Retrenchments kill NYT’s ‘Green’ blog; environmental focus continues decline

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
The New York Times' decision to shutter the Green blog will lead to a deterioration of the paper's environmental coverage.

The Times is discontinuing the Green blog, which was created  to track environmental and energy news and to foster lively discussion of developments in both areas. This change will allow us to direct production resources to other online projects. But we will forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics, including climate change, land use, threatened ecosystems, government policy, the fossil fuel industries, the growing renewables sector and consumer choices.

—  Announcement in The New York Times last Friday.

No new media retrenchment much startles me anymore, but the Green blog‘s sudden death calls for a few paragraphs of gratitude. And of grief.

Green’s cancellation is a serious loss to all of us who have been in its audience the last few years. Taken together with the paper’s breakup of its special environment/energy desk in early January, I think it’s also a major setback for environmental journalism in America and, for that matter, the world.

The Times’s coverage and staffing decisions still influence other media, major and minor, mainstream and not. When former editor Bill Keller created the enviro/energy “pod” with seven reporters and two editors four years ago, despite hard times in the business generally and at the Times in particular, attention was paid, and attention will now be paid to his successors’ retreats.

It’s possible, for example, that these changes had something to do with The Washington Post’s decision, announced yesterday, to move Juliet Eilprin off the environment beat and back to politics. Huffington Post reports that Eilprin says another reporter will be assigned to her old beat, but her top-notch work will be tough to match.

Among the best of blogs

When I began planning for this blog of my own, back in 2011, I noticed that Green was on list after list of best enviro blogs (and best blogs, period).  It was easy to see why. And when I started writing my own posts I found in Green an endless stream of ideas and inspiration.

In a few cases Green broke a major story, or amplified one, in a way that became part of the foundation for my own piece. More times than I can remember or track back to now, it simply served up a tidbit — a statistic, a source, a quote, an image — that sent me wandering along a line of research that might continue for days or even weeks, off and on, before ending in a piece of writing I couldn’t have imagined at the start.

Green was never the most efficient headline service, or bullet-point summary of the day’s environmental news, but so what? Plenty of those to choose from.

In hindsight it’s worth remembering that Green actually began as Green Inc., and for its first 18 months was focused on the nexus of business endeavors and environmental concern. And then Times editors made the decision — of a type so very rare these days — to enlarge its vision.

Expanding ambitions

Having “kept you up to date on the high-stakes pursuit of a greener globe,” their announcement said, the blog rechristened Green would be “a new and more ambitious online effort, broadening our lens to include not just the business end of environmental concerns but also politics and policy, environmental science and consumer choices — all of the many areas where people and planet meet.”

We’ll be reporting from the halls of Congress, from the streets of New Delhi, from green homes and green kitchens, from the Mojave Desert, the Everglades and the Gowanus Canal, from communities across the country where green experiments are unfolding.

We’ll introduce you to many of the central figures in the environmental landscape, asking them questions on your behalf. We’ll also be drawing more fully on that endlessly comprehensive, adventurous entity that is The New York Times, bringing you regular dispatches from staff reporters who cover energy and environmental issues regionally, nationally and internationally.

And the result was, by Andrew Revkin’s count at dotearth.com, 5,364 posts comprising “a body of environmental news and analysis that didn’t fit in the flow of conventional articles.”

The usual empty pledges

This is precisely why the promise of forging ahead with aggressive coverage, blah blah blah, in Friday’s announcement is such an empty one. It would be so even if the Times weren’t scattering its environmental pod to assignments on other desks.

It would be so even if the Times news department wasn’t also continuing to produce, by Revkin’s count,

nine sports blogs; nine spanning fashion, lifestyles, health, dining and the like; four business blogs; four technology blogs (five if you include automobiles as a technology); and a potpourri of other great efforts, with four of my favorites being the Learning Network blog, Scientist at Work, the IHT Rendezvous blog on global news and Lens, run by the paper’s photo staff.

(For a much snarkier census, see the piece at Slate.com: “The Times Kills Its Environmental Blog to Focus on Horse Racing and Awards Shows.”)

I should make clear Revkin is not writing in opposition to the changes. He is echoing senior editors’ assertion that that good journalism doesn’t depend on newsroom structure, that creating a special desk doesn’t necessarily raise the quality of focused coverage and dismantling one doesn’t necessarily lower it.

