though E isn’t always credited for the ideas. It also offers a free weekly Q&A column, “EarthTalk,” that appears in some 1,800 national and local news outlets. In the case of tiny papers, says Moss, “‘EarthTalk’ is their environmental news section!”

E recently has been tightening its belt and has mounted a reader fundraising drive to help offset steep falloffs in foundation funding and ad revenue. Nevertheless, it’s moving forward with plans to reach a much larger audience, including modernizing its website (currently claiming 100,000 monthly visitors), redesigning the print version and mounting a major publicity campaign. To that end, E staffers are already making the rounds—discussing climate topics on, of all places, national and local Fox News shows.

Unlike E, most of the newer environmental media are exclusively online, and typically provide a combination of original reporting and news aggregated from outside sources, plus educated commentary. Some sport a hip, playful tone to offset what many consider an intimidatingly technical or dour topic. These outlets are becoming home to former mainstream reporters and editors, and there is increasing cross-pollination between them and more traditional outlets.

Perhaps most famous of these is the nonprofit webzine Grist, which (to quote its “About” page) has been “making lemonade out of looming climate apocalypse” since 1999, “way before most people cared about such things.” Grist is a pioneer of original daily reporting on climate change and a gamut of other green issues, with a website and nine topical email newsletters; most content is staff-written. A search of the site with the term “climate change” turns up more than 6,200 results (i.e., an average of more than 600 stories a year), with 185 items on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill alone—not to mention pieces indexed under “jackassery” and “lying liars.”

Now claiming some 800,000 readers, Grist is gaining additional eyeballs via partnerships with traditional media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times website (where Grist staff writer David Roberts tweeted the Copenhagen conference). Economically speaking, Grist has stayed afloat not only by accepting advertising (including “targeted sponsorships”) but thanks also to a generous infusion of foundation funding.

Others in both the nonprofit and for-profit news sectors consider the climate beat important enough to invest in. Most strikingly, the independent magazine Mother Jones, founded in 1976 and an early model of successful nonprofit investigative journalism, has always been proactive about environmental issues. It recently initiated a cooperative reporting venture that brings together several news organizations to set aside professional competition to do coordinated in-depth reporting on global warming—a process AdAge.com (10/22/09) referred to as “crowdsourcing...with actual journalists.” The evolving group, which met formally for the first time in December, included Slate, the Atlantic and the Center for Investigative Reporting, among others.

Mother Jones co-editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery explained the inspiration for the project in the magazine’s special issue on global warming (11-12/09), which featured the work of writers from five different outlets. “If climate change is the most important story of our time, why is it being covered piecemeal...?” they wrote, declaring, “Working together, we can cover this story better than any of us could on our own.”

Then there’s Climate Central, a new model of news organization: Its team of scientists and journalists, including former Time magazine science correspondent Michael Lemonick, collaborates to produce accurate, accessible news about global warming in a variety of media. Helmed by climatologist Heidi Cullen, late of the Weather Channel’s Climate Code, Climate Central’s original reporting has been utilized by Newsweek and PBS’s NewsHour, among other outlets.

Other increasingly popular for-profit eco e-news sites with regular climate coverage include the consumer-oriented Daily Green and Treehugger, and the Atlanta-based Mother Nature Network (MNN). Many of MNN’s staff came from CNN’s dissolved environment desk. Co-founded by environmentalist (and Rolling Stones keyboardist) Chuck Leavell, it’s helmed by managing editor Emily Murphy, formerly of USA Today online. MNN debuted in January 2009 and, according to Murphy, produces 70 percent original multimedia content on eight online “channels.”

In more specialized media, there’s Daily Climate, published since 2007 by Environmental Health Sciences, as thorough a global warming webzine as one could imagine. Departments include Causes, Consequences, Solutions, Adaptation and Sea Level, among others. It both produces original content and aggregates stories from sources including Reuters, the London Observer and Scientific American. Editor Douglas Fischer, formerly of the Oakland Tribune, recently wrote a piece on October’s underreported “350” day of grassroots climate actions.

Other respected outlets include Yale Environment 360, which publishes original features on climate by the likes of New Yorker staffer Elizabeth Kolbert, and the Center for American Progress’s Climate Progress, written by Joe Romm, whom Time magazine (10/5/09) called “the Web’s most influential climate-change blogger.” ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative reporting project funded by the Sandler Foundation and helmed by ex-Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, includes climate-related energy and environment stories as a regular part of its mix, offering its articles free to news media through a Creative Commons license.

Clearly, even in today’s foreboding media and economic climate, some are deciding that the future will see a demand for environmental reporting by people trained to do it. New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program is going strong, and the University of Montana will begin offering a master’s degree in environmental journalism in fall 2010.

It’s still an open question whether the nonprofit and other new models of journalism will survive long term. Foundation funding fluctuates with the stock market, where many endowments are invested. And if successful, these ventures may be bought up by more circumspect corporate media, as Treehugger was by Discovery Communications, which also owns Planet Green.

If the nexus of news outlets doing climate-change reporting isn’t economically viable and our veteran reporters are forced out of the field, vital information to enhance public knowledge and participation may go the way of the glacier. And that won’t just hurt the polar bears.

Research assistance: Lisa Palmer.