By approaching energy primarily as a business or politics story, however, the paper risks inhibiting big-picture coverage. What seems to be falling between the cracks is a more comprehensive examination of the economic, environmental, and technological hurdles in Iowa to meeting Obama’s ambitious clean-energy targets.

In Delaware, the state’s largest newspaper, The News Journal, has benefited from a more coordinated approach to the energy story that emanates from the top. “Energy is the hub of environmental coverage because spokes out of that wheel impact climate change, fuel our industry, homes, and vehicles and directly affect our quality of life,” says executive editor David Ledford. He has made energy and environment coverage a newsroom-wide priority, adding resources to create a new All Green To Me Web site in February and improving coordination between the paper’s environmental, energy, and political reporters and editors.

The paper’s coverage of the proposed Bluewater offshore wind farm, which could become one of the nation’s first operational projects, is a good example of how the News Journal attempts to put energy in a broader context. The coverage has examined not only the dollars-and-cents of wind energy but also the long-term public health and environmental tradeoffs between conventional coal-burning plants and wind and solar energy. Ledford believes that his paper’s multifaceted coverage helped generate public support for the project: “We helped connect the dots,” he says, “and demonstrated that it would be good for the health of the people and the state to decrease emissions (from coal-fired electricity) and bring more green energy into our grid.”

Doing It Better

As these examples illustrate, if energy news is to engage and inform the decisions of politicians, industry executives, and the public, the media must think more strategically about what they cover, how they cover it, and which reporters they assign to cover it.

First and foremost, news outlets must expand energy coverage beyond the business desk where the energy reporter typically resides. A good model for strategic coverage can be found at The New York Times. In January the paper created an environment “pod” under editor Erica Goode, which absorbed
Matthew Wald, the paper’s science and technology reporter, as well as seven other reporters from the foreign, national, metro, and science desks. The Times’s energy “cluster” is still at the business desk under the direction of assistant business editor Justin Gillis. But he and Goode coordinate coverage of most energy-related content in the paper, as well as the environment pod’s sustainability blog, Dot Earth, and the business section’s energy and environment blog, Green Inc.

But even a paper as large as the Times does not have the staff and expertise to go it alone. One promising trend is the use of content-sharing agreements between traditional news organizations and specialty outlets to expand the newsroom’s energy expertise. The Times, for example, publishes a significant number of energy politics and business stories online from Energy & Environment Publishing LLC, a subscription-based service that began as a weekly print newsletter a decade ago and has about forty reporters and editors, bureaus in the U.S. and Europe, and a suite of Web sites, including Greenwire and ClimateWire.

Though it probably makes sense for many outlets to cover energy through their business desks, the dollars-and-cents mindset that tends to infect business-desk coverage can be limiting, and coordination with political, environment, technology, and consumer reporters is a must. A number of reporters interviewed for this story say that such communication often takes place on an informal basis, but that it would behoove editors to take a more active role in coordinating coverage across the newsroom.

Arguably a more significant concern than where the energy coverage is based is the need to bolster the scientific expertise in newsrooms. Given limited resources, reporters who can cover energy and environment, as well as the costs of energy legislation and technological feasibility of meeting its targets, are valuable assets. “If you don’t have basic economics and science, then you’ll be playing catch up for a long time,” says ClimateWire’s John Fialka. “Washington is knee-deep in reporters who reduce everything to politics.”

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.