Political Animal


March 09, 2013 1:39 PM Abandoning Green Coverage Is an Act of Journalistic Malpractice

By Ryan Cooper

Last week, the New York Times shuttered its Green blog, inviting a volley of criticism, especially after they closed their environment desk in January. Kevin Drum thinks the inherent boringness of environment coverage is to blame:

But let’s face it: the reason they did this is almost certainly that the blog wasn’t getting much traffic (and, therefore, not generating much advertising revenue). So a more constructive question is: Why do readers—even the well-educated, left-leaning readers of the Times—find environmental news so boring? Is it because we all write about it badly? Is it something inherent in the subject itself? Is it because most people think we don’t really have any big environmental problems anymore aside from climate change? Or is it because it’s just such a damn bummer to read endlessly about all the stuff we should stop doing because, somehow, it will end up destroying a rain forest somewhere?
When political parties lose, we all advise them not to shoot the messenger. If people don’t vote for you, there’s a reason. The same is probably true in this case. The Times editors are basically just the messengers here. We need to figure out why most people don’t seem to care about this stuff, and whether there’s anything we can do about it.

With respect, I disagree. It ought to be easily possible to sustain decent traffic to a green hub if you really tried, and lots of organizations are already succeeding in this regard. There’s Climate Central, there’s Climate Progress, there’s High Country News, and many others I’m sure. The best model in my view is Grist, which has a couple star writers anchoring a whole bunch of less serious, more interesting stuff to keep traffic up.

Of course, the biggest story in this area is climate change, and it shouldn’t be necessary to dis-aggregate the two. Climate change isn’t a classic environmental issue, but it is already in the early stages of wrecking human civilization, which will happen through environmental backlash. If were Times dictator, I’d poach one of the bigger climate writers, like David Roberts, and have him hire 5-10 smart young folks to do some hipper, Buzzfeed-y things to keep traffic up. This could serve as the anchor for the Times climate coverage, which would then permeate far further into other areas of reporting—it’s ridiculous to talk about deficit projections for 2080, for example, without considering the implications of unchecked climate change. But just shuttering the blog, especially after closing the environmental desk, makes me suspect the Times just can’t be bothered to try and make it work. Dumping the news out late on a Friday makes me suspect they know it’s wrong, and feel ashamed.

As James Fallows says, the mission of journalism is to “make the important interesting.” There has never been a more important time to have deep, solid environmental reporting. Closing half of the paper of record’s blogs on the topic (the other being Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth) at this point in time is sort of like the Times firing half its foreign correspondents in 1942. Even if people weren’t reading those stories, wouldn’t the paper have an obligation to try their damnedest to keep those people at their desks and in the field? Even if it put the financial security of the paper at risk?

Because as I read somewhere, this is the most important coverage in history.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Anonymous on March 09, 2013 3:30 PM:

    I have to agree with Kevin in a way. Environmental stories are well written and certainly the subject matter is of vital importance but either you are dues-paying members of the choir or non-believers. I've never met anyone who is willing to say they are undecided. So when I see a story about global warming or fracking I'll often skip over it. I'm already a believer and I don't need to be depressed even more than I already am. Now when stories start appearing telling about environmental successes and changes in governmental policies I'll read them with great relish.

  • c u n d gulag on March 09, 2013 3:30 PM:

    The other job of journalism, and one that seems like it's completely forgotten, if not ignored, is, "To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted."

    And we know how well THAT'S been working out lately...

    But Ryan, that is a GREAT suggestion you made for the NY Times.

    From your mouth/keyboard, to the FSM's ears/eyes!!!

    Now, how can we help make it so?

  • fostert on March 09, 2013 4:00 PM:

    I'd disagree, Anonymous. I certainly changed my mind. I was a skeptic as of 2000, now I am not. But the real problem with green reporting is that it's just too damn depressing. It's been obvious for a decade how this issue progresses. First, it was Global Warming isn't Happening. Then, We aren't Causing It. Then, There's Nothing We Can Do. And then, It's Too Late to Stop it Now. Finally, We're Already Underwater, Anyway. The Five Stages of Climate Grief. We are at stage 4 now.

  • Mimikatz on March 09, 2013 4:21 PM:

    Even people who "believe" in global warming are often not up on how rapidly things are changing. What was a likely scenario in the 2007 IPPC Report is now hugely optimistic. The predictions for the next few decades, within the lives of most everyone here, are pretty pessimistic, absent major changes starting really, really soon. The Times has a duty to report this news even if it's depressing.

    At the same time, there are thing s that states and cities are doing apart from the paralysis in DC, and this ought to be reported as hopeful news. Renewable energy generation continues to grow much more rapidly than conventional, even in places like Iowa and Kansas, which turn out to be good for wind power.

    There is plenty to report, and leaving a semi-skeptic like Revkin as e sole voice of the Times on this is pretty much criminal malpractice.

  • Keith M Ellis on March 09, 2013 5:36 PM:

    I think it's invalid to compare Climate Central or Grist to the New York Times. What "decent traffic means in the context of the first two is not at all what it means in the context of the NYT.

    Yeah, through strong writing and strong promotion traffic can be increased. But it very well may be that for a very high-traffic site like the NYT, with above average overhead, that the absolute upper-limit for possible traffic is still less than is justifiable from a business operations perspective. Specifically, it's possible that doubling or even tripling the current traffic would still be insufficient.

    Granted, there's a presumption of journalistic and civic responsibility for respected newspapers such as the NYT and arguably they oughtn't be making such decisions on the basis of the bottom-line. There's no doubt that a prejudice against environmental reporting is involved, as it's certain that they are willing to subsidize other low-traffic (but high prestige, say) portions of the site.

    That said, the sorry reality is that all across journalism desperation is forcing a bottom-line mentality away from a journalistic responsibility mentality. There's about fifty different ways that the NYT and other highly respectable media outlets are failing in their civic responsibilities these days, and abandoning reporting on the environment is only one among many. Asking that this particular problem be solved is implicitly asking that the others be solved, as well. It's quixotic.

  • bluestatedon on March 09, 2013 6:39 PM:

    Don't worry—the NYT still has its Fashion & Style, Dining & Wine, Television, and Movies sections, so all the really important stuff is being covered.

  • exlibra on March 09, 2013 6:54 PM:

    NYTimes tries to put the best face on it, but doesn't manage to convince even its own Public Editor:

  • wbr on March 09, 2013 7:24 PM:

    If not enough people visited the sites, maybe it was because the sites weren't very good. I was generally disappointed when I visited. Sound bite style journalism doesn't work on television and, for me, is even less effective in print, especially in our supposed national "newspaper of record." The NYT needs to up its game if it wants to attract serious readers.

  • Gretchen on March 10, 2013 1:37 PM:

    I was going to write just what Anonymous wrote above. I think climate change is a coming disaster, and I think our government is owned by the oil and gas industry so we won't do anything until it's too late. It's depressing to read. If somebody started writing about the successes, or what we could do to change course, I'd read that, but I've already read enough "we're all doomed!" stories to be a believer.

  • paul on March 11, 2013 9:20 AM:

    The trick is finding stuff that's news. "Planet still going to hell in a handbasket" is pretty much the same as "Franco still dead."

    Which suggests, btw, that many of the stories run to convince people that warming is real or fracking is bad or dumping raw sewage into rivers is questionable should go somewhere else. A Green reporting desk would do better with a focus on people who already know the basics, and want details.