Reorganization or regression?

 

The New York Times made news last week when InsideClimate News reported it was dismantling its nine-person environmental news team. The reporters and editors on the environment desk, which has been around since 2009 and has its own section heading on the Times’ website, will not be laid off, but shuffled to other areas of the paper. The Times’ leadership insists environmental coverage will not suffer, and reflects a changing definition of what an environmental story is, meaning the paper now sees environment stories as embedded in business, national or local coverage.

Initially, the reaction among the environmental journalism community seemed to be shock, disappointment and worry for the future of environmental news at the nation’s paper of record. Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, attributed the Times’s history of strong environmental coverage to the existence of a stand-alone news desk, and Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said dedicated news teams bring “strength and consistency to the task of covering environment-related issues.” The public editor at the Times, Margaret Sullivan, called it a bad decision, symbolically, “and symbolism matters – it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic.”

As the best-respected newspaper in the country, what did, and does, the Times do for environmental journalism? And especially in the West, what does its reorganization mean for environmental news in areas beyond the major populations centers? For me, the paper was a barometer of how big of a deal something was. As an intern at the environmental radio show Living on Earth and later High Country News, if we had a story before they did, we patted ourselves on the back. Sure, the stories in the Times were often simplified for a general audience, but they raised awareness of important issues more than any niche publication. If a story turned up in the Times, and we hadn't hit it yet, it was probably worth looking into.

In the West, it can be hard to get our environmental stories heard by a national audience, and the Times plays a key role in mainstreaming those stories. Many environmental issues that have been going on for years in our area -- water pollution from fracking, for example -- didn’t make it into the national spotlight until tap water started catching on fire in Pennsylvania, closer to population (and political power) centers. So when the Times covers a Western environmental issue, it usually means it's a big story.

Even before the reorganization, many Western environmental reporters thought that didn’t happen enough. Greg Hanscom, a former HCN editor and now special projects editor at Grist, doesn’t see “a consistent focus on Western issues” at the Times ever since Timothy Egan became an occasional opinion columnist instead of a reporter at the paper. Tony Davis, HCN contributor and environmental reporter at Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, said “the Times' coverage of the West has always been hit and miss in my opinion,” although he noted the work of San Francisco-based reporter Felicity Barringer as an exception. With the environment desk dismantled, he worried whether she and others would keep covering key Western issues.

“You can have outstanding environmental coverage without having a couple of editors devoted to the subject -- it happens all the time at smaller papers all over the country,” Davis wrote. “But if you start reducing your field reporting -- trying to do more with less -- that's the real problem.”

Beyond the West, the symbolism of this move is especially poignant coming on the heels of news that worldwide climate change coverage declined two percentage points last year. According to Media Matters, Sunday news talk shows on the four major networks spent less than eight minutes on climate change in all of 2012, down from over an hour in 2009. But the Times is one of the stalwarts of climate coverage, according to researchers at University of Colorado, publishing the most stories on climate change and having the biggest boost in coverage among the top five U.S. dailies. Ironically, Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor of the Times, told the Daily Climate on Jan. 2 that the uptick in climate coverage was due to the work by newspaper’s environment desk.

Still, many think the re-structuring doesn’t have to mean the demise of environmental coverage at the Times, and may even improve it. “The Times excelled at environmental coverage before there was an environment pod, continued during that phase, and, I predict, will do so going forward, within the financial constraints facing all journalism,” former Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin wrote on Dot Earth. And our senior editor here at High Country News, Jonathan Thompson, thinks the decision to “de-silo-ize/de-ghettoize the environmental coverage is a good thing, potentially. After all, there's really no such thing as an ‘environment reporter,’” he wrote in an email, the environment is too connected to everything else. I'm just hoping that without a dedicated team and editor, the reporters at the Times continue to prioritize environmental stories. I'll be watching.

Emily Guerin is the editorial fellow at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user AhmadHashim