Which is what editors everywhere will say when they announce budget-driven retreats from enterprise journalism, quickly moving on to promises that shaking up assignments will send new verve and viewpoints flowing through the staff.

I don’t think you have to have worked a day in a newsroom to identify this as baloney.

Harsh words at Columbia’s Review

Others would put it more harshly, and have. Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Friday’s announcement moved Curtis Brainard to accuse Times managing editor Dean Baquet of “obviously . . . an outright lie” when he said in January, as the pod people scattered, that the paper was not reducing its commitment to environmental coverage. Also, along with other senior editors, of “total cowardice” in holding announcement of Green’s demise till near the close of business Monday. Also, of making

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, and they’ve done so while keeping their staff in the dark. Readers deserve an explanation, but I can’t think of a single one that would justify this folly.

Some hot phrasing aside, though, I think Brainard’s prediction is correct and his coverage balanced, fair-minded and deep. In an earlier post he even gives generous space to the somewhat weirdly framed views of Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American, who draws on parallels in biology to endorse virtues of pod-breaking and scattering environmental specialists among the other desks.

Zivkovic feels that it’s easier to turn an expert into a journalist than a journalist into an expert (on that much we can agree) and that reassigning specialists from the environmental pod to work alongside reporters of nonenvironmental expertise will make everybody more expert about everything through “cross-fertilization.” And lots of “chatting.” And fuller exercise of every individual’s “obsessions,” which are unlikely to be contained by any beat.

I couldn’t disagree more, and on this point I think you may have to have worked in a newsroom to see its utter folly. It must derive from a scientist’s epiphanies obtained at random in a conference for some other discipline.

A scientist’s misapprehension

The idea that reporters on one desk only talk among themselves is not only baloney but perhaps insulting. As is the notion that anything will deepen a journalist’s expertise more effectively than practicing it, and practicing it in collaboration with others who possess a different but connected or congruent expertise.

John Cowles Sr. is remembered, still, for a guiding philosophy at his Minneapolis newspapers that beat reporters should be as solidly grounded in their subjects as a college professor.  Coming from a publisher not in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, this impressed me deeply as a young editor, and it was a big reason I moved in 1980 to the Minneapolis Tribune from, as it happened, The New York Times.

Interestingly, in Zivkovic ‘s analysis the reassignment of environmental specialists made the Green blog itself more essential, not less. Writing last January, he said Green would serve as

what ethologists call the “central foraging place,” like a beehive. Honeybees (readers) get information (blog posts) from other foragers where the flowers (NYT articles) are, so they go there (following links) to get nectar. They then return to the hive (Green Blog) to deposit the nectar (their comments), to tell others where else the flowers are good (e.g., on other sites beyond NYT) and to get new information so they can go for another run, again and again.

 Now that there is no Environment desk and no Environment editor, the Green Blog should assume those two roles.

In its own overwrought way that passage helped me to put a finger on another dimension of Green worth noting. This blog did convene a community of loyal, passionate readers, often demonstrably expert themselves, whose steady flow of comments to the writers — and to one another — formed a rich and varied conversation that has abruptly fallen silent.

I’m grieving that, too, but grateful for its memory as I take up the search for new “central foraging places.” All suggestions welcome.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Douglas Owens-Pike on 03/05/2013 - 10:53 am.

    Green Blog vanishes from NY Times

    Ron: perhaps you could step in and fill the void with your perspective here in our Upper Midwest. So many issues to confront today: great forum you held recently on climate change, tar sands, mining hills for frack sand, water quality issues related to frack drilling, pipelines vs. trains vs. trucks for hauling Canadian crude, has the drought been broken or will it reappear as the arctic ice retreats again this summer?

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/05/2013 - 06:17 pm.

    Green movement in disarray

    The NYT action may reflect some problems with the green movement. For example, data from the UK Hadley Center shows no global warming since the beginning of 1997. This confirms data from NOAA showing no warming since 2002. Some publications are afraid to publish this information since they will be accused of being “deniers”. And under attack from some intemperate professors.

    The darlings of the green movement – wind, solar and biofuels – are proving to be unreliable and expensive. All this is suggesting a pause on some of the major policy efforts being implemented in the name of saving the environment. The NYT may be making a wise pause on this whole issue.
    The science suggests that global warming remains a threat, but we really don’t understand what is happening, and NYT journalists won’t be much help.

Leave a Reply