On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.
All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.
The Times decision in particular has people’s heads spinning. Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review called the paper’s recent pledge to continue its robust environment coverage “an outright lie.” Paul Raeburn captured the sentiment in a post on the Knight science journalism blog Tracker: “The editors of the Times have perhaps forgotten that they work on an island, and that the entrance to their building is not too far above sea level — current sea level, that is.” Slate served up a sampling of “the 65-odd other Times blogs that did not get the axe,” which include The Carpetbagger, about awards shows, The Rail, on horse racing, and six blogs on style, fashion, and leisure.
The news came just six weeks after the Times announced it was dismantling its special environmental team of seven reporters and two editors, to the great consternation of many of its readers.
A few optimists argued that it was a positive sign that the Times was moving its best and greenest out of their “ghetto” and pushing them out into the broader organization. Bora Zivkovic made the most eloquent case in Scientific American’s A Blog Around the Clock: “Instead of the environmental vertical, The New York Times will now have an environmental horizontal — environmental angle permeating a lot of other stories, as environmental reporters talk to and influence their new office neighbors.”
Ah yes, we’ll send the greenies out like little viruses, and pretty soon the business and style sections will be positively infected with great stories about climate change and mass extinction!
It’s a quaint notion, but the reality of life in a newsroom — whether it’s the Times or a small nonprofit like Grist — is that unless a topic is built into a reporter’s job description, and unless there are editors and colleagues holding reporters to account for covering that topic, it inevitably gets pushed to the bottom of the ever-growing pile of priorities. The world and, lord knows, a journalist’s inbox, Twitter feed, RSS reader, etc., are just too full of distractions.
Beyond that, the Green blog played an important role at the Times, picking up important stories that the print edition missed. Here’s Media Matters:
Several mainstream media outlets — including the New York Times print edition — ignored an October 2012 report on the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef, but the Green blog covered it. In November, a World Bank report warning of the calamitous effects of climate change went unnoticed by the New York Times print edition, but not by the Green blog. Since the closure of the environment desk, the Green blog has accounted for 64 percent of the paper’s climate change reporting. And since January 2012, the Green blog has devoted nearly twice as much coverage to the threat of ocean acidification.
I spoke with Tom Zeller, who was hired by the Times in 2008 to start the Green blog’s predecessor, Green Inc., which lived in the Business section. Not long thereafter, it lost the “Inc.” and moved out on its own, under the new environment team, where it “flourished,” according to Zeller, who left the Times for a job at Huffington Post in 2011.
Zeller said he was sad to see the blog go, not so much because he thinks the paper’s environment coverage will suffer, but because readers will no longer have a convenient place to go to find it. He pointed out the Business section’s Energy & Environment page and the Science section’s Environment page, which both aggregate Times environment coverage, but added, “Dismantling the green blog does make it harder for readers with a deep interest in this subject area [to keep] gathering in one place and commenting on stories, interacting with reporters and each other in the comments section, etc.”
Zeller also pointed out that the Green blog was the one place where “reporters could unload their notebooks — write about the stuff that didn’t make its way into the newspaper.” The blog also served as an incubator of up-and-coming freelance reporters, who don’t appear to have another outlet for these stories at the restructured newsroom. According to the Times editors, environment coverage will be shunted to the Bits and Caucus blogs, which cover technology and politics, respectively, and Andrew Revkin will continue with his Dot Earth blog (he wrote about the Green blog’s demise here), but the Green blog is obviously more of a loss than they’ll candidly admit.
As for the Washington Post, the paper tells CJR it will replace Eilperin, and that it has no plans to significantly change its environment coverage. The move has raised hackles among climate hawks nonetheless. “No point in keeping one of the country’s leading reporters on the story of the century,” quipped Joe Romm at Climate Progress. “She had a good run, but that climate story is so five minutes ago.”
And at the Times, shifts are already underway. The two former environment team editors have already been assigned to different beats, and at least one reporter, Mireya Navarro, who covered the environment in the New York metro area, has been assigned to a different beat entirely. She now covers housing.
“There was a time when this paper covered every ship that came into New York harbor,” explained one Times insider, who asked not to be named. “The paper is to some extent plastic. It reorganizes itself to meet the requirements of the world around us.”
It’s hard to look at these latest moves and see a publication reorganizing itself to better mirror what’s happening in the world. With the environment team disbanded and the Green blog discontinued, we will inevitably see less reporting on these topics, even as they become ever more urgent. But then, that’s probably a sign of the (ahem) times, as the old newspaper model continues to wither and digital media and the blogosphere fill the void:
“The paper as a whole is getting slightly smaller,” said my Times source. “We may be doing a little less of everything.”
UPDATE: New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan posted a column on Tuesday that begins, “Judging by appearances, things are not looking good for environmental reporting at The Times.” Read it here.