After experimenting with a variety of quick-hit approaches to environmental coverage, a four-year-old online news startup focused on climate change wants to strike out in a slower, more involved reportorial direction.
SolveClimate News announced Tuesday that it had hired an executive editor, Susan White, and changed its name to InsideClimate News “to better reflect the investigative mission it will pursue under her leadership.” The addition of White, formerly a senior editor at ProPublica, is yet another milestone for the outlet whose evolution has exemplified the winding road of Internet publishing.
In 2003, the site’s publisher, David Sassoon, was working with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a grantee, doing research about how saving energy and reducing emissions could help businesses boost their bottom lines. In its infancy, SolveClimate News was an outgrowth of this research and an attempt to elevate the media conversation. Sassoon felt businesses that were saving a lot of money through smarter energy practices were not getting enough attention.
“It was a product of its time,” he said in a recent interview, referring to 2007, when he and managing editor Stacy Feldman launched the site. “You had every sector weighing in on how to reduce emissions and solve the climate issue: industry, business, unions, farmers, investors.”
Nonetheless, global warming coverage was at a high following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and SolveClimate was doing “derivative journalism,” as Sassoon called it. “We were commenting and amplifying, aggregating the reporting of other people,” he said.
The rapid-reaction strategy was an effort to draw people to the outlet’s more substantial reporting: a section about different voting constituencies’ points of view about climate, but “that part of the site was completely dead,” according to Sassoon, who has since taken this section down. “We were finding that the only way to get people to read us is by writing something every day,” he said. “We got swept into something we weren’t ready for.”
For six months, he and Feldman poured most of their energy into building traffic, trying their best to get onto Digg, a website that ranks web stories by popularity and can boost traffic. They wrote opinion pieces and commentary, even venturing into snark, “the currency of the realm,” as Sassoon put it, though he was never totally comfortable with opining.
“After six months, we were exhausted and a little bit confused,” he said, adding that he began to feel like the work wasn’t making a difference. “We soon realized there are lots of news organizations that cover the first cycle news really well, but what’s missing is the depth.”
A year in, Sassoon and Feldman changed tack. They began to produce only original reporting, and hired a third, full time employee. In 2009, SolveClimate began sharing content with Reuters, which Sassoon described as a “watershed moment” for the site. “It validated our decision to move in this direction,” he said.
The partnership, formalized a year later, not only increased SolveClimate’s visibility, but also served as a great conversation starter. To expand the site, Sassoon had to expand the funding, and he was looking for support beyond the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was, and still is, one of SolveClimate’s principal benefactors. The site attracted support from the Marisla Foundation. In 2010, it received a grant from The Energy Foundation, which allowed reporter Elizabeth McGowan to write forty-six articles about environmental issues role in the midterm election.
Still, Sassoon wanted the site’s reporting to go even deeper. For the past year, he searched for an editor that could make that happen. In February, he called White, whom an internship applicant had listed as a reference. They started comparing experiences in online publishing and realized they had similar opinions about the industry. White mentioned she was moving and therefore leaving ProPublica, and Sassoon saw the editor he had been looking for.
White edited ProPublica’s award-winning natural gas coverage and helped edit its article about a New Orleans hospital stranded by flooding after Hurricane Katrina, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Her strategy brings SolveClimate, now InsideClimate, even farther from its early days as a content pressure cooker. With a full time staff of six, going deeper is, initially, going to mean publishing less.
“Every time I tell a reporter to take another day on a story, it’s going to cause us a slight problem,” White said in an interview. Without updating content frequently, a site can risk looking like vacant web property, losing traffic, and disappearing from search engines and Twitter feeds. “Then, you’re out of the loop.”
Yet White is confident that slowing down publication is the right direction for InsideClimate. “You can keep feeding the site, feeding the beast, and that’s okay,” she said, “but are you really giving your readers what is truly valuable to them?”
If quality over quantity is the goal, InsideClimate’s latest article, the only one since Labor Day, is an indication that it’s off to a good start. The 1,500-word piece is about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. It forwent the hot angle about recent, star-studded arrests at protests outside the White House. Instead, it explained how advocates and opponents are “girding” for the final battle over the pipeline’s approval, examining various legal and political factors that might influence the outcome.
Sassoon feels like White’s changes will bring the site in the right and necessary direction. “Were not trying to be the most popular site and turn a dollar for investors and attract advertisers,” he said. “We’re trying to cover an issue well, and I think that’s an area that more foundations are stepping into.”
Hopefully, Sassoon is right, especially since he wants to double InsideClimate News’s staff over the next few years from six people to twelve. Investigative reporting is time consuming and costly by nature, but it beats derivative journalism any day (even if that’s not every day).Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